Chef Michelle shares her European culinary inspirations

Pierneef à La Motte restaurant’s recently appointed Chef de Cuisine, Michelle Theron, kicked off her new challenge with a culinary visit to Europe.

For ten days, she cooked in Michelin Star restaurants in the Netherlands such as Chapeau!, De Bokkedoorns and De Vrienden van Jacob and joined the chefs of Specktakel restaurant in cooking for a special Mother’s Day dinner.

She concluded her trip with an exciting visit to the food and fish markets of Barcelona and came back bursting with inspiration and ideas. We asked her to share some of her highlights.

  • There was such a strong Dutch influence in traditional Cape Winelands Cuisine. Did you find any similarities that today still exist?

When you have your Cape Winelands hat on, it is easy to spot the similarities. The most evident is the way they use seafood and the combination of sweet and savoury elements. They also like using thin crisp biscuits in their desserts – similar to brandy snaps.

  • Were the Dutch chefs interested in the concept of Cape Winelands Cuisine?

Oh yes! They were especially interested in our use of spices and also our ways of preserving – pickling and smoking.

  • What do they think of South African food?

They were intrigued by the thorough research we have done to document the history and recipes of Cape Winelands Cuisine. They were also impressed with our efforts to source sustainably by growing our own vegetables and only using fish from SASSI’s green list.

  • What was the highlight of your visit?

Definitely to work in a Michelin star restaurant. The way those chefs (and kitchens) operate is really impressive. Quality produce, innovation and respect for ingredients are non-negotiable.

Working on the pass in Michelin-star restaurant, Chapeau!

  • So what makes the Michelin star chefs and kitchens so impressive?

I think mainly they know their ingredients very well and there are no limits to their creativity. They know the classic cooking skills, but do not hesitate to use innovative techniques.

They are serious about what they do and they are very competitive, but they still find the way to lead a balanced life. Team work and mutual respect help to make the kitchens work like well-oiled machines. Most of the Michelin restaurants I worked in are only open for dinner.

  • What is the latest food trends in Europe?

The trend is towards using less elements but more natural flavours. And having a pure vegetarian menu is the fashion.

Another new trend is not to first brown or sear meat, but rather to roast it in the oven and then sear it in a hot pan afterwards. They even use blow torches on meat (yes, the ones we use for Crème Brulee!)

A blow torch is used to give steamed fish a bit of colour.

  • Anything we can learn from the European kitchens?

Stay focused on your specific offering and perfect it.

  • Did you learn any new skills?

How to steam egg yolks!

  • Does wine play an important role in these restaurants?

Very much so. European chefs know what a difference a well-paired wine can make to a meal and most high-end restaurants have in-house sommeliers.

  • Does it make a difference working with a sommelier?

At Pierneef à La Motte we are spoiled because we work so closely with the La Motte winemaker and my Dutch counterparts were quite jealous! Having a sommelier is however very important and it ensures that both the dish and the wine perform at their best.

  • A favourite dish?

I loved the flavour combinations of foie gras with cumin and port as well as black truffle macaroons with white chocolate. And of course I need to mention the beautiful scallops!

Scallops with mustard seeds, rice crisps, black sesame seeds and sea banana.

One of the highlights was a starter of beetroot and buttermilk in Peter Edwards’ Southern Cross restaurant.

Another highlight was the farewell dinner at home with the owner of Specktakel, Chef Mark Cashoek. Fresh oysters, Wagyu beef, black truffle, foie gras and of course my favourte Pierneef Shiraz Viognier all the way from South Africa!

Chef Mark Cashoek, owner of Specktakel cooking Wagyu beef, South African style!

  • Did you get some time for shopping?

Food shopping, yes – especially in the brilliant Barcelona markets. A pity that one cannot bring back some of the amazing seafood, but I couldn’t resist the Saffron!

The food markets of Barcelona is spectacular! The selection of fresh seafood is just amazing.

  • Did you bring any recipes with?

A recipe for a lovely lamb dish as well as a wonderful trick for crispy meringue from Chapeau! Then there is an amazing egg purée made from steamed eggs to be served with fish from Vrienden van Jacob. I can’t wait to use some of these elements on our speciality menu!

One of my favourite dishes on the whole trip – Chapeau!’s interpretation of lamb.

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