Keep an eye out, Cape Winelands, there’s some serious fine-dining competition in the upper half of the countryside. And leading the challenge in the North West area of Hartbeespoort is Leon Nel of Silver Orange Bistro.
Words: Julia Lloyd
Pictures: Elmarie Knapton
Quite frankly, Leon Nel is the least ‘chef-looking’ chef I’ve encountered. If it wasn’t for his apron I’d have thought he was taking a break from running a fitness class. Turns out I wasn’t that wrong. Leon is a fitness fanatic. Health fanatic, he corrects me. And, yes, he does lap the citrus orchards on the family farm with his dogs every morning.
Before getting down to cooking up a storm more serious than what you find rolling over the Highveld horizons at this time of year.
Silver Orange bistro is a delicious surprise, which I suppose should be expected after the drive there through the countryside we Vaalies are so spoilt by. The stuff you see on that wondrous road north-west from Joburg, alongside the Crocodile River, out and out past Hartbeepoort Dam on the road to Brits. Through bushveld so beautiful it’s positively crowing. Where, I ask every time I drive out in that direction, especially in summer, where oh where are the huge herds of wildebeest sweeping across the rolling plains before me?
But fine dining in the countryside of Hartbeespoort, do I hear you gastronomes cynically query? Indeed, although no foodie myself, I asked the same, expecting a rustic affair and some soulful comfort kos. Well, think again, and then take a turn into the elegantly relaxed Silver Orange, where you can eat your words as you savour dining so fine it’s almost sinful.
The restaurant is in an old thatch home that Leon has renovated on the Nel family’s 60-hectare citrus farm just outside Hartbeespoort. “Over the years I’ve just done a bit here. A bit there. At the start, finances were an issue and I thought just scrimp on the building but never on the food.”
The interior has largely been left intact and the result is an intimate collection of three dining rooms, with more in the planning.
“Just call me Jack,” says Leon wryly, as we head for our cappuccinos on the veranda, the only addition to the original homestead. On the way we pass his stunning mural in reception. “I’ve taught myself all the trades,”
he says with a wave in its direction. “That too.”
An intriguing man is Leon. A chef in great shape, as neat as a pin, and as committed to health and fitness as he is to the very best in food. Passionate about European fillets, fish and vegetables, and African trees. And painting his canvases and murals, or taking other artistic frustrations out on his food – just prepare yourself for his plating.
“Ah and then there’s the wine,” he adds, gesturing in delight as he describes his passion for the oldest liquid on Earth. He has a fabulous energy and verve on the boil, a glint in his eye when he talks about flavours, but is utterly focused and meticulous when it comes to presentation.
Silver Orange is just as intriguing. There’s a clever but easygoing Afro/Euro feel about it, with elegant antique Murano chandeliers, and bits and pieces that Leon has collected from his travels abroad, all fitting so well into this solid South African building surrounded by indigenous trees. Maybe it’s because the creation of Silver Orange has seriously been Leon’s one-man-show, from the concrete to the gardens to the menu, and if everything is loved by the same pair of eyes it’s hard to go wrong.
Hugged by the acacias, flamboyants and a giant fever tree, the veranda offers the very best of relaxed bistro eating in Africa. Again, Leon has added something of Europe, with tablecloth underlays in the colours of Spain and Portugal, and enchanting little wall and floor tiles inlaid here and there, a tiled sign saying Calle de Madrid there, a drinking basin set against the wall over there.
“Yes, there’s plenty of detail in the house but the basics are very simple,” says Leon, who might not look like a chef but certainly speaks like those I’ve met. Passionate. Very decisive. Gesticulates a lot. “Same with my food. I really don’t follow trends. I’m a bit like my mom who is Portuguese. We just like to keep things good and simple. It’s a bit like wine. If the grapes are good the wine will be fine. Just don’t fiddle too much.”
As we walk around the orchards, Leon explains that he never had a wild desire to be a chef. “It just happened. I had mulled over landscape design but never too seriously. What I was dead serious about was not being office bound. And really it was food that found me.”
He settled on a hospitality course at Pretoria Technikon, and the foodie bug bit big time, one that had Leon veering as far as possible from hotel management – “Keep admin away from me” – and heading straight for the kitchen at every opportunity.
After qualifying, he spent five years as executive chef at a top hotel, but credits the big turning point to a much earlier six-week internship in a Michelin-star restaurant in the French countryside, near the coast.
“The stuff there is just incredible. The fillets, the fresh fish, the huge fat tomatoes, the mushrooms. Everything. Here we just have no idea what it’s like to have the very best organically grown produce at our fingertips every day.”
It certainly opened his eyes to the lack of quality and taste in food sold here. “Consumers just don’t know good flavour anymore. Everything is tasteless. It’s why I have to visit Europe at least once a year. There are markets everywhere. And beautiful food everywhere. Off you go to buy it fresh from the butcher, the baker, the cheese maker and the greengrocer. Here at home, maybe safety and crime is also an issue, but the little specialist shops are few and far between. In Europe they can walk everywhere, but here we have to head for the mass-produced, plastic-wrapped goods in the big one-stop-supermarket.”
Nevertheless Leon is also very quick to support what is local. “I’m so against imported produce – okay maybe frog legs and specific cheeses like Emmentaler and Gorgonzola. But otherwise only local. And if you look you really can ferret out great suppliers. It’s my suppliers who dictate my menu. And sure there’ll always be the staples but the menu is on the blackboard, and if something is not available it’s just rubbed out, or the method is changed.”
Leon is very serious about expanding his vegetable garden. “To be honest, my reasons for going to Europe are threefold – to eat and drink that fantastic food and wine, and never to return without the most unbelievable seed.”
This of course is dutifully sown in the Silver Orange veggie garden, and just as dutifully shared between the restaurant and the guinea fowl, rabbits and birds.
“But hopefully things are changing here,” he tells me. “Perhaps we’ll see more market gardens and a return to the specialty shops, where quality and taste come first.” Certainly he feels we can give the Europeans a run for their money when it comes to wine. “No doubt about that. Ours is just fantastic. Don’t get me started on how much I love our wine.” So much so that he’s renowned for the more than 200 local wines he offers at Silver Orange.
“There’s nothing like wine and maybe I love it so much because I am so healthy and just love to keep building on my library of tastes and smells.” Leon has almost finished his cellar that can hold 3 000 bottles when fully stocked, and shows me the shelves that he made with lintels.
“But you see this is not a cellar,” he says with that glint, again. “I used lintels because it makes it look more like a vault. A wine vault. For all my treasure.”
Silver Orange, Hartbeespoort
- 082 378 2948
- Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sunday breakfast and lunch
- Booking essential
Try Leon’s recipes
- Avocado and Halloumi Wraps
- Scallops with Béarnaise Sauce
- Farm Roast Chicken
- Seared Scottish Salmon
- Grilled Ostrich Fillet