At her cookery school in Hilton, award-winning KwaZulu-Natal chef Jackie Cameron puts her creative flair to work on heritage food. “Everything I do has a story to it,” says multi-award winning chef, Jackie Cameron, as she applies the delicate finishing touches to a dish picturesquely named Seaside Mussel Shell with Memories. The memories in question are of family holidays on the beach – “our seaside meanderings”. A much earlier memory is of standing on a chair so she could reach the counter in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“I was kneading bread dough. Granny Dot was patting me on my back, saying, ‘Come on Jackie, put your back into it.’” Doing things properly has become almost a mantra for Jackie who famously honed her art as head chef at Hartford House in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, before beginning this new chapter in her career. This year she realised her long-held dream of opening the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Hilton. “It’s been a 15-year journey to this point,” she says. The school occupies the large thatched house that Jackie grew up in, which has been transformed over the past six years into a superb teaching and functions venue.
She shows us around the expansive property. There’s an impressive boardroom, a purpose-built wine cellar – “my school is the only one in the country that’s internationally accredited for both food and wine”, three kitchens, a functions area where bespoke cookery classes are held, an outdoor area where Weber Braai classes take place once a month, and the School Outlet.
This is a light-filled space where a couple of gas ranges, a long counter and seriously good coffee give you a sense of being in a trendy little café. On sale are wares made by the students that carry their names – for example, Carla’s Bread. “The biggest challenge for young chefs is to get their names out there,” says Jackie. “The outlet is a chance for them to showcase their skills.” It’s also where the public can seek advice on culinary problems (that flopped meringue, the rubber-like white sauce…) and buy products not normally available in regular retail outlets. Valrhona chocolate from France is a mouth-watering example.
While Jackie is fully behind the ‘support local’ movement – “not just because it’s local but because it’s fabulous” – her exacting standards mean she sometimes has to go further afield. And so most of the equipment in her functions and demonstration kitchens is imported. “It has to last so I buy the best in the world – brands that have stood the test of time.”
In the functions kitchen we meet Jackie’s first students – Carla Schulze, Cara Conway and Kate Cousins. They’re about a third of the way through their 18-month course, and say they love every minute of it, even the less glamorous aspects like cleaning up. The syllabus adheres to the requirements laid down by the City and Guilds of London Institute, but Jackie has added extra modules such as a four-day intensive baking course, a cake-icing course, and a French course to give students insight into French culinary terms and food culture.
There’s also a strong focus on the business aspect of the restaurant industry – sourcing products, dealing with suppliers, costing, accounting, media promotion – all vital in equipping students to succeed in what has become a tough and competitive field. “Things have changed a lot since I went to the Christina Martin School in Durban,” Jackie says. “Back then, for example, the only television celebrity chefs were Floyd and the Two Fat Ladies, and Jamie Oliver was just starting out.” We watch Jackie and the students assemble a range of unique little starters designed to be presented on one table for friends and family to enjoy in a casual environment.
There are little brown open bags with beer-steamed mealie bread, chilli bites and patta with amaqheqhe (amasi strained through a muslin cloth overnight then flavoured with herbs); nori crisp with sesame hake, avocado purée and red onion; beef tongue with samp and beans, granny’s glazed carrots and Freda’s cabbage; hay-smoked beef fillet with ashed leek; porcini duck with crisp, roast vegetables; pork belly terrine with green apple. Jackie describes them as, “Taste delights that can be served with some beautiful craft beer and bubbles.”
As with the Seaside Mussel Shell, each tells a story. The duck dish, for example, came about after Jackie explored the forest behind the school with her sister Sheldeen’s fiancé, Roan. He later presented her with a gift of many different coloured and types of dried mushrooms that he’d foraged. “I’ve been keeping these for a special occasion,” Jackie says. “I felt that the Dargle duck, a celebrated local product that’s won produce awards many times, deserved such a treat. And to me, the slow-dried vegetables lightly coated in handmade butter resemble the forest floor.”
A picture such as that emphasises the creative flair for which Jackie is renowned. Asked how she would describe her style, she immediately says, “Heritage Food,” and defines that as food that takes her back to her roots. Like the Seaside Mussel Shell with Memories.
Beer-steamed mealie bread, chilli bites and patta with amaqheqhe .
Beef tongue with samp and beans, Granny’s glazed carrots and Freda’s cabbage.
Seaside Mussel Shell with Memories.
Hay-smoked beef fillet with ashed leek and leek purée.
Dark Rum and Raisin Truffles
Nori crisp with sesame hake, avocado purée and red onion.
Enjoy the recipe below exclusive to SA Country Life!
Extract from SA Country Life Magazine - January Edition.
All Photography by: SA Country Life.