By Malu Lambert
Photography C&D Heierli
“Yes chef!” acknowledges senior sous chef Archie, shaking an aerosol whipping canister. Shake, shake. Archie presses the nozzle down and points it towards a martini glass. It goes ‘p-f-f-f-t’. A dribble of martini foam sinks into the glass. “The gelatine ones are always tricky,” says Margot Janse, executive chef of Le Quartier Français.
Today Margot and Archie find themselves, not in the spacious and technologically-advanced kitchen of the Tasting Room, but in the poky kitchen usually reserved for room service at the adjacent Four Quarters. They haven’t been demoted; they’re simply throwing a party. The kitchen tea of Nikki Friedman (niece of Susan Huxter, owner of LQF), to be exact.
The theme is canapés by the pool. The weather is playing along too and the sun is dancing on the water. Jugs of Vanilla and Citrus Water are placed around the pool; so are bright stripy towels. Nikki is wearing a pair of angel wings which Margot bought for her.
“When deciding on a theme for a canapé party, you should be led by the season, and by the produce,” says Margot. “See what’s out there first and then plan your theme around the produce—not the other way around.
“A kitchen tea,” she says, “is like a high tea—you want to have pretty little sweet things and pretty little savoury things. Whimsical stuff. Food that is funky and happy.”
A waiter walks out of the kitchen with a tall glass filled with Truffled Sweetcorn Soup and Popcorn Foam. “Here, taste it,” says Archie, proffering a spoon of foam. And, guess what? It tastes exactly like popcorn. “It easy to make,” he says. “Sweat some onions, pop the corn, add it to the onions, and then add a litre of milk. Bring it to the boil and cook for five minutes. Blend, strain, add some lecithin, and foam up.”
The dish is deeply imaginative; Margot and her team had spent two days planning and preparing all the canapés. “It’s great working with Archie,” she says. “We bounce ideas off each other. He says I talk in sounds. I go ‘humph’ and ‘fshhh’. And he says, ‘Yes, chef!’ He gets it.”
Planning in advance is a good idea when throwing a party. “Plan it in such a way that most of it can be done the day or week before,” says Margot. “On the day you should do the finishing touches only. And, if you can, get assistance.”
“Where the fork are the forks?” says Archie. The cramped kitchen is getting quite cluttered. He finds a fork and starts mixing a Crayfish Salad. Once that’s done, he pipes cauliflower purée into a black olive cone and spoons some of the salad on top. The cone is quite amazing. It resembles a sheet ofnori (Japanese seaweed used in sushi), and it’s made out of black olive purée, fennel and squid ink. Only once he explains the ingredients does the cone make any sense.
“You have to explain the food to people,” says Archie. “And not because we’re trying to confuse anyone. I think people enjoy the element of surprise when they find out what a dish is actually made of.”
The jokes stop. In their place is a focused silence. Prep is over and the team is plating more canapés. “You always have to think visually,” says Margot. “Gone are the days when canapés are a blob of pâté on a piece of toast. You have to make it look good. Serve the canapés in interesting crockery or glassware, and get creative with cutlery too.”
Any tips on making a budget stretch? “I love foie gras,” says Margot, “but I don’t need it to make an occasion special. Something as simple as the pea ice cream we use on the Spring Tartlets can be exciting. It’s the time you put in, not the money.
“There’s also a lot of frothing up and making jellies. It’s about imaginative thinking. For example, take a potato and think of all the things you can do with it, and then serve it in something beautiful.”
The Beetroot and Liquorice Terrine, with Apple Purée and Pickled Walnut definitely lives up to this ethos—simple, inventive and tasty. The beetroot dominates the terrine in colour, but the liquorice is evident and refreshing, balanced by the nutty and slightly acidic walnut flavour.
Margot’s favourite tipple is Méthode Cap Classique, and she thinks it’s the perfect drink for a party. She also thinks cocktails go hand in hand with canapés. “As for matching food and wine, it’s more difficult if you’re not sitting down at a table concentrating on the food and wine combination. Also, people like to drink different things. When the food is lighter, lighter drinks pair well.”
It’s time to serve the sweets. Melissa, the pastry chef, is at the stove melting Champagne Jelly. Once it is liquid, she froths it up with a fork so that it bubbles. “You dip in a marshmallow,” says Melissa, doing so, “and the bubbles set around it.”
Serving dessert at a canapé party can be tricky. So what should you take into consideration?
“Number one,” says Margot, “it must be easy to eat, quick. Think of it in the same way you would savoury. Also plan in terms of bites, one or two. If it’s more than two bites you’ll need cutlery.”
The marshmallows are paired with dainty Lemon Meringue Tarts, the tops of which are decorated with miniature meringues. Chocolate Truffles circulate on mirrors, and the partygoers quickly snap up wobbly Amarula Panna Cottas with Fudge Foam and Smoked Salt.
How many people should be invited? “If the party’s too big you lose something,” says Margot. “Rather have an intimate gathering of close friends with great food and cocktails. Those are the memorable parties.
“Also remember to ask people before the time if they have any dietary requirements, and do a combination of canapés so that some of them are vegan/vegetarian. Make sure there’s a wide enough variety.”
As for children at an adult party, Margot says you need to look after them too. “They need to have their own little party,” she says. “Make snacks with a party feel. If the food looks like party food, Thomas (her son) will eat it. I sometimes stick a toothpick in the food we eat at home.”
Champagne glasses are refilled while Nikki opens her presents. Snatches of conversation float up amongst the guests, “I never get to eat like this…” and “Oh, that corn soup was amazing,” and “How was that plum jelly!”
Aerosol whipping canisters, pots and prep are packed away. The kitchen is calm again. The frenzy of service abates. Margot still can’t seem to sit still, though. Every two seconds she’s up again, chatting to a member of staff or offering champagne to dry-handed guests.
There are some tense moments in the kitchen (such as when the pea ice cream keeps falling off the tarts), but the party comes together in the way Margot wants—as fun. “You need to have fun with it. Don’t be too serious,” she says. “Plenty of champagne helps too, of course.”
Try These Recipes
Black Olive Cone with Cauliflower Purée and Crayfish Salad
Spring Tartlet with Pea Ice Cream
Beetroot and Liquorice Terrine with Apple Purée and Pickled Walnut
Champagne and Orange Juice Granita