La Colombe’s James Gaag on his residency at Red Bull Hangar-7’s Restaurant Ikarus

Executive chef at Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant of the Year James Gaag was invited to participate in Red Bull Hangar-7’s renowned guest chef concept. The architectural marvel, based in Salzburg, Austria, is home to historic aircraft and F1 race cars, as well as the acclaimed Restaurant Ikarus, where each month a new chef takes the helm, offering a menu that is an exact replica of what you’d get in their own restaurant. James shares insights into his experience there and how he hopes it will influence the cooking and food at SA’s top restaurant.

Can you share your initial reaction when you first found out about the opportunity to be a chef-in-residence at Red Bull Hangar-7’s Restaurant Ikarus?

I obviously knew about Hangar-7 and have followed them for quite some time. It’s a really unique concept. I was completely bowled over receiving the invite. Our residency was actually in the works since 2020. I was supposed to go in June that year, but had to cancel due to COVID. When they first announced our residency back then, they had sourced a special 12L Luddite bottle for the event. Pretty cool that they kept that aging in anticipation of our time there in March this year.

james gaag

How did the invite actually happen?

I remember I was standing in the kitchen and a package arrived…. I thought it might be a nice gift from a supplier or similar. There was a black box with ‘Hangar-7’ tape around it. I opened it up and I could not believe what I was reading and realised what it actually was. I opened a box to find a golden aeroplane ticket addressed to me along with the previous year’s Ikarus Invites the World’s Best Chefs cookbook. To be included amongst the world’s most renowned chefs on the list was unfathomable and I suppose in some ways, daunting.

What did you most look forward to in terms of showcasing South African cuisine on an international stage?

It was an incredible privilege and honour and although quite daunting, at the same time, unbelievably exciting. The whole experience was surreal, watching my food being recreated with as much attention to detail and care as back home. What was also very rewarding was to share the experience with my team, both in Cape Town when Martin was in the kitchen with us, but also the opportunity to take some of my team with me to experience the kitchen in Salzburg. It was very rewarding to see them enjoy the experience as much as I did.

As the only chef from Africa invited this year, did you feel any added pressure, and how did you plan to represent the culinary diversity of SA and the continent? 

Obviously I felt the pressure as the only African chef invited, but I think the main focus was on showcasing our food as best we could and to show the world that Africa is right up there, has an amazing food scene and can hold its own globally.

james gaag

Can you describe the process of creating your menu for Restaurant Ikarus? Did you draw inspiration from specific South African flavours or ingredients?

The process was really in two parts: Martin Klein, the executive chef, visited me a few months prior to my residency in Salzburg. The purpose of which is to basically study the way we work and prepare the different dishes. That in itself was quite nerve-wracking, having a 2 Michelin star chef with so much experience in your kitchen. Martin and I then discussed the menu I had in mind and any changes that needed to be made in terms of ingredients – availability, seasonality etc. The whole concept of Ikarus is to recreate the guest chef’s menu to as close as possible in Austria, which I think we ultimately achieved.

How did you anticipate the dining experience at Restaurant Ikarus would differ from that of La Colombe, and how did you adapt your cooking style for this, if at all?

I think the dining experience is made up of so many factors, from the wait staff, chefs, wine experience but also the space itself. I wanted to give the diners of Salzburg as close to an experience of La Colombe as I possibly could. So in terms of cooking style, plating etc, we did everything exactly the same as back home. We foraged all the different fynbos from behind the restaurant and recreated the dove’s nest to take with us, as well as a few ceramics and wooden serving vessels. I think it worked out well. It definitely gave Ikarus a totally different look and feel.

james gaag

Can you share any insights into the collaboration process with the team at Hangar-7? 

As I mentioned, Martin Klein joined me in Cape Town about two months prior in order to study the chef and the restaurant so that he is able to recreate the dishes as closely as possible to the menu and experience back in Salzburg. The idea is not to serve something similar, but to recreate the dishes exactly as they are served at La Colombe. Obviously certain items needed to change from a supply point of view, which was actually such fun as it gave us the opportunity to work with products we were not ordinarily able to get hold of in SA.

What was a key standout moment for you during the experience?

That’s hard to answer or describe. The entire experience was incredible and quite surreal. To be invited to Ikarus alongside some of the biggest names in gastronomy was very humbling but also amazing to have had the privilege of showcasing our food on an international stage. The Hangar-7 team was very professional, engaging, interested and welcoming.

What do you hope diners took away from their experience dining at Restaurant Ikarus during your residency?

First and foremost I hope that all the diners had a delicious meal and left with an everlasting memory of a phenomenal experience. I also hope we shone some light on the food scene in Cape Town and maybe sparked the interest of some more international foodies to visit South Africa and Africa.

How do you think this experience will influence your future cooking at La Colombe?

It will inspire me to keep testing, innovating and trying new things. It reassures me that we are moving the food and the restaurant in the right direction.


La Colombe at Silvermist – Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant of the Year 2023

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring chefs who dream of one day participating in similar international chef exchanges?

Work hard and do your best every single day. Be dedicated and genuinely interested in your craft. Don’t ask for recognition. Hard work will always be recognised and rewarded.

Images: Nick Muzik / Red Bull Content Pool, Candice Bresler

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