? 6-minute read
From pots to tops. That’s chef Alex Poltera of the gracious Fern Hill Hotel in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
It all started in the scullery. “I washed pots here for a year,” says Alex Poltera, executive chef and director at his family’s Fern Hill Hotel and Hotel School in Tweedie in the KZN Midlands.
From the scullery, he moved up to the canteen where, for two years, he cooked staff meals. And so it continued, Alex working his way up the ranks to where he is today, creating his à la carte menu for The Snooty Fox restaurant, and delicious meals served on the deck, and in the garden and the pub. It just goes to show that not every young son in South Africa gets a free ride to the top.
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Keeping it in the family
Alex’s parents, dad Gion – Maître Rôtisseur de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and one-time general manager at the Ritz in Paris – and mom Karen, whose expertise is front-of-house management, left Johannesburg and bought Fern Hill in 1989. The couple had made their mark on the city’s hospitality scene, having founded a number of top establishments such as the Landdrost and Balaleika hotels, and the Lobster Hole.
“They wanted to raise their two daughters – I wasn’t born yet – in a quieter environment,” Alex says. Built in the mid-1800s as a boarding house and trading post for Voortrekkers en route to the coast, the hotel had fallen into rack and ruin.
“My parents saw its potential,” Alex says. “They decided to restore it. My father and Joseph Majozi, who’d worked here before we arrived, did all the renovations themselves.” Later, when I meet Gion, he tells me that a builder was appointed but fled when he saw the extent of the work. He also tells me that friends from Johannesburg would visit them and be appalled at the dilapidated old dump. “But we’ve never regretted it.”
After decades of hard work, Gion and Karen have handed the reigns to Alex and his sister, Stephanie Szecsei, who worked for Gordon Ramsay at The Savoy in London. Stephanie’s husband Miklos is also part of the business, taking care of the accounts side.
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Alex takes me on a tour of the graciously restored hotel. We stroll across the garden to the Nelson Mandela Presidential Suite where Madiba stayed when the Freedom of Howick was bestowed on him in 1996. It’s beautifully appointed, as are all the guest rooms, each unique in style.
“The original plan was for a four-bedroom guest house,” says Alex, “but it kept expanding. Because it’s a family business operating on a small budget, it all happened bit-by-bit. As one wall came down, so would another and all sorts of interesting things were revealed.” Like the newspaper dated 6 October 1889 that fell out from a wall being demolished exactly a century later on 6 October 1989. Surely, a prophetic sign.
The oldest building is the signal box that served the branch rail line that once ran through the property. Still intact, that square space is now a private dining area adjacent to The Snooty Fox. “I was nearly born on the restaurant floor,” Alex says, explaining that his mother was serving guests at the time. Hindsight would call that prophetic too. Even so, when Alex left school he had no intention of following in his parents’ footsteps. “I’ve always loved cooking but decided to study law.” He stuck it out for six months before giving in to his destiny.
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A flare for food
We arrive at the kitchen – a warren of rooms where eight permanent cooking staff and up to 15 students assist Alex in conjuring his brand of culinary magic. “I’d describe my style as wholesome, simple food using seasonal, fresh produce that’s not messed with too much. Each ingredient is treated with care and almost everything here is produced from scratch.”
When I see the spread Alex has prepared for us, I decide his description is far too modest. Every dish is a work of culinary art. Which, I suppose, is to be expected of a graduate of the SA Chefs Academy who, like his father, is a Maître Rôtisseur de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, while also being the youngest board member of that esteemed gastronomy association. He’s also the recipient of the organisation’s Eschanson award and its highly prestigious Blazon award.
In my book, Alex deserves a gold star for properly catering for vegetarians and vegans (I still dream of that artichoke linguine). “I’m the only one in the Midlands who provides a full vegan menu,” he says. “I met an ardent vegan and realised that no one around here was really catering for vegans.”
Not one to follow other chefs’ recipes – “It’s my duty to be different. I don’t feel that it’s right to expect people to pay for food made from other chefs’ recipes,” – Alex does, however, draw inspiration from his peers, in particular Michelin star-rated chefs Thomas Keller of the US, and Michel Roux Jnr of Le Gavroche in London.
And just when you think a young man can’t possibly possess any more talents, I learn from Gion that Alex can play the saxophone like a pro, and that he sings superbly too. From food to music, Alex Poltera is certainly hitting the top notes.
The Snooty Fox is open seven days a week from 12pm to 9:30pm
033 330 5071; [email protected]
Recipes supplied and approved by chefs
Words Andrea Abbott
Photography Craig Scott