'A Dream Come True' for the Chef of the Year

by Malu Lambert

Jodi-Ann Pearton says you need to cook with your heart and not be afraid of messing things up—good advice for those of us who struggle in the kitchen.

How did it feel to win the Unilever competition? 

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When I won the Junior Chef of the Year title in 2007 I decided then and there that in the following two years I would win the Senior title and By Invite Only titles in as many years. I was told by many people that it had never been done before, that I was a girl, that I was too young and so on. That made me want it even more. I went on to win the Senior title in 2008 and then this year, the By Invite Only Chef of the Year title. Winning all three has been the most phenomenal experience. It is a dream come true. I always say, believe in your dreams for you are the only one who can make them come true. 

What five ingredients are always in your kitchen?
Loads of lemon, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and of course, excellent olive oil.

Tell me your favourite thing about your husband.
John Paul is an incredible, and fairly famous, mountain biker—although his day job is engineering. It’s difficult to choose what I love the most. He’s always so happy, never stops smiling and never has a bad word to say about anyone or anything.

What, in your opinion, are the top three restaurants in the world?
That is a very difficult question. From the restaurants I have been to, I would rate The ‘French Laundry’ in Napa as number one—I’m a bit biased as I worked there. ‘Per Se’ in New York is a close second, and ‘Nobu’, third. The reason I chose these three is purely because the all-round experience I had at these restaurants was profound. The quality of the food, the ambience, the service, as well as the food hangovers the next day, were all so great.

Did you study to become a chef? 
I did indeed. I studied at Silwood Kitchen in Cape Town. But, what was very beneficial to my learning experience was the fact that I have been blessed with great mentors all the way through my career. This includes people such as Garth Shnier, Billy Gallagher, Marli Roberts and Bertus Basson—they have all invested a lot of time and effort to help me become who I am today.

Do you remember the first dish you ever cooked professionally?
Yes. Bread rolls at the Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park. I was a first year student doing a two-week internship during a holiday.

Do you have any advice for budding cooks?
Sure, let’s see. Cook with your heart; don’t be scared of messing up anything. Nothing is ever a mistake but rather a learning curve. Oh, and never ever use sub-standard ingredients.

What is the top mistake a novice makes in cooking? 
Not seasoning food enough.

Do you have any embarrassing moments culinary or otherwise?
Oh, yes. I once served a smoked salmon sandwich to a very high profile guest with the plastic still on the salmon! This was while I was a second-year student at a high-end hotel in Cape Town.

What’s your favourite movie of all time? 
It has to be Pretty Woman. It shows how every woman, no matter how humble the history, has the potential to be something great.

Did you always want to be a chef? 
I worked my way through school determined to be a vet and so when I left school I went to TUKS to pursue this dream. After one year I detested it and decided to follow a passion rather than study in a field just because I could. I believe life is too short to spend most of it wading through a career you hate.

What other cuisine do you admire?
I love them all. I love food and flavours. I think that Asian cuisine is amazing. The ingredients and flavour profiles are just wonderful.

In your opinion, what has been the most important food trend in the last five years? 
The movement towards ‘green’ food. I think consumers should be aware of their carbon footprint and of their health. The concept of green food is great—it’s organic, natural, fresh, seasonal, the focus is on fair trade, and it incorporates biodegradable packaging principles. Are these not concepts that encompass everything that we should be striving to do and be in the world at the moment? I think so.

What ingredient do you not like? 
Raw tomato. Sounds bizarre I know. When I was a child I loved tomato but then my big brother told me it was a monkey’s brain, and ever since then I have had a physco-simatic reaction to it.  I just can’t eat it raw. Cooked in any way, blended, braised, fried, roasted, I love it. But the grainy, watery, fleshy things that they are raw, I just can’t stand. Although, I still cook with raw tomato, as long as I don’t have to eat it.

What are the key elements in a visually striking dish?
Balance, form, composition and colour. Food is eaten with the eyes first and so it needs to be interesting and beautiful. An unbalanced plate or an ugly plate will be less appealing from the start and will set a bad impression in the diner’s mind before they even taste the food.

Tell me about your time working at the French Laundry restaurant.
It was an incredible establishment to work for. The principles of good cookery and workmanship are put to the test daily. My experiences are so vast I would need to write a book to share them all with you. The most valuable lesson I learnt was, nothing beats using the very best ingredients and then working as a team to turn them into an unforgettable meal. Every second spent in that kitchen was a blessing.

Tell me about your company Food Design Agency. What inspired you to start it?

I started my business in April 2008. I love the creative side of the industry and this inspired me to begin the company. We do product development, recipe development, food styling, celebrity cheffing and much more on every level.

Jodi and John live in Johannesburg near the zoo. They like to spend their time outdoors, mountain biking, walking and horse riding or simply soaking up the European ambience of Melrose Arch with steaming cups of coffee. What’s the kitchen utensil Jodi can’t live without?  It’s her micro-plane grater.

Click here for Jodi-Ann’s Chocolate Pot recipe.