I often think of chefs as artists, albeit the tortured kind, those who, day after day, service after service — for reasons which I often cannot fathom, though for which I am immensely grateful — send out their work to be devoured and critiqued by all and sundry. Some chefs agree and others disagree.
Chef Ferran Adrià, of the worldrenowned El Bulli in Spain, was once quoted as saying, “I do not think of myself as an artist, I consider myself strictly a cook.” Yet what cannot be disputed is the skill, precision, and eye for detail required to put together a dish that looks as though it could be a work of art.
I talked to chef Johannes Richter of Durban’s top fine-dining restaurant, The LivingRoom at Summerhill Guest Estate, about the ins and outs of creating his minimalist dishes, from inspiration to plating. As with many chefs I’ve spoken to on this subject, his inspiration starts with the ingredient. His hyper-endemic and sustainable approach to cooking has the menu constantly in flux, going through full micro-seasonal rotations almost every two months.
The chef harnesses his classical training in Michelin-star restaurants in Berlin, his passion for Japanese cooking, and his dedication to celebrating the generous bounty of KwaZulu-Natal to champion local produce through a multicourse tasting menu. The process of conceptualising a dish begins with the ingredient around which it will be built, with the chef using additional seasonal ingredients and a host of preserves and ferments — which stretch produce from season to season — to add depth of flavour. Most of the courses are structured around salty, sweet, umami, and sour flavours, expertly finding a balance between the four.
“The limit of cooking seasonally means we often have to think out the box. We either use ingredients in their prime or make use of preservation and fermentation techniques to stretch them out for longer,” Richter explains.
A humid and rainy winter has meant a plentiful supply of mushrooms to work with this season. Foraged nearby Summerhill, the supply runs the gambit from indigenous termitomyces to more exotic varieties that have come to grow here. The porcini mushrooms are particularly beautiful and it’s these that the chef has chosen as the main component of a new dish.
The minimalist style of the plating preserves the integrity of the ingredients
First, there’s the fresh piece of porcini — simply fried with butter, herbs, and garlic — plated with pickled mushroom components, a lacto-fermented trufflebased venison sauce, and fine shavings of cured eland heart. On the other side of the plate there’s a tartare of venison, on top of which sit more mushrooms, prepared in a variety of techniques, with fresh herbs from Summerhill’s garden.
It’s a dish of utmost balance, the simplicity of the mushroom and the technical prowess that went into making the tartare contrasting beautifully on the plate. The minimalist style of the plating preserves the integrity of the ingredients — from the first glance it’s clear that mushroom is the star here. It’s incredibly clever cooking and a superb dish. One worth the trip out to Cowies Hill alone.
The LivingRoom at Summerhill Guest Estate, Cowies Hill, Durban, 063 529 1966, summerhillkzn.com