The transition from town to country has been seamless for talented David Schneider, head chef and co-owner at one-plated Chefs Warehouse at Maison. Watching him walk through the garden with a chicken under his arm (which he nicknames ‘tomorrow’s tapas’), you could be challenged to see him in another environment. His sense of belonging is evident in his smile, the pleasure etched on his face as he is hard at work ‘in the zone’ in the open kitchen. When he looks up from the serving area, it is the vineyards and the Franschhoek mountains, bathed in a pink glow, that catch his eye.
Lucky to live in Franschhoek
David spent his first five years in Cape Town and grew up in Morningside, Johannesburg. His childhood memories include visits to his uncle’s trout farm in Machadodorp, where he and his brother enjoyed holidays. Other vivid memories come from bush escapes to the Kruger National Park. “I would always choose bush over beach,” he says. “But beach holidays were spent with family in Durban. Either way, it was important to be in touch
I want to live in a mountainous area or nature reserve, and am lucky to live in Franschhoek. It’s a responsibility to live here – it’s up to each individual to make the most of this incredible environment.”
Certainly it’s an enviable environment. On the right, before you hit the busiest part of the main road of Franschhoek, Maison wine estate is the home of Chris Weylandt, where stylish yet rustic vineyards and orchards, a cacophony of clucking chickens, and Porcini the friendly pig remind us that this is the heart of the countryside.
The building is welcoming and airy, and sunshine streams in. A tasting of Maison wines is an appropriate start to lunch or dinner at the restaurant, before getting sidetracked by all the deli items, cookery books and upmarket kitchen equipment in the shop. The restaurant at the back of the building takes full advantage of the views, and the city tension ebbs away as we settle at one of the wooden tables to experience David’s passion on a plate.
Local produce, flavours and influences
Mountain biking is another passion, as is trail running ‒ David recently competed in the Infinite Trails World Championships in Austria, with his brother. “My brother Mathew, two years older than me, and I were both born on 4 April, testament to the value of German precision and engineering at its best. Working as a chef you need balance. Hard to find that in the middle of season, and while writing a cookbook. The same mental fitness is required for sport as for being a chef.”
David’s eyes light up when he talks about his team. “A chef needs to organise, clean, treat people well and work with produce. Speed, knowledge, skill and the right approach are 70 per cent of the job well done. If you’re a brilliant cook, but your fridge is untidy and you’re not a team player, you will never be a good chef. You need to identify, change and evolve your skillset as you go. He describes how difficult it is, when running a restaurant, to focus on food, and deal with so much before getting down to cooking.
“We offer local produce, flavours and influences, truly a taste of where we are,” says David. “I don’t use imported meat or fish; diners travel here to get something they can’t eat at home. They come here for a reason,
to experience our countryside.”
At all three of the Chefs Warehouse restaurants that offer ‘tapas for two’ ‒ a series of small dishes designed to be shared ‒ local dictates. It’s the city-feel in Bree Street, in Constantia the feeling of fine dining in the Winelands. “Here we rough it up a bit, it’s more me, more farm-style. I’ve got a delicate touch, but don’t want people to know it. It’s casual with an element of fun.”
The right product, not just any product
David says his one dislike of town cooking is that it’s more difficult to give back or contribute. “You assume that produce comes from a farm but are separated from it. Here we try to grow it and use small suppliers, which comes with more responsibility. We must get the right product, not just any product – and then look after it. How much you know about
it is also important.”
He was a butcher for two years at Ryan Boon Speciality Meats in Paarl, and having worn the shoes of a supplier forms the backbone to his cooking. He understands the demands that chefs impose on suppliers, and does his utmost to work with them and use what’s available.
“We are flexible to changes as per their needs. This way, my suppliers form the catalyst to my menu changes and inspiration. If all ingredients were available to me all the time,
I wouldn’t know where to begin planning a menu, there would be no focus on important seasonal produce, and the entire process would be an unnatural digression into a confused hypocritical mishmash.”
The community of chefs works together
David Schneider worked with co-owner Liam Tomlin at Chefs Warehouse & Canteen in Bree Street and Beau Constantia but feels that at Maison he has progressed to demonstrate his talent for robust, layered flavours and plating finesse. He prides himself on making the most of ingredients – olive brine, whey and other by-products are used to perfection.
He makes his own bread, butter, charcuterie and cheese, and cuts his own meat. “Time is the best ingredient,” he says, and applauds produce from the local valley, like Franschhoek trout.
Known as a trailblazer in the valley for reducing unnecessary kitchen waste, David became innovative during the recent drought. “We try to use everything.” Instead of adding precious water to recipes, they use extract liquid in the form of whey, animal fat, juice and sometimes even pigs’ blood. Parmesan rinds are infused into oils and there is a smoked Parmesan-rind milk foam on the menu. Bones and offcuts are used in stocks, blanching water is recycled for washing, and rinsing water is returned to the garden.
“Whey is a fantastic by-product. We use it in dressings, reductions, glazes, risotto bases, fermentations, batters, and are discovering more ways to adapt it into our day-to-day cooking.” He explains that butter is often substituted for beef tallow, and olive oil for chicken fat (where the recipe need not be adaptable for vegetarians, vegans, or pescatarians). Any meat that has sat too long in the fridge is cured, hung, smoked and dried. This creates added-value products to ingredients otherwise thrown away or given to staff.
“We do not buy micro herbs, but use foraged leaves and flowers from our garden and the hills surrounding our restaurant and the Berg River dam. Here the community of chefs works together. We have, with Darren Badenhorst of Le coin Français, started growing our own mushrooms.”
Showcasing local suppliers
His stint in a butchery has not gone to waste ‒ expect the unique, and a charcuterie board that is self-crafted. David spends four to five months making his own bresaola and gives time and attention to preserving and fermenting. He builds each dish around the products in season and is constantly changing dishes, notching up almost 200 new dishes in one and a half years.
“I keep the essence,” says David. “I don’t want to change too often but need to avoid a comfort zone. I like to support and showcase local suppliers, putting their names on the menu. I also like to support local business like a small husband-and-wife team, and of course, support ABALOBI, an app that helps local chefs source fresh seafood from local fishermen.
The dish that best signifies David Schneider’s philosophy and showcases his passion for meat, is his beef sirloin pastrami and pretzel. It’s served with a horseradish Catalan, spiced onion relish, charred spring onion salsa and a home-made, soft pretzel, a sure stalwart. You’ll see it artfully sketched on the menu.
But everything is carefully crafted and represents how the team do their best to make unique products and dishes that will make you return. “Here we tell the culture of this place, a working farm with a rusted roof. We offer access, you can look and touch.”
There is attention to small detail, but the emphasis is on getting the big things right. The dishes might come swiftly from the kitchen, but great care is taken with each of them. Eat with your eyes first and feast on perfect, contemporary presentation, then take time to enjoy the aromas, and the abundant tastes and servings.
Chefs Warehouse at Maison
021 876 2116, www.maisonestate.co.za
Open for lunch and dinner, closed Tuesdays.