At Glen Carlou, near Paarl, chef Johan Stander’s elegant, unfussy food pairs perfectly with the Curator’s Collection small-batch wines and panoramic views of vineyard-clad hills.
When I visit Glen Carlou on a clear-skied spring day, thick snow is still visible on the highest mountain peaks in the distance, and the surrounding countryside is a green patchwork of budding vineyards and pastures carpeted in indigenous daisies. For chef Johan Stander, being able to step out of the kitchen to gaze at this expansive, inspirational view is one of the reasons he loves working on the farm.
“Of course, you still have all the usual stress and pressure of working in a busy kitchen, but as soon as you walk out of there, the natural beauty of the surroundings and the rhythm of the seasons – ever-present in the vineyards – puts everything into perspective.”
Johan meets me in front of the fireplace in the spacious restaurant, which has a double-volume thatched roof with exposed trusses and vast glass doors that lead on to a balcony that runs the length of the room. The restaurant forms part of the tasting centre, a welcoming semicircle bar where guests can get to grips with Glen Carlou’s impressive range of wines before a leisurely lunch.
We are sipping particularly good cappuccino – the freshly roasted beans come from nearby Terbodore Coffee Roasters in the Franschhoek Valley – and discussing the evolution of the Restaurant at Glen Carlou from a casual bistro serving burgers (when Johan first started here four years ago) to a serious restaurant where everything is made from scratch. The emphasis is on pairing the estate’s excellent wines with seasonally inspired, classic food with a contemporary twist.
From the beginning, Johan has worked closely with Georgina Prout, who heads up the marketing and PR for Glen Carlou. The two give the impression that everything about the restaurant and the service it offers has been thought about very carefully.
“With summer approaching, it’s exciting to think about what to do with asparagus, berries, watermelon, peaches and figs. When it’s winter, low-and-slow-style cooking with rich sauces, braised and roasted meats, and root vegetables just feels right. You can feel the seasons as they change, and that helps dictate what needs to go on the menu.”
The next step is to sit down with Georgina and Glen Carlou’s winemaker, Arco Laarman, to pair the new dishes with a specific wine. There’s great scope for pairings, from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and full-bodied reds.
“One of my favourite, food-friendly Glen Carlou wines is the Cabernet. I love cooking with lamb, especially the shoulder, shank and sweetbreads. Sometimes we make lamb shank with onions, braised in late-harvest wine and flavoured with cinnamon, turmeric, star anise, coriander and clove, which lifts all the spicy flavours out of the Cabernet.”
One of the virtues of eating at the restaurant is the opportunity to taste Glen Carlou’s exclusive Curator’s Collection, a series of small-batch wines made in limited quantities and only available at the winery, in the restaurant and through the wine club. Wines such as The Curators Collection Chenin Blanc 2015, made from 30-year-old Swartland bush vines, allow the winemaker to be more experimental and express his creativity to the full.
A typical menu includes studies, where one ingredient is presented in various forms. The study of carrots is a plate full of orange-hued goodness: pickled carrots, carrot salad, carrot harissa, whipped tofu, roasted carrot, and rye bread crumble, expertly paired to The Curator’s Collection Viognier.
The chef’s trademark dish is another delicious study – this time of cauliflower: Gruyère-and-cauliflower soufflé, smoked cauliflower purée, cauliflower fondant, and Gruyère-and-coriander froth, a wonderful match with The Curator’s Collection Chenin Blanc.
“The cauliflower soufflé has been a big hit. It appears on the menu fairly regularly, but always with different accompaniments so that it’s never quite the same twice,” explains the soft-spoken chef patiently.
Back in George, Johan’s childhood home was constantly filled with the sweet aromas of baking thanks to his mother’s passion for supplying the local home industry cake shop with scones and Swiss rolls. His memories of that time include the family making a big fuss of birthdays, Christmases and Easters, and always masses of food to celebrate such occasions.
After school and two years into his teaching studies at Potchefstroom University, he decided to call it quits and head back to George, where he did a course in small-business management. Eventually, Johan’s yearning to cook couldn’t be suppressed any longer and he headed down to Cape Town’s Capsicum Cooking school to train as a chef. In-service training at Vergelegen in Somerset West was followed by a couple of years at Cafe Dijon in Stellenbosch before a stint with Reuben Riffel at the original Reuben’s restaurant in Franschhoek.
“Reuben was a hard chef to work for,” says Johan with a smile, “but I regard him as my mentor. He expected a lot from me, but I learnt a lot in his kitchen.”
The non-negotiable rule in Reuben’s kitchen was to never lie to hide anything, he explains.
“It’s a lesson that I’ve passed on to my staff at Glen Carlou. If you’ve forgotten to prepare a component of a dish, like a sauce, rather own up and be honest than lie about it and risk the chef finding out during service, when there’s no margin for error!”
The other rules in his kitchen are equally straightforward: he doesn’t tolerate chefs who lie, steal or turn up late for a shift.
“I also don’t like shelves that are disorganised or finding old food that looks like a science experiment hidden on back shelves in the walk-in fridge or freezer.”
And he’s just as organised at home in Paarl, where he lives with his wife (a business analyst) and two young children.
“My wife commutes to Cape Town every day, so I do most of the cooking at home. It’s less about being creative and more about needing to nourish and feed a five- and a three-year old: The meals that I prepare at home are wholesome, light and quite simple, such as roast lamb or chicken stir-fried pastas.”
The conversation circles back to the things he really loves to put on the menu.
“Lamb! The flavours in slow-roasted shoulder of lamb are hard to beat. It has a nice amount of fat, compared to the leg, which also carries fantastic flavour.”
He describes a lamb dish served with peas, yoghurt, heirloom carrots, thyme polenta and mint sauce, which is best enjoyed with a glass or two of a Glen Carlou Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon.
Johan would like to travel to Sicily, where the food is rustic, simple and ingredient driven.
“I admire the Italians’ insistence on provenance, seasonality and freshness. Take a bowl of fresh pasta as an example. As a chef, there’s nothing to hide behind when making a pasta meal. There is a handful of basic ingredients, and maybe a little bit of sauce. The dish is either right or it is wrong.”
That’s the same reason he admires Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York.
“Again, this is simple food, but very precise. There’s nothing outlandish or strange, no chemicals to manipulate any of the ingredients – just awesome freshness and purity shining through.”
Johan may be surprised to know that this sentiment sums up his own food. His integrity and honesty is evident in the simple plates that come from his kitchen every day. It’s food that hasn’t been fiddled with unnecessarily.
His advice to young chefs starting out?
“Find the right chef to mentor you, learn as much as you can, always ask questions, write everything down and work hard. Also, don’t work in a kitchen where they take shortcuts or act like cowboys.”
Words: Jane Broughton
Photography: Andreas Eiselen
Source: Cape Town Etc. Download full article here.