South Africa

GAME CHANGERS: Chefs on safari create bespoke bush cuisine

Seasonal fruit and muesli at Lekkerwater Beach Lodge. (Photo: Supplied)

Not too long ago, safari food was a starch and carni fest, but if you go down to the bush today, you’re in for a big surprise. We caught up with five chefs in three provinces who are serving up safari food with a dash of fancy.

The safari food game has changed, with ardent cooks in the middle of nowhere whipping up interesting menus and thinking out of the box. Pap en wors will always be a thing, but for epicureans on expedition, having an inspired creative at the helm of your remote kitchen is a delicious fringe benefit.

Khumbulani Nzima, Executive Chef, Babanango Valley Lodge in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal

Chef Khumbulani Nzima at Babanango Valley Lodge. (Photo: Supplied)

Beyond flavour profiling, ideation and menu construction, Khumbulani Nzima likes nothing more than to prettify a plate. This penchant for presentation harks back to his high school days when he interned in the kitchen of Wakkerstroom’s restaurant du jour, the Wakkerstroom Country Inn. He was under the mentorship of hotelier and Chef-Patron Brian Charlton, a first class cook who produced “beautiful food every time”, says Nzima, and whom he cites today as his greatest influence. 

As a 17-year-old, the eatery was his go-to for special occasions, and he would dine there, often. Charlton, a gregarious personality and generous to a fault, clocked his young customer’s repeat visits and made a point of getting to know him.

“He was an unassuming guy, easygoing, and I could sense his love of the job. It made me want to dig deeper.” 

What began with the occasional after-service chat was followed by a back-of-house tour and eventually a coveted place on Charlton’s crew, working the cold section. “Once I stepped into the galley, I knew it was somewhere I wanted to spend more time.” 

It was a pivotal period and the lessons learnt were gold. Experiencing Charlton’s culinary savoir faire up close made an indelible impression – the flavour mongering, attention to detail and individuation, just a few of the nuggets gleaned during that formative phase. “Brian would constantly be creating and developing recipes from scratch, something I so admired.”

Slow braised pork belly, served with roasted butternut purée, potato fondant, grilled baby vegetables by Chef Khumbulai Nzima at Babanango Valley Lodge in Zululand. (Photo: Allison Foat)

Straight after matric, Nzima was recruited by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and he left home to train in Cape Town where he was based for five years. In that time, Charlton had sold the Wakkerstroom restaurant and bought another, this time in Pringle Bay and called @365. The two reconnected and on his off-days Nzima beelined for Charlton’s kitchen. “He took me under his wing once more and sponsored my course at the International Chef Academy.” Armed with a formidable foundation and a strong work ethic, Nzima entered the profession on the front foot. Best of all was Charlton’s parting gift – one thousand of his recipes and a French cookbook, which accounts for the hints of haute in Nzima’s cooking, the sort of Franco flair one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see gracing the pass at a safari lodge.

Nzima took up his position as Executive Chef at Babanango Valley Lodge in Zululand in 2019, working with a team of four to oversee all things culinary across the three properties on Babanango Game Reserve, 50 kilometres from Vryheid. Regionally it’s hot and humid in summer with mild and dry winters, so typically the climate informs the menu. Chef presents two seasonal offerings and within those remains flexible, mixing it up when necessary. He seldom needs to cook on the fly as guests’ dietaries are patched through ahead of arrival. Whatever goes to the table always impresses, whether simple tapas like soy-glazed meatballs on a bed of baked beans, or something fancier with a gourmet spin, like the pork belly done with potato fondant, butternut purée and grilled baby veg. For him it’s all about flavour, and food must be good looking, to romance diners and reel them in. “As Brian used to say, ‘you eat with your eyes first’ so I love an attractive plate.”

When on leave he heads back to Wakkerstroom and assumes another role, that of police reservist. A tragic incident involving a small child prompted him to get more involved in the community there. “I do patrols, cook for kids and look out for the locals, people I’ve known all my life.” That aside, he indulges one of his biggest passions – baking. It’s his side hustle and he is quite the master when it comes to traditional gateaux and his repertoire of made-to-order occasion cakes is impressive. Back at the lodge, his pâtissier prowess shows up in the rolling selection of pastries, tartlets, tortes and rusks and the to-die-for blueberry brioche toast.

Occasionally Nzima taps into online masterclasses on websites like Great British Chefs to observe different approaches, prep and methods that all contribute to a stronger game. “It begins and ends with me. There’s no standing still in such an evolving industry. I always want to do better, to improve.” 

He uses criticism to his advantage as well, another takeaway from Brian. Any negative issue or a complaint is an opportunity to grow. “It keeps my head in the right place. Brian told me ‘when people criticise you, accept it, analyse the problem and don’t make the same mistake twice’.”

Babanagovalleylodge.co.za

Eugenia Mtungwa and Grace Chimakowa, Motswari Private Game Reserve & Geiger’s Camp in the Timbavati, Limpopo

Motswari’s Grace Chimakowa (left) and Eugenia Mtungwa (Photo: Sean Cawood)

One of South Africa’s quintessential safari destinations, Motswari is an unassuming luxury lodge where people “arrive as visitors and leave as friends”, in the words of the late Paul Geiger who founded it in 1975. To the uninitiated that quote might smack of marketing schmaltz, but go yourself and it’s right on the money. The vibe is convivial, where strangers quickly feel like old acquaintances and staff are more like an extension of the Geiger clan than employees.

Two spirited women dominate the Motswari kitchen – Eugenia Mtungwa and Grace Chimakowa. South African by birth, Eugenia is from Acornhoek in Mpumalanga and has been part of the Motswari family for 14 years. The veteran chef was 27 when she started as a cook and she did whatever it took to establish herself. 

“I knew very little at the time, but I had Grace (Mnisi) the head chef before she retired, by my side. She taught me and I taught myself. I’ve always had this passion for food and I used to try tons of recipes and keep going until I got it right. Once I’d improved enough I started standing in for her when she went on leave. It was my chance and I had to make it work.” 

And work it did. Passion and perseverance eclipsed her insecurities and the compliments flowed. She was out of the gate and living the dream. Of her outside influences celeb chef Siba Mtongana from Siba’s Table on the Food Network is right up there, and when asked about her favourite part of the job, Eugenia is effusive, “Baking, baking baking – I love baking the most!”

That part of her journey began with her late mother. “She was a fantastic baker, really good. I remember her homemade doughnuts and scones and her ginger and vanilla biscuit slices that I also bake for the lodge.” 

The famous Motswari Pavlova. (Photo: Sean Cawood)

Back in Acornhoek she is seen as something of a bakery wizard and her custom shape cakes are in high demand. “If I can visualise it, I can make it!”

Grace made the move from The Drostdy in Graaff-Reinet in 2019 to join the top notch kitchen squad in the Timbavati. Born in Zimbabwe where she trained to be a professional chef at the Polytechnic in Bulawayo, Grace spent five years in the iconic Karoo hotel, first as Chef de Partie and then as Sous to Jaco Hough.

“It was an honour to work with him. He was gentle and straight to the point, and he had so much faith in me, allowing me to spread my wings in his kitchen,” she said. Pre-Covid, Grace was assigned to Geiger’s, Motswari’s exclusive-use homestead located 10 minutes from the main camp. Once a traditional family home, Geiger’s accommodates eight people at capacity, usually families or close friends, with a private butler in attendance and Grace as Executive Chef. Until the pandemic has run its course, Geiger’s will operate as a self-catering destination and Grace will continue to partner with Eugenia at Motswari.

While au fait with the entire bill of fare, Grace also leans to the sweeter side of a menu and sorbets and ice creams are her métier. 

“I love playing around with unexpected combinations in my desserts,” she says, adding that Instagram chefs she follows are a good source of intel when it comes to recipe ideas and striking presentation. The standout treat at Motswari at which both women excel is the classic pavlova, an installation of delicate meringue with a crispy shell, pillow soft marshmallow inside topped with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream and garnished with layers of fresh fruit.

Motswari menus are unrehearsed, subject to the weather, guest preferences and a kitchen twosome who are big on teamwork and spontaneity. Whether you’re doing a pan brekkie in a river bed, dining al fresco at Motswari or picnicking in an elevated hide, dishes are a tailored collaboration between guests and chefs created to spec. A touch of bespoke in the bush is always appreciated. “We meet with each person and we will make whatever best suits them,” says Eugenia.

“Pretty much anything is possible and no two days are the same in our kitchen,” says Grace, one eye on a lurking vervet monkey as she sets down a dessert bowl: marmalade and ginger ice cream with a poached pear adrift in a puddle of red wine cinnamon sauce, another winner.

The vivacious duo sum it up. “All we can say is that our food is absolutely amazing. No guest ever leaves Motswari without telling us so. As chefs, it’s our greatest reward.”

Motswari Private Game Reserve

Tatenda Makumbe and Tatenda ‘Don’ Jailos, Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in De Hoop, Western Cape

Don (left) and Tatenda at Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in De Hoop. (Photo: Supplied)

Botanical cocktails and buchu truffles on the deck, a wholly appropriate introduction to a sojourn at Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in De Hoop, a place surrounded by fynbos, sand dunes and the infinite Atlantic. Tatenda Makumbe and Tatenda Jailos, aka Don, are the in-house chefs at Lekkerwater, kitchen comrades whose carbon copy backstories and tight camaraderie have earned them the nickname “the twins of Lekkerwater”.

Born in Zim a few days apart in August and with one year between them, both initially considered being motor mechanics but had parents who were having none of it. Don’s father Auswald Chiswa, a Zimbabwean chef, persuaded his son to join him in the business, and Tatenda’s mother went and enrolled her son at the School of Hospitality and Tourism, sans his knowledge, and he hasn’t looked back. That is where the two first connected and since then their lives have been like a parallel universe. They scooped gold and silver medals at Battle of the Chefs 2017, and worked together at the Rainbow Towers in Harare, first as interns then as professional chefs under the tutelage of Executive Chef Innocent Masuku who at one point oversaw 65 chefs across three restaurants plus a 24-hour room service.

Their Lekkerwater journey began simultaneously in 2019, a refreshing downgrade in pace from the frenetic mega-hotel vibe. While the award-winning De Hoop property subscribes to casual over posh, it is proudly five-star, across the board. The airy dining area is open plan, allowing full view of the kitchen and pass and diners are privy to all the goings-on, from mise en place to the cooking and plating.

Buchu truffles, Lekkerwater Beach Lodge. (Photo: Suppled)

“Guests are interested and engaged,” says Don, adding that “it’s not unusual for someone to call out mid-meal, ‘Chef, I need this recipe!’ There’s nothing more beautiful than that.” While some are trying to score recipes for their personal repertoires, others are quietly enjoying the food. “There are no words to adequately describe the feeling you get when the table conversation goes quiet and all you can hear are forks and knives dancing on the plates,” adds Tatenda.

Menus at Lekkerwater are on a four-day rotation to match the maximum stay duration, with all dishes modifiable. Tamsin Snyman, culinary consultant and Academy Chair of the World’s Best 50 in Africa, designed a South African heritage-inspired offering with dishes like baby milk tartlets, maize meal porridge (with condensed milk on the side – I die!) and cinnamon-dusted pumpkin fritters like Grandma used to make and Cape Malay roasted masala-crusted beef fillet rolled over hot coals on Braai night, traditional mood-food with all the homestyle feels. 

Shifting dietary trends has prompted the inclusion of more plant-based and gluten-free dishes, necessary additions for growing numbers of vegans and banters. As Snyman said in a recent Daily Maverick interview, “guests are arriving at these top-end destinations with dietaries. I don’t want them being served an aubergine and tomato tower”.

Not likely at Lekkerwater, where the gentlemen are ever innovating with their homestyle fare.

“Don and Tati are out in the middle of nowhere,” says Tamsin, “and often have to pull rabbits out of hats when various dietaries crop up. They’ve got plenty to play around with like the apple and sultana flapjacks, vegan pancakes and tomatoes and plums spiked with basil drizzle and curried tofu with spinach and mushrooms.”

Out of Covid, meals are taken communally and are magical. It might be a candlelit dinner poolside or a long table on the beach, inches from the lapping waves or in between the rocks below the boardwalk. Even though pandemic protocols necessitate social distancing, there’s plenty of banter and it’s a merry atmosphere. When lockdown rules allow, excellent regional wines accompany meals and if the alcohol ban is in play, expect temperance drinks in the form of mocktails mixed with a range of premium locally produced craft gins and garnished with sprigs of foraged fynbos.

While proficiency in all types of cuisine is requisite, the two have their specialities. Tatenda, a saucier at heart, loves nothing more than to deconstruct and reinterpret a dressing, and is particularly good with finishing sauces for meat. Don is all about pastry and confectionery, a man who does a mean mille-feuille and is game for a challenge. “Essentially we are food engineers, hungry to learn and be the best we can be.”

Lekkerwater Beach Lodge at De Hoop. DM/TGIFood

All lodges mentioned are fully bio-secure, all Covid-19 protocols observed.

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