June 11, 2019

A Veritable Feast at Chef’s Table

Executive Chef Rudi Liebenberg of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, tells us about his journey into the industry, Chef’s Table and working with ‘waste’.

Firstly, tell us why you chose to go into the food industry?

My mom taught me how to cook over the phone whenever she was working late; at the time I wanted to be an artist. With both, there is a beautiful quietness that resonated with me.

When I finished school, I started working in a pizza restaurant, then started working in a factory making mass salads for distribution. I left for the army and could not see myself wasting too much time at the artillery school in Potchefstroom, and when the opportunity came to move to Pretoria in the catering corp, I took it. In-army training was very good in the catering corp.

When I finished with the army, I joined the Johannesburg Hotel School in Smith Street to study catering management. It was during this time that while I was working part-time at Turffontein Racecourse that I met Chef Trevor Basson. He guided me in the right direction.

Why choose to be a chef?

I was wrong when I thought it would be quiet, it was everything but stillness. But I love the adrenaline, love the creativity, love the rawness, love food.

What has your experience been to date in getting to the Belmond Mount Nelson?

I was a rebel as a youngster, I liked discipline but hated institutional rules. Punk and rock roll ruled my life. When I left hotel school, I had my first job at the Tropicana Hotel on the Durban beachfront. I worked in outside catering, then was promoted to Banqueting Chef.

I then moved back to Johannesburg where I worked for the Parktonian Hotel as CDP looking after banqueting. I worked hard and worked my way up to being Executive Chef. I realised that a four-star hotel was not good enough, and joined the five-star Park Hyatt, taking a demotion to head up banqueting again.

I then moved to work in executive catering at Fedics and then back into hotels where I joined the Sheraton, followed by the Michelangelo Hotel. I tried my hand at teaching at Prue Leith, before being lured back by an old friend to work at the Saxon Hotel, then moved down to Cape Town. Before that, I spent eight years on the National Culinary Team, finishing with my highlight at the 2008 Culinary Olympics with a gold medal in the Restaurant of Nations.

Take us through the Chef’s Table experience, what is unique about it, and how does a typical event like this play out?

I’m very fortunate in having some great chefs working for me, Chef Dion Vengatass has been with me for a number of years and looks after the main kitchen and the Chef’s Table situated in the middle of the kitchen. A couple of years ago we moved away from doing a large table, and introduced smaller tables. This opened up possibilities on the menu.

We wanted to create the food we enjoyed, inspired by our history heritage, our grandmothers, and travels. It had to be organic in its growth, inspired by ingredients and local suppliers.

The evening normally begins with a chef collecting the guests and explaining all the house rules as well as housekeeping rules. We explain the kitchen set up and talk a little about the history. Guest are then ushered into the kitchen dining area and seated. Dietaries are confirmed and the waiter is introduced.

The first chef, normally a pastry chef, would introduce the bread course, with multiple butters, breads and crispy elements. Each course is introduced by a chef as the night moves along.

What is your favourite dish to make on evenings like this, and why?

Chef Dion writes the menus and generally, it comes down to the simplicity in creating, allowing the centre stage to be taken by the ingredients. The menu is written together with the team members as they all share stories about what they are doing. My personal favourite is working around the wasted lunch concepts at the Chef’s Table; creating dishes around the shunned, bin-destined ingredients. Here, we write the menu with names like Skin and Bones, 100%, 50%, Spaghetti, and To The Core.

What’s a typical day in the life of Rudi?

I have a whole kitchen to manage. I am fortunate that I have a group of chefs who have worked for me for a long time; they are the backbone and roots of our kitchen. So managing the kitchen has changed, as I work in a mentor position, focusing on training. We work new ideas and strategies plans to work smarter and more effectively.

We build relationships with suppliers, looking at the best ingredients for us. Then, along the way, we make some mistakes, building a stronger team. We spend a lot of time working on recipe development and standardisation. Every day we analyse items we produce. This is hard as we have to be honest with ourselves, and this can hurt a little.

What else does Belmond Mount Nelson offer?

We do not only do a chef’s table in the evenings but also offer a table for lunch with a different focus. It is all about waste and awareness around food, where the whole menu focusses on elements of food that are normally destined for the bin. This is a unique experience that is filled with brilliant, practical ideas, starting with bread, tallow, skin and bones. Then we break the menu into what we call 100%, 50%, Spaghetti, and To The Core, with each telling a story of what can be done with unsung heroes. We have become so obsessed with over-consumption that we do not see things in plain sight.

When you pick up most recipe books, they tell you to trim, peel or use only the white part. They never tell us what to do with the rest. Skins, bones, fat, tops and cores are discarded. We have lost the skills to use everything like our grandmothers would have. But we have started writing recipes focussing on the potential wasted part first. With this we make our own vinegar, kombucha and kimchi. We serve a wasted chef’s table lunch from Monday to Saturday at R395 per person.


Source: SAChef Magazine Issue 13

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