Once a year when the matric results are released, news websites and portals are awash with stories of the country’s over-achieving teens. For the most part, these star students are giving life advice. Who they are giving it to, I’m not sure.
I doubt their younger peers read the news much, while ancient codgers like myself (at 38) go into REM (rapid eye movement) when a precocious 17-year-old recommends that studying hard, eating a balanced diet, playing sport and making time to socialise will all contribute towards achieving one’s dreams. Just you wait, young grasshopper, I think. Wait till you encounter rent, taxes, a slowing metabolism, three-day hangovers and the continual sense of impending doom a few more decades on this planet will serve up to you.
Earning your stripes
So, when Mechell Spann, the fresh-faced head chef of SALT at Paul Cluver wine estate in the Elgin Valley, opines about whether chef school is necessary or not, I have to fight the urge to indulge my jaded instincts. After all, Mechell is only 26 years old. However, if I were to discount her opinion on account of her age, I’d be horribly wrong.
Mechell says, “To be honest, I don’t feel that chef school is necessary at all. I don’t think it prepares you for the industry as well as it should. Obviously, you know more or less what to expect, but once you get into the kitchen it’s a completely different world. You might enjoy chef school, learn some knife skills, learn how to cut an onion properly and learn some recipes, but when you go into a kitchen, those recipes mean nothing, because every kitchen cooks differently. Some people might learn differently. Me, I’m dyslexic so I learn better practically than I do from a book.”
That’s a 26-year-old talking, not a grizzled veteran with three cookbooks, 15 failed restaurants and a hefty cocaine addiction. What were you doing when you were 26? Studying perhaps? Maybe you were getting to grips with how the printer worked at your first proper job or working on your courage at answering the phone? Perchance you were just sprawled on your parents’ couch eating stray NikNaks from behind the scatter cushions, wondering where the remote was. What’s almost certain, is that your career goals lay far ahead of you. Your mid-20s was preordained as the period where you do grunt work, learn some harsh lessons and earn your stripes.
On an upward curve
By achieving head-chef status at SALT so young, somehow Mechell has not only transcended time and space, but managed to achieve what most chefs spend the better part of a career working on. It’s not even her first head-chef gig either. From learning how to cook from her Italian grandmother to running a coffee-shop kitchen serving sandwiches and coffee at the age of 16 – save for a six-month break after school where she surfed day in and day out – Mechell has not stopped cooking. Straight out of hotel school, she worked for a variety of highly respected restaurants and chef-mentors. At each one, she got her hands dirty and absorbed as much as she could.
The upward curve started with her first job at Terroir under Michael Broughton. “If anyone asked me which kitchen to go to and learn I’d say Terroir. If you learn there, nothing can destroy you.”
Mechell then worked under both PJ Vadas and Michael Cooke (“the best chef I have worked with in my life”) at Camphors. She also had a stint under PJ Vadas again at Hoghouse at Spier where Mechell became head chef.
Over the years, her reputation grew and she caught the eye of Craig Cormack and Beau du Toit, veteran chefs and partners in catering and consulting business The Goose Roasters. They had taken over running the new restaurant at Paul Cluver and needed a head chef. With decades of combined experience in restaurants, safari lodges and catering (Die Wors-Rol food truck), Craig and Beau know talent when they see it.
A variety of salts
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Slap-bang in the middle of the Elgin Valley, SALT is set in an incredibly lush, sylvan environment with the expansive vegetable garden behind us as we leave the parking lot and walk under established trees across the lawn to the restaurant. Through the back windows, tractors trundle past into the orchards. The restaurant itself is warm and bright, making good use of the light offered by deep windows.
It’s safe to assume that Craig is responsible for the name, as the restaurant used to be called Fresh. A salt aficionado, Craig (aka The Salty Chef) travels the world collecting salts, and there are more than 152 available for Mechell to use in the kitchen. Diners can take home a variety of salt Craig has selected, from Hawaiian red alaea (earthy flavour, great with prime rib and pork dishes) to black lava (great for sealing red-meat dishes).
At SALT, by her own admittance, Mechell has landed, to put it bluntly, with her bum in the salted butter. She says Cormack and du Toit are relaxed but supportive, her hours are great by chef standards (from Tuesday to Sunday, breakfast and lunch save for weddings, birthdays and other events) and she has the incredible Paul Cluver vegetable garden at her disposal. She proves this by uprooting one of many rosemary bushes and insisting I put it in my car to take home. I keep expecting a gardener to chase me with a hoe.
With its reputation for brilliant Rieslings and Pinot Noir, its popular mountain biking trails and sold-out amphitheatre concerts, Paul Cluver is already a destination wine estate, but having sampled just a portion of Mechell’s spread, it warrants a visit even if you’re not into spandex or folk music.
A beautiful palate
Mechell’s style is elegant and accessible, informed as much by her fine-dining training as her BBQ background. It was at Hog House at Spier, a renowned BBQ joint far removed from the fine-dining focus her career had taken to that point, that Mechell had an epiphany.
“At Hog House, I realised it’s not all about show. You can do simple food that will rock your world just as much as fine dining will.
At SALT I don’t want foams and stuff like that on my plate, but I make a simple ingredient shine for what it is.”
This approach shows in her food. Take The Forgotten Carrots, the first dish she serves up for us. A kitchen mistake, turned into a signature success, carrots that Mechell had forgotten in the oven and which went black
on the outside and deep orange on the inside, are elevated to celeb status.
As we roll out of the estate, car laden with wine and smelling of rosemary, our mouths still lined with the crumbs of her lemon tart and poppy-seed crumble, I’m still fixated on how accomplished and how young she is.
I can’t help but see her as the chef equivalent of those 14-year-old math savants who land up at Oxford or Cambridge before they can legally drink or drive. If the upward curve continues, don’t be surprised to see a biopic of her life one day. Might I suggest, A Beautiful Palate?
SALT 021 844 0012, www.cluver.com
Open Tuesday to Sunday 08h30 to 16h00.
SALT offers a salt-block breakfast every day (pre-booking essential) where you can cook your own breakfast (eggs, bacon, etc) on a block of salt heated in the oven. A variety of salts from across the world are also on sale at SALT.
Pictures Francois Pistorius