QUITE a clever ruse, really. If you want to show a bunch of media types just how good a chef you are, invite them along and get them to cook two dishes, then sit them down and bring out a seven-course feast prepared by yourself. Nice.
I had dreaded this for four days. I am not a showman. I do not enjoy being on stage, having a camera pointed at me, giving a speech, any of the above. I do what I do privately, in my own way, in my own kitchen, with my guests chatting in the dining room or lounge, and I want nothing more than for them to slavishly oooh and aaah over the meal I set before them.
Why I said I’d do it, I don’t know, but I did. And once I’d got over my jangling nerves, I loved every second of it. It helped that I had the luck of the Irish on my side. The Irish are Clare Mack (McKeon, in fact) and her husband Eamon McLoughlin, who run their spill.co.za foodie website. Clare is a very take-charge sort of woman, and quickly appointed herself the boss (no surprises there), gave me the role of the ‘one who knows what he’s taking about” (her phrase, not mine) and the hapless Eamon as something akin to a gofer.
In fact, Eamon made the mashed potato that went with our main course, and I put Clare in charge of the soup. My task: breast and confit leg of duck. As luck would have it, I had cooked duck breast for my dinner only the previous night, and had woken up that morning willing duck breast to be the dish we had to make.
We had three to a team, five teams, and cooking stations with a view. Two steps away and you were looking at Table Mountain beyond the harbour. Wine was freely available in the Keith Floyd tradition. So this wasn’t very serious at all, just a bit of fun.
Which is not to say we weren’t judged. Table Bay chef Dallas Orr and food and beverage manager Joop Schoof strolled along afterwards, tasting, before going off to the pub to compare notes and decide on whom to bestow their largesse.
The soup was a mushroom cappucino, and Clare insisted she knew the secret of frothing to get that cappuccino-like mound of creamy fluff on top. It turned out to be rather flat, but very moreish, and chef commented somewhat unkindly as he went past our station, ‘Did you lose the battle with the garlic?” The sauce I’d made for the duck was apparently ‘packed with flavour’, while Eamon gamely explained that the slight lumpiness of his otherwise delicious mash was ‘the Irish way’ while I protested to the judges that ‘we tried to find proper Irish potatoes but you didn’t have any’. Pointing out to chef that he was much prettier than the Master Chef judges and that he had better hair than Pete Goffe-Wood did not seem to make any impression at all on him, and we were not the outright winners. The outright winners were, in fact, a team to whom I had explained how to cook duck breast only minutes before the starting gun was raised. Just saying.
In fact, the most delicious duck present, I thought, was that made by giggling Jenny Morris. Her dish looked nothing like the one in the picture (that being the picture behind my duck dish on this page), but her Asian take on it was very yummy.
My prize for best sauce (high tea for two) tucked in my back pocket, off we went to dinner at a long table at the Atlantic Grill. First up was ‘amuse cauliflower’, a comical title for a creamy puree of cauliflower with smoked Franschhoek trout and poached quail’s egg. ‘Beautiful soup”, I wrote in my notes, if not boasting quite as much of a garlic kick as Clare’s.
Then, a pear poached in gluhwein, having been stuffed with Cremelat Gongonzola, with a warm gluhwein shooter and candied macadamia dust. Very delicious, but this should be a dessert, not a starter.
The seared quail that followed was good, but not exciting. It had been poached slowly, and came with a perky pea puree and sauteed enokii mushrooms, with rocket tempura. We were quite soused with wine by now, so my notes became a little shakier, and the Irish were falling asleep at the table.
‘Franschhoek trout” turned out to be one of those little assemblages of itsy-bitsy things on a plate. Cold-smoked trout, sourdough croutons, shavings of baby beetroot, apple and radish “micro salad” (all the rage, yet all it means is that chef has little trays of infant greens delivered and snips some off onto the plate before it gets sent out – it’s nothing you coudn’t do yourself at home), and lime crème fraiche. A nice, crisp, clean middle course which almost served as a palate cleanser.
The meaty course was marinated ostrich with cubes of roasted caramelised celeriac, leek cream, chorizo and baked garlic, an exceptional course.
The dessert was the winner of the night though – best pud I’ve had in ages. Cocoa rum banana on caramel parfait, on a peanut sponge base, served with homemade honeycomb and a jelly rum banana tube. Brilliant to the extent that I pinched some of my neighbour’s when she was looking the other way. Look, there’d been a lot of wine by then.
The wines were great, too, and included a 1992 Labounere brought out to commemmorate the hotel’s special anniversary. Cheers to that.