Roland Trettl meets David Higgs

Roland Trettl in South Africa

Top chef David Higgs has easily played his way into the hearts of his diners in World Cup host country South Africa. Roland Trettl went to meet him.

Of course I'm mad about football and my joy at the World Cup is unbounded, which is just one reason why at least one Hangar 7 guest chef for 2010 had to come from World Cup host country South Africa.Anyone who sees Rust en Vrede restaurant in the internationally famous Stellenbosch wine region for the first time is overcome simply by its setting in the extremely manicured gardens. But immediately afterwards you get the shock of the high-tech kitchen, visible on three sides from the restaurant, which appears to be the size of a caravan.

Just four people can work there, including chef David Higgs, and that's for 60 discerning guests, night after night. The 39 year-old South African must be totally organised and prepared to make a virtue out of necessity. In other words, cook a very clear range of dishes and dispense with major technical frippery in the interests of voluntary self control. Of course it goes without saying that the "mise en place", in other words the stations in the kitchen where salads and accompaniments are prepared, is absolutely top drawer.

The surprising thing is that David's creations are so harmonious that it's impossible to tell that technical kitchen issues are responsible for the pared-down plates. Take his very briefly seared tuna with fromage blanc, romano hearts and granita of the lemon-like yuzu fruit. The cheese's refreshing coolness, the crispy lettuce, the melting texture of the tuna is an absolute taste explosion, despite the light touch with the preparation.

David takes the same line with his crayfish, which he serves on risotto spiced with South African curry, accompanied by wafer-thin mango rolls and cashew nuts. Once again, it's the combination that does the trick – the mild sweetness of the crayfish, the risotto's heat, the fruity freshness of the mango and the crunchy nuts ignite oral fireworks.So much for the food, now to the wine. I make no bones about the fact that I think the subject of wine with food is rather overrated. I simply find many sommeliers to be too conceited, so rarely does this profession find wines that really go with food without thrusting themselves into the limelight. Obviously I was prepared for anything in this regard at Rust en Vrede.Not only is sommelier Neil Grant known far and wide as a master of his trade, no, the restaurant also belongs to one of South Africa's best wineries. With this combination it could be very easy for the food to quickly get pushed into second place.

That couldn't be further from the truth. What was poured into my glass to accompany the individual dishes during my visit was so harmonious, so complementary and so flavour-enhancing, all I can say is combining food and wine really makes sense here.What is also surprising is that David Higgs was neither taught by great chefs, nor has he ever worked outside South Africa. It is all the more astounding that he regards his style as classical, with its roots in French cuisine. If you ask me, I think that David primarily succeeds in conjuring South Africa's culinary best onto a plate with a totally independent, very direct style, and in World Cup year 2010 this means that the real winners will be our guests when David Higgs cooks at Hangar 7 in April.

Recorded by Christoph Schulte. Photos: Craig Kolesky; Helge Kirchberger / Red Bull Photofiles

Rust en Vrede

PO Box 473
Stellenbosch 7599
South Africa

Tel.: +21 / 881-3881
Fax: +21 / 881-3000

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