Conversations about the issue of food that is thrown away are important, but the subject is seldom sexy or stylish. Not any more – Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel has enlisted its chefs to create sumptuous, five-star dishes from food that’s usually discarded. Anna Trapido tucks in.
It is almost impossible to imagine a more opulent and elegant dining destination than Cape Town’s Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. The oak-panelled Lord Nelson restaurant sparkles with chandeliers, champagne and silver service. The menu allows for old school indulgence as oysters compete with caviar and cognac for customer attention.
It’s all gloriously grand, but there is another eating experience available. A booking is all that is required to go behind the swinging doors into the hotel’s kitchen. In an alcove amid the pots and pans is the Chef’s Table. This tiny, bistro-style spot has four tables and a menu on a chalkboard, and diners have ringside seats from which to watch superbly skilled chefs while they work.
It is not just the kitchen context that sets Chef’s Table apart – the 5-course dining experience is part of an important epicurean experiment aimed at reducing food waste and increasing the hotel’s ecological sustainability. Executive chef Rudi Liebenberg explains that he set some of his chefs the challenge of creating a menu made entirely from ingredients that would usually be discarded. The dynamic, young team has deliciously risen to the challenge.
Baker Togara Mabharani explains that everything on offer, even the breads, has lived another life.
“Each day, I take the old sourdough bread that doesn’t get used after service in the restaurant and I soak it in water to form a thick slurry, then I combine that with my sour preferment. With the addition of flour, salt and water as needed, I make new doughs.”
The result is the best bread in Cape Town, and it is made even more magnificent by the addition of smoked marrow bone butter.
As he serves sea trout tartare (created from the otherwise unused collar of the fish) sous chef Dion Vengatass says that, “in some restaurants, up to 50% of a fish can end up not being used. That makes me uncomfortable. I grew up in a house where we ate everything. We even fought over who got the fish eyes.”
He explains that the accompanying aioli sauce is made from the egg yolks left over from making meringues (which only require the whites) and the stylish rice cracker garnish is “rice leftovers that I blend, dehydrate and then fry like popadoms”.
And so the meal flows through confit lamb necks and smoked tomato offcuts until it ends with pastry chef Biatha Nkomo’s exquisite apple jelly with marmalade panna cotta. She explains that the marmalade for the dessert is made with the orange rind left over after the hotel squeezes the fruit for juice for customers’ breakfast.
Engaging with issues of food waste is an important issue, but it is seldom done in a way that’s interesting or stylish. These chefs have transformed what might otherwise feel like a pedantic PC project into an art form. Every plate reveals a profound and intimate reverence for ingredients. Respect is made manifest not just in the use of parts of plants and animals that might otherwise have been rejected, but also in the attention to detail paid to flavour pairings. Each element in this beautiful meal is designed to bring out the essential integrity of the product. In such a situation, eating feels like a prayer.