Eric Bulpitt is not a fan of buzzwords.
This understated chef, who has quietly made a name for himself as one of the most talented cooks in the Cape, would rather let his food do the talking. And in his new role as executive chef of Boschendal Farm Estate in the Stellenbosch winelands, it’s all about getting in sync with the seasons.
“My grandparents had a farm in Rustenburg, so I grew up with holidays spent on the farm. It’s where I first learnt to really respect farming and the seasons,” says Bulpitt. “If you wanted oranges, you wait for orange season. If you want a salad, you go to the garden and pick the leaves. That was my childhood, so that sense of seasonality and a farm-to-table ethos is deep in my subconscious as the way it should be.”
Bulpitt is certainly no stranger to the Cape winelands, having spent the past decade in the kitchens of Newton Johnson in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Faber at Avondale and, most recently, La Motte in Franschhoek.
But it was the promise of wandering straight from the pass to a bountiful vegetable garden that drew Bulpitt to Boschendal Farm earlier this year. And it’s those gardens that he hopes will once again elevate The Werf — the estate’s flagship restaurant — to become a must-visit in the winelands.
Under founding chef Christiaan Campbell, The Werf was hailed as a shining light of sustainability. A space where produce was king on an inspiring menu defined by the seasons, all wrapped up in a dining experience that celebrated the rich culinary history of the Cape.
But the fortunes of The Werf have waxed and waned, and over the last few years the space lost some of that identity, becoming a destination that delivered a great plate of food, but without discernible character. Bulpitt plans to change that.
“The idea really is to bring The Werf back to where the garden dictates what goes onto the menu. We want to get to a place where we’re planning a season or two ahead, but we need to get the garden up to speed and that will take some time,” says Bulpitt. “We’re aiming for refined farm-to-table food. I want guests to get the feeling that they’re on a farm, and eating fresh from the gardens.”
Bulpitt is also a passionate proponent of vegetable-driven dining.
The first time I met Bulpitt — in his kitchen high above the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley at The Restaurant at Newton Johnson — he served an unforgettable plate of roasted celeriac; a dish that recalibrated my view of what could be done with vegetables.
“If you think about it, there are five main types of meat, whereas with vegetables you have myriad ingredients you can cook with throughout the seasons,” says Bulpitt. “When I was a younger chef I would probably have scoffed at purely vegetarian cooking, but that’s certainly changed over time, and I think more people are becoming aware of the importance of it.”
Bulpitt’s sense of adventure and innovation was also honed during his month spent in the kitchens of Danish restaurant Noma, recipient of three Michelin stars and regularly voted the best restaurant in the world.
“Noma opened my eyes and inspired me to look deeper at what I serve. There was a respect for every part of every ingredient, from the roots to the leaves and fruit, that I continue to explore in my own cooking.”
Cue Bulpitt delving into everything that Boschendal has to offer, from wild mushrooms to tapping the young shoots of a bamboo forest at the back of the formal vegetable gardens.
“It’s just an incredible opportunity being on Boschendal, because we have so much to cook from,” he says. “Aside from the food gardens, the sheep and cattle — as well as goats, which I hope to get on the menu soon — we have citrus orchards, we have apples, pears, plums. We’re just spoilt for choice.”
And happily for diners road-tripping in the Cape this winter, that new energy and enthusiasm means a new lease on life for the flagship restaurant of the oldest estate in the Stellenbosch winelands.