Dennis Strydom has joined the elite community of Franschhoek chefs, but now that he’s at Haute Cabrière he promises to move away from fine dining to real country fare…
Words: Diana Wemyss
Pictures: Daniela Zondagh
“When I arrived at Haute Cabrière there was something on the menu called squid ink caviar,” says the restaurant’s new chef, Dennis Strydom. “Well, it took 30 minutes to an hour to prepare, and it tasted like nothing. Why spend time on something that looks pretty, but has no purpose? That is hollow. It has no substance.”
With Haute Cabrière’s avowed intention of moving away from fine dining and giving patrons a more robust eating experience at the restaurant, Dennis it seems is just the right choice to take food back to basics, to tastes without gimmicks.
“When I grew up food was a very big part of family life,” says Dennis (32), a farmer’s son from the Langkloof area in the Eastern Cape. “My interest in cooking started at the family dinner table. My mother’s stews were heart-warming bowls of pure delight and my father, who is a great cook too, produced the most wonderful creamed cabbage. My ouma was a first-class cook and to this day there is nothing I make that can come close to what she produced. She raised her own sheep and cattle. Our Saturday night braai was an institution, and what a meat feast, from freshly made boerewors to ouma’s sosaties, and of course the fresh roosterbrood, cheese and tomato toasties and jacket potatoes with lashings of butter and salt. All delectable.”
He says Christmas was always a big affair at Ouma’s house, with at least three meats and an array of salads and desserts.
“As a result my cuisine is rustic with no hang-ups, just great food made with great ingredients,” he says. Dennis has no formal training and his CV contains no famous names or exotic locations.
He has travelled and travelled, yet never left our shores. “It’s pointless to move on for the money,” he says of his peripatetic career. “I move to gain knowledge, to be in a place where I can learn. I have done this continually.”
His first job was at the Queens Hotel in Oudtshoorn and from there he moved to Rosenhof Country House, also in the town, before taking up position in Cape St Francis, the Cape Winelands, Jeffreys Bay and back again to the Western Cape.
Each new position was a new learning opportunity. Dennis says that, when he worked at Olivello outside Stellenbosch, he was carefully arranging three little bits of dill on top of a salmon canapé when one of the owners told him, “Come on. No one is going to taste that,” and thrust a handful of the herb on top of the salmon.
His avowed ambition is to create food that people will say is as good as anything they’ve had at home. “I want people to leave here saying that what they ordered was the best meal they ever had. If you have to think too hard to create a dish, I believe you have lost the essence of the idea. You need to cook from the heart.”
Which is not to say that things are slapped together quickly. A sauce in Dennis’ kitchen takes two days to make. Pasta is freshly made daily. Duck is cured for 24 hours. Pork belly is slow-braised.
Dennis is fond of telling of his childhood in the Langkloof where his ouma slaughtered her cattle and sheep. He is certainly not into his own slaughtering, but he does carry with him a deep nostalgia for those childhood days on the farm and for home-cooked food. “I never will be a fine-dining chef. There are people who are constantly remodelling and reinventing but that is not how I cook. I don’t like gimmicks,” he says.
Haute Cabrière estate is bisected by the road that runs up to the Franschhoek Pass. In order to build this road a huge hole was dug for gravel into the mountainside under the looming peak of the Middagkrans. It is here that the bunker-like cellar, tasting room and restaurant of Haute Cabrière were built, the earth floor and gravity-fed production unique in the industry.
On sunny days most people like to eat on the outdoor terrace with its fine view of the valley. Those who dine indoors under the stone arches of the cave-like building can look down through a glass wall into the cellar below.
Try Dennis Strydom’s recipes
- French Onion Soup with Gratinated Chèvre Crostini
- Beetroot Tarte Tatin with Caramelised Onion and Danish Feta
- Seared Franschhoek Trout with Steamed Sweet Potato and Avocado Dressing
- Deboned Lamb Shank, White Wine, Button Mushrooms, Garlic and Lemon
- Toasted Honeyed Cinnamon and Pistachio Brioche, Burnt Apple Cream, Roast Apple