Chef Chantel Dartnall of Restaurant Mosaic is off to Hong Kong in April to attend the Discover Wines of South Africa event. To mark her trip, we went back into our archives to find her interview with Julia Lloyd from our April 2015 issue.
Botanical cuisine is the food scene’s new kid on the block. At Restaurant Mosaic in Gauteng’s Crocodile River Valley, masterchef and food artist supreme Chantel Dartnall is leading the charge. Julia Lloyd drops in to find out what’s cooking.
There’s an invigorating breeze in the Crocodile River Valley northwest of Johannesburg, in a giant spread of bushveld and koppies called the Francolin Conservancy. The road winds and turns through acacias and karees, in the grasslands of giraffe, antelope and more birds than you could possibly imagine.
It’s also home to the much-vaunted boutique hotel called The Orient, built by Chantel’s stepfather Cobus du Plessis. It’s only later that I learn that the fantastic Moorish buildings rising out of the bush are not a luxury hotel with fine-dining restaurant. They belong to a fabulous restaurant around which luxurious rooms have grown.
A treat for the senses
Okay, maybe it is over the top. But that’s the experience here. Over the top. The kind in which every sense will have such a fine time wallowing, chances are none will get over it. So be prepared to be bowled over the moment you enter the giant wooden doors and take in the sumptuous mix inside of North Africa, India and Turkey.
Take a deep breath on your way up the grand staircase to opulent Mosaic restaurant, and then dive back in time to La Belle Époque and the gorgeousness of Paris in the late 18th century, when restaurants were crammed late into the night with musicians, artists, writers and poets. And then look outside, down past the koppie to the undulating valley. And pinch yourself. You’re in Africa.
But wait. Step just outside to the tables next to the koi pond and an immaculate vertical garden, and you have a hint of Japan. “That’s why it’s called Mosaic. It’s a canvas of influences from so many countries,” says Chantel Dartnall, Eat Out S Pellegrino Chef of the Year 2014, and a lady that’s cooking up such a storm with her fine dining she’s on everyone’s hotlist right now.
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Eat with your eyes
But it’s not surprising. Her food – or rather her botanical cuisine – is as much an eyeful as a mouthful, and a brilliantly healthy mouthful at that. Art on a plate. Food that conjures up visions of a chef in an artist’s smock with a brush in one hand and a palette of purées and mousses and moulds in the other. Creating food that looks so beautiful it’s almost criminal to eat it.
“First is the flavour, then comes the colour,” says Chantel, as she describes how botanical cuisine and serving edible flowers has been the thing in Europe for quite some time. It’s why she heads off there every year for a month. Two weeks spent buying wines and two weeks lapping up the food, the museums and the culture. “Europe, France in particular, has longtime been producing botanical cuisine and I go there for inspiration,” she says. Destination restaurants are huge there. And the whole eating experience is different there. Even for the waiters and sommeliers theirs is a profession, a calling.”
Home is where the heart is
Supremely elegant but easy-going and relaxed, Chantel is a fascinating mix of order and flow. Much like this bush palace. I thought I’d find it odd to meet a fêted chef and woman of the world tucked away in this hidden valley. Quite the contrary. Apart from the fact that her culinary innovations are bringing the world in droves to her doorstep, Chantel Dartnall here in the Crocodile River Valley is the perfect fit.
“This is my family home. I’ve been here all my life, really,” she tells me, as she whisks me around her edible garden. “We moved here when I was four and I remember scaling all these mountains. And the deliciousness of first oxalis. When my stepbrothers were out riding on the farm I was always there in the kitchen with Gran. There has not been a moment in my life that I haven’t been interested in food.”
Of course all those years on what was then the family cattle farm, out in nature, also had a huge influence on Chantel. “I have such an appreciation for nature and bring it into my dishes. My style is botanical. You at with your eyes and so sometimes I show a scene from nature, other times I depict an experience. A plate of food must tell a story. And you have to have emotion for what you’re cooking.”
In high school at Pro Arte Alphen Park (South Africa’s Julliard), at a time when it combined the business and arts sides, Chantel ended up studying hotel management alongside drama, which makes great sense when you see her creations. She went on to the Pru Leith Chef’s Academy and, after an internship in Europe, the next step was to open a restaurant. “But where?” In Pretoria? Johannesburg? I need to be in nature and it just had to be here. So I came home.”
Art on a plate
In the herb garden she picks violas, fuschias and dianthus. And a begonia. “Here. Eat this,” she says, handing me the pretty yellow flower, as we head off down the lemon path to the pomegranate garden. “Delicious with fish and avo. And packed with antioxidants. All herbs and edible flowers aid digestion and are not there on a plate just as decorative aids. And the health of a dish is as important as the flavour. What my food makes guests feel like after their meal is so important. I’ve eaten out and it’s taken me two days to digest the food.”
Make your own Pear and Cranberry Loaf at home.
In the gloriously cool wine cellar, built over and around natural rocks, there are 50 000 bottles from 1 300 local and international labels. “It’s so important for all of us to be involved constantly in developing wine pairings and new dishes,” says Chantel. “Every Tuesday we have our experimental day when we pack out all the dishes and bring up the wines and my mom Mari (who is also Mosaic’s maîre d’), my stepdad and all the staff and I get into some serious tasting, cross referencing every ingredient to find out what works with what wine.
The menu only changes seasonally but if Chantel finds something really special from any of her local, handpicked suppliers, she’ll always buy it and create a ‘special’ for the menu. “Oh, when I was in Italy in January you won’t believe the truffles I found to being back,” she tells me, with no small amount of reverence her voice. As part of her Chef of the Year prize (which she also won in 2006, three years after Mosaic opened) she was flown to Italy to take part in the Chef’s Cup.
“There were 70 chefs from around the world who were brought together to cook and chat and swap ideas. At this one event I had to plate for 250 people so, beforehand, I started building the cold ingredients for my dish that told the story of treasures on a beach. Soon a crowd gathered and I could hear them saying, ‘What is she doing?’ It was quite a preparation that saw me taking 12 crates to the event, while the others had three.
“I eventually had someone come up to me and say, ‘They all think you’re crazy.’ But I had people coming back for more and that’s all I cared about. And, as they say, being insane is a prerequisite for being a chef.”
Open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch, and Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for dinner
Words Julia Lloyd
Photography Elmarie Knapton
Julia Lloyd was a freelance photojournalist for Country Life before she joined the magazine as sub-editor. For Julia, photography is all about great light. Yes, sort out the composition, focus, emotion, action, you name it, but it’s superb light that will make an excellent photograph unforgettable. And if great light isn’t there for the taking (or making), then let’s have a picture that tells a story.