The anatomy of a dish.
The anatomy of a dish.
Image: Claire Gunn

1. THE INSPIRATION

It could be driving through the vineyards as autumn approaches, turning the green leaves golden, or walking through the forest, damp soil underfoot and the smell of rainfall lingering in the air. Other times it could be a glance at a simple colour palette, a delivery of new ingredients, or the spark of a memory long past. It’s impossible to describe one source of inspiration, says chef Gregory Czarnecki, culinary tour de force and head chef of The Restaurant at Waterkloof Wine Estate, on the outskirts of Somerset West. The restaurant was named number one in the 2018 Eat Out Restaurant Awards.

Every dish draws inspiration from something different, and though he tries to explain his creative process, it’s clear that words alone will never do it justice. It’s the genius both of the recording artist who writes a hit song in 10 minutes and of the sculptor whose life’s work is never truly finished — a constant back and forth between fearless, instant creation and the longer, seasoned striving for perfection.

For Czarnecki, the conceptualisation and design come together — both forming in his mind — before a stove has been lit or a fish filleted. He never starts cooking without knowing exactly which ingredients will be used or how the food will be presented. “Sometimes you can put it together easily, and other times it’s just a struggle,” he says. Some ideas will take years before being perfected, waiting for that missing ingredient or spark of inspiration to arrive; others will never be completed.

2. THE PRACTICALITIES

Czarnecki is a realist as much as a creative and considers every factor when coming up with a dish. Where it sits on the menu, its balance, weight, and complexity are all evaluated. “We push boundaries as much as possible, but there’s no point trying to build an Eiffel Tower on a plate when you won’t be able to recreate it the next day,” he quips, a nod to his French upbringing.

The parameters, he says, are largely dependent on the size of the kitchen and speed of the service. Intricate offerings that take longer to prepare or require time to rest may not be ideal at the beginning of the menu. Adaptations need to be made — sometimes the idea is overly complicated or the required preparation is impossible. He is acutely aware of the inherent limitations of running a restaurant kitchen and is set on maintaining his standard of perfection.

3. THE DISH

We discuss his current degustation menu, and Czarnecki takes me through the creation of one of the newest additions, the Coquilles Saint-Jacques — simply the French word for scallop (the main element of the course). A new season had rolled around, and with it fresh produce has been delivered.

I’ve always thought simplicity is complexity resolved
Gregory Czarnecki

Czarnecki saw the scallops with their beautiful shells and wondered why everyone was simply poaching or searing them. It was one of those 10-minute brainwaves: he was going to use the whole thing. He wanted to cook it in its shell: the solution was a bread-dough seal, which would bake as it trapped the steam inside, cooking the scallop. The easiest part, he says, was the sauce: the scallops’ gills and mantles slowly caramelised in butter and deglazed with vermouth — this would later be poured into the shell and topped with truffle shavings before being sealed and baked.

4. THE PLATING

Understanding the curiosity of his guests, Czarnecki serves the dish in two parts. First, a custom-made tray of his own creation is brought to the table. In it lies the shell with its baked-bread crust, a fresh black truffle, and a test tube filled with the glimmering vermouth sauce. As he sees it, it’s a showcase of the simplicity of the dish and the three main components that bring it to life. It’s proof that sometimes the best dishes needn’t be overly complicated and that less may actually be more.

The tray is removed, and the scallop is plated with the same simplicity: removed from the shell, it’s served atop julienned leeks, with a last shaving of truffle, the vermouth, and a piece of the bread crust on the side. The leeks bring an earthiness to the scallop and truffle, while the bread is exactly what you need to soak up the bold, deep sauce. It’s a fantastically clever dish.

Czarnecki’s philosophy is one of a dish being completed when there’s nothing else to remove, rather than nothing more to add. It’s also about making people feel — this, he says, is paramount. At this level of cooking, every dish needs to evoke feelings — it should transcend being just a meal. That it most certainly does, with each course an experience of its own. “I’ve always thought simplicity is complexity resolved,” he muses, as if it were the most obvious thought in the world. To him, it is.

From the June edition of Wanted 2019.

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