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South Africa to Sussex - a live fire odyssey

It has been quite a culinary journey already for Jean Delport, cooking Michelin-starred food inside, but drawing his inspiration from outside. Rupert Bates reports

 Rupert Bates   Winter 2020

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I already knew the answer. But was Jean Delport – the young South African chef with a Michelin Star now plying his trade in Sussex, England – any good cooking a braai?

Interlude restaurant at Leonardslee Gardens near Horsham is a theatrical fusion of fine dining and local produce – a tasting menu with intriguing dishes such as forest ashes with celeriac and amazi, flavours of hedgerow with Sussex chocolate and liquorice, to more familiar names like middle white pork, brown crab and baked scallops.

Exquisite, unusual flavours beautifully presented and lovingly foraged from the Grade 1 listed gardens, lakes and woodlands of Leonardslee. Yes, that’s all very haute cuisine and sustainably sourced, but what’s Delport like over a dirty braai?

You can take a South African out of Africa, put him in a restored Grade II listed mansion house and dress him in pristine chef whites. But you can’t remove his food heritage and outdoor culture.

So Delport’s eyes lit up and Interlude’s executive chef went straight back to the Western Cape of his homeland when I suggested he cooked the ‘ultimate braai’ for BBQ magazine.

“When you asked me, I realised I may have been looking at this incorrectly all these years. For me it was always about creating the best food I possibly could on the fire, which is always a great challenge and good fun. I could spend hours prepping up something special, different or that I had yet to experiment with on a fire,” says Delport.

“Maybe it’s the chef in me, trying to uncover and master all the small curious details of a braai. I would always be debating the best way to light the fire; the time the wood would take to burn down; the air flow through the fire; the amount of coals created from different woods and fuels and that’s without starting on the food where it could get really complicated!”

Delport’s stance has now changed, partially, he believes, because a wood-burning braai is not often used in the UK and over here is very seasonal.

“Cooking should be the easy part; chuck it on the coals and cook it how you enjoy it. I now think the ultimate braai requires a less is more approach – good tasty food,

a wood-based fire and time with friends and family in a great setting that allows everyone to relax.”

Of course, while very much now immersed in the West Sussex countryside, loyalty demands that his ultimate braai is on ‘a sunny day in the African bush’.

 

 

We asked him to cook on a wet English weekend in October, but his dukkah-crusted ribeye steak with bone marrow herb butter is to die for in any country, continent, time zone or temperature.

As a chef and a South African, Delport, 31, is always asked what and how to cook over live fire. “I cook what I crave, keeping it simple but full of flavour. The real flavour from the braai comes from the fire itself. Good quality wood that is slow burning, has its own flavour characteristics and gives immense heat is the ultimate goal.”

Back in South Africa Delport says you are spoilt for native choice with hardwoods such as Rooikrans, Sekelbos, Mopani and even Black Wattle.

“But for me the ultimate has to be Kameeldoring. For many braai aficionados, this very dry, heavy wood is the king of braai. Popular in the Western Cape, Kameeldoring grows in arid climates, so it has the lowest moisture levels of any of the hardwoods and gives off a musky aroma,” says Delport. “The biggest tip I can give to create the ultimate braai is always use real firewood. The atmosphere is better and the meat tastier. My favourite over open flame is a good quality, aged beef ribeye steak.”

Delport trained at the Zevenwacht Culinary School on the Zevenwacht wine estate in Stellenbosch, making a name for himself at home and then in Ireland, before moving to England two years ago, where his mother is originally from.

The Interlude story evolved when Delport was chef at the Benguela on Main restaurant at Somerset West just outside Cape Town, working for Penny Streeter, owner of the Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate on Walker Bay.

The Benguela Collection now straddles two continents, with Streeter purchasing Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Estate in Sussex, as well as its neighbour Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens and opening Interlude, creating a South African food, wine and leisure experience in a corner of southern England.

Streeter, born in Zimbabwe before moving to South Africa and then, aged 12, to the UK, rose from living in a homeless refuge with three children to building a business empire and, alongside her wine, hospitality and leisure enterprises, Streeter is CEO of A24 Group, which she founded in 1995, providing work for healthcare professionals in the UK and South Africa.

Streeter brought Delport to Interlude and within ten months of opening the Sussex restaurant had won a Michelin Star.

“So much of Jean’s cooking is inspired by open fire and the food reflects that. I love the way he has brought his heritage, his childhood through onto the tasting menus,” says Streeter.

The 400-acre Mannings Heath embraces braai too, making the most of its outdoor terracing overlooking the parkland of the golf course where many a barbecue is served.

Bringing the wine in from Benguela, Mannings Heath is now about to release the first wines from its own vineyard and the Interlude wine list at Leonardslee is naturally dominated by South Africa too.

In lockdown, videos from Benguela Cove were shared in the UK, matching braai recipes to wine and proving hugely popular.

“We very much see it as the joining of two cultures,” says Streeter, with both the South African and UK flags proudly flying at the entrance to Mannings Heath.

Down the road at Interlude, Delport’s wife Anya is restaurant manager and the South African influence continues with head chef Ruan Pretorius and his wife Mia front of house.

I ask to take away a menu, but instead Delport gives me a map. That’s where the Wallabies bounce, the deer roam. There are the bees for the restaurant honey, chickens for the eggs, the chestnuts, almonds and mushrooms, trees aplenty and the vineyard.

It may not be his native South Africa, but as Delport walks the Sussex estate, he is transported back to the family farm, where he hunted, fished and foraged as a boy.

Was his braai any good? You bet it was.

 


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