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The 2016 Chef of the Year: our Picasso of the plate

Chef Gregory Czarnecki

Chef Gregory Czarnecki. Photo by Jan Ras.

The 2016 Eat Out S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year is Gregory Czarnecki of The Restaurant at Waterkloof.

If you don’t already follow Gregory Czarnecki on Instagram, do it right now. The @czarneckigregory feed is an otherworldly landscape of angles and cool greys juxtaposed with colourful pop-art and bright crystalline shards. But these are no ordinary sculptures – they’re actually edible, and you can order them for yourself at The Restaurant at Waterkloof in Somerset West.

In the fantastical glass box that clings to the mountainside above the vineyards, French-born chef de cuisine Gregory transforms the most humble and honest of seasonal ingredients – free-range eggs, farm-reared lamb, and a variety of herbs and vegetables grown on the biodynamic Waterkloof Wine Estate – into art.

Gregory’s development over the last few years, refining his breathtaking plating and light touch for flavour, is why The Restaurant at Waterkloof was first nominated in 2013 and 2014, and then moved up from number six in 2015 to third position in this year’s Top 10.

“Greg’s dishes shine with confidence and showcase immense skill and rigorous attention to detail. His presentation is more than perfect, which offers an incredible eating experience,” says chief judge Abigail Donnelly.

Belnori Forest Phantom, hibiscus, pollen, pistachio and apple balsamic

Belnori Forest Phantom, hibiscus, pollen, pistachio and apple balsamic. Photo by Jan Ras.

As one of the chefs cooking for the 700 guests at the 2016 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards, Gregory presented a plate of local cheeses with flavours of hibiscus, apple, pistachio, matcha, apricot, lemon and morello cherry. Dexterity with delicate flavours such as these demonstrates a sensitive palate and skillful hand.

He’s also taken a shine to stone fruits, porcini, berries and all things floral. He says, “The seasons bring you the best of nature, and these things are here for a limited time only. It’s really exciting.”

Being thrilled by something as simple and transient as a fresh mushroom, Gregory is clearly an artist. His passionate words cast no doubt: “Inspiration can be found everywhere; we are surrounded by it, from the seasons to paintings and flower arrangements. From fallen leaves to a certain colour palette or a fruit, anything can bring me inspiration.”

While he counts chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park Restaurant in New York (currently number three in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants) as one of his heroes, Gregory had a somewhat gentler introduction to his future career. Daniel famously began working in kitchens at age 14, but our honorary South African (Gregory peppers his speech with “ja” and “like”) had finished school and was about to head off to university when he spent a week in a restaurant close to his home town in France.

Those few days changed his life: “After that, I knew things would never be the same. I always loved food but the passion had turned into an obsession. I left everything and started my career.”

Now Gregory conjures up magic in his mountain lair that impresses travellers and locals alike, showcasing South African flavours using classic techniques. The success is hard-won, however. His biggest critic is himself: “I think the ultimate goal for me is to create and reproduce a dish exactly how I envision it. Every aspect: flavours, plating and textures… It’s always a big challenge. Sometimes
my ideas just never materialise because of that.”

Judge Carianne Wilkinson is impressed by the chef’s high standards: “He runs a disciplined and highly structured kitchen. Gregory is a plating genius, our very own chef Picasso.”

This combination of flair and restraint is surely thanks to his experience and pedigree. According to judge David Higgs, “His experience of working with one of the best chefs in Paris in a three-star Michelin restaurant, together with an incredibly creative mind, means he puts together some of the most thought-provoking food in South Africa at the moment. Incredible presentation backed-up by delicate flavours makes him hard to beat.”

While still a young – rather dashing – man himself, Gregory has some sage advice for other young and aspiring chefs. “Work hard, read, ask questions and practice makes perfect. Just like Fernand Point once said, ‘A béarnaise sauce is simply an egg yolk, a shallot, a little tarragon vinegar, and butter, but it takes years of practice for the result to be perfect.’”

On his win, the chef said, “To my team at Waterkloof, I’d like to give a big thanks. They deserve the recognition because they work so hard everyday. I go to work every day to do what I love.

“This is unbelievable. I’ve seen this award being given to chefs like David Higgs, Chantel Dartnall and Luke Dale-Roberts, and I am really honoured to be receiving it today. There are some good times, and some hard times, but to receive this award makes it all worth it.”

The S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year

Distributed in over 130 countries on all five continents, S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna represent excellence and Italian style. S.Pellegrino, a world-famous sparkling water, is synonymous with gourmet food and wine culture in particular, and is renowned for its support of emerging and established chef talent. The Eat Out S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year Award is one such initiative, recognising an outstanding chef working in South Africa.

For more on this award, visit our dedicated page.

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