By Malu Lambert
Photography C&D Heierli
The lambs stare blankly at one another. The herd is positioned playfully in a circle. Made out of wire, they’re a touch of quirkiness in the otherwise elegant setting of Le Quartier Français’sgarden. They are much like Margot Janse, LQF’s executive chef. There is a general air of quirkiness and mischief about her. But she is also poised and dedicated.
The quirkiness is everywhere. Chandeliers hang down from the ceiling adorned with everything from buttons to colourful cutlery. Curious art and photography hang on crimson walls in the entrance hall. And the furniture is a blend of texture and colour. There’s no dull uniformity here.
That being said, everything has its carefully-chosen place.
Inside The Tasting Room restaurant, hot pink and orange chairs are placed side by side. While this may seem like an incongruous arrangement, here it looks just right. This spirit in the décor is also followed through in the food. Expect creative and unusual dishes. Like Lemon-poached Crayfish Tail with Prawn Wafer and Marshmallow. You can choose between a menu of eight or five courses paired with wine, or not, if you prefer.
We’re looking at the wire herd through the glass doors of The Tasting Room. “They’re there to commemorate the lamb burger,” Margot says.Apparently the lamb burger was once the most asked for dish at iCi—the more relaxed, café-style restaurant. “But it had to go,” she says. “It is not what we believe in here. We move on and we move forward.
“People were quite upset about it, so we decided to hold a wake for the burger. Amazingly, 90 people came. I got dressed up for it—I was in mourning for my burger—I wore these long gloves. It was very dramatic. I even gave a speech. We gave out ‘hymn’ sheets, and when I started to sing, everyone sang along. A roomful of people singing ‘Goodbye my burger, goodbye my friend…’”
I’m here to watch Margot and learn a bit about what goes on in the Tasting Room’s kitchen. The kitchen is split in two; the front area is for iCi and towards the back is The Tasting Room. It’s not long before I’m given an apron and put to work. “Push, wiggle. Wiggle, push,” Margot says inserting the knife into the opening of an oyster. The oyster is cushioned under a folded cloth. It’s folded in a way that not only protects your hand, but also gives you some leverage to work with. “When the oyster pops open,” she says, “turn it on the side and pop it again, find the muscle and scrape through.” It’s a surprisingly easy shucking method.
Margot is preparing the Warm Gingered Oyster with Carrot Foam and Bacon Crumbs. Once the oysters are out of their shells they’re warmed in a ginger poaching liquid.
Soon it’s time to make the carrot foam. Foam is one of those mystical kitchen techniques. How do you make it so shiny and fluffy? And how does it keep its shape? Why doesn’t it deflate?
“The trick is a teaspoon of lecithin,” says Margot. “It’s a soybean powder that can be used as an emulsifier, thickener or stabiliser. You can find it at Dis-Chem. Just add it to fresh carrot juice and whip it with a hand blender, incorporating air until the foam bubbles up.” It’s that simple.
She builds the delicate starter on a layer of ginger jelly. The foam rests against the oyster like glistening orange coral and a carrot tuile (thin biscuit) acts as scaffolding. While the main flavours are quintessentially South African—ginger and carrot—the textures, layers and flavours of this dish are simply out of this world.
Over by the stove, Margot introduces her sous chef. “This is Archie,” she says.
He winks and says in a Scottish brogue, “Otherwise known as Margot’s whipping boy.”
Margot looks mock offended and smacks him with a tea towel.
Annemarie joins in the laughter. Annemarie is Margot’s right hand lady, and the Culinary Concierge. Her rather grand title basically means that she will be running the upcoming culinary classes, where people will be able to learn the culinary tricks of the trade, such as de-boning a chicken, for instance. Tailor-made culinary sessions with guests, tastings and culinary outings will also be on offer.
The next dish we’re making is a Jerusalem Artichoke and Buchu Risotto. Archie is at the stove and he starts it off. The Jerusalem artichoke is a strange tubular vegetable, and it’s at the centre of this dish, first in the form of a purée that’s added to the risotto, giving it a deep and satisfying creaminess, then, when the dish is plated, it’s served topped with pickle slices and crispy chips. But before Archie can plate it, Margot comes over and dips her spoon in. After a taste, Archie says, “Boss tastes it.” Margot adds a pinch of salt. “Boss fixes it, and boss tastes it again,” he says with a grin. “Only then can you can plate it.”
“I don’t like sweet, sweet food,” Margot says, as she starts to plate the Naartjie and Buttermilk Cannelloni with Raw Jersey Milk Fennel Sherbet. “It’s a family thing, and if something’s too sugary it burns my throat. For me dessert should have balance. This dessert has the savoury fennel element and the acidity of the naartjie. Annemarie and I researched this dessert for a long time. It took a lot of playing around with ideas to get it right,” Margot says as she spoons on the fennel sherbet.
The plated dessert resembles a modern abstract painting. Neatly-placed geometric shapes, livened up by true colour—the bright orange of the cannelloni and the deep green of the sherbet.
Inspiration for desserts like this can come from anywhere and everywhere. Margot’s idea for the sherbet came about one day after a phone call with a friend who has a farm in Paarl. He told her that he had some raw jersey milk, and asked if she wanted it.
“Immediately it reminded me of my childhood in Holland, when we would get our milk delivered to our doors in bottles with a blue foil top, you know the kind, with the floating cream. When we all sat down for dinner, I would make some excuse, like I needed to fetch something from the cupboard in the kitchen. But instead I would go to the fridge and suck the cream off the top of the milk with a straw.”
Margot is inspired by a lot of things—sometimes by produce, sometimes by reading, and always through eating. “I suppose chefs think differently from the average person,” she says. “We think mostly about food. I can see, taste or just read about an ingredient and start to brainstorm a new dish. You have to think it first. Taste it in your mind.”
But the people around her are also an inspiration. It is late afternoon and Margot’s out in the garden with owner Susan and managing director Linda. The three of them are giggling like schoolgirls while they pose for photos. Their camaraderie and affection are evident. It’s the amiable working environment that allows Margot to have total creative control. That’s her key ingredient.
Try These Recipes