Stellenbosch chef Pieter Vlok likes the simple outdoor pleasures of braaiing and fishing and produces dishes that have the same wholesome simplicity
Never underestimate the power of the public to nose out a good restaurant. And many of them have been eagerly following their noses down the Blaauklippen Road just outside Stellenbosch to enjoy and savour the food of up and coming young, country chef, 29-year old Pieter Vlok.
Pieter hasn’t had much time to advertise in the two years since he opened his restaurant in an “empty shell” of a building on Whitey Basson’s mountainside vineyards, Mont Marie.(named after Whitey’s youngest daughter) Pieter has been too busy cooking and creating some very tasty dishes. Over the season every seat in the 150 seater restaurant has been occupied for breakfasts and lunches from Wednesdays to Sundays and for dinners on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays.
“I cook simple, real food and offer bigger portions,” he says, but that is just half the story. The rest is a carefully thought out juxtaposition of flavours with emphasis on his particular hobby horse -- textures. Every dish he maintains should contain something crunchy. So his chicken liver parfait comes with toasty brioche and his springbok loin with crispy leaks and deep fried squid garnish his fish of the day, his most delicious gazpacho is given its own added crunch with lemon and garlic crumbs.
Pieter is 100 percent local, having been born and schooled in Stellenboch where his father is a clinical psychologist and his mother runs her own nursery school. Pieter bowed to his father’s insistence on a degree, a B Com, but once that was done Pieter rushed off to do a short course at the Warwick Chef School in Hermanus. He then was lucky to work with the best in the business. His first job was at Rust en Vrede under David Higgs and he then moved to work with Bertus Basson at Overture where he stayed for the next three years.
He says that he has followed Bertus’ lead in avoiding anything “molecular” and he shares his passion for braaiing. “I just love braaiing,” he says, “and started it at Overture. I built the first smoker there too.” At Mont Marie bachelor Pieter “lives above the shop”, having moved a bed into the office upstairs. He was on the spot one night in the summer when a fire started on the mountain above the vineyards. As he and others on the farm fought the fire they saw many very large cobras rushing out from the flaming bush. Such excitement and drama seemed far away from the tranquil scene in front of the restaurant on a crowded weekday when we visited. The large dam with a flock of white ducks was marble smooth and the mountains, green and verdant in the early morning light.
As most chefs will tell you Pieter uses only the freshest and best ingredients that he can find, something that he takes seriously enough to send produce back that does not match up to his stringent standards. And menus just have to be adjusted
according to what is freshest and available. “The menu is printed on an A4 sheet so it is very easy to rush upstairs and print out a new one,” says Pieter. The menu in any event is changed every two weeks “There is many a day that I send produce back to the suppliers and then have to go out and do the shopping myself,” he says. His favourite ingredients are salt and lemon juice. “Lemon juice,” he maintains, “changes everything.”
Pieter is a gentle soul who believes in a quiet approach in the kitchen, a true countryman who loves to cook outdoors and to fish, which he does as often as he can take time off to stay in his parents holiday house in Onrus on the coast. He recently visited China, at the invitation of a happy customer. He ate at many Michelin star restaurants but it was on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong that he tasted dog and snake. “Snake,” he says, “ tastes, awful, like eating cartilage. Dog tastes rather like mutton. “I can just about stomach anything and am prepared to give anything a try, but truly we are so very lucky in this country that we don’t have to resort to such strange and terrible things in our diets,” he says. In the cool depths beneath the restaurant is a maturation cellar used by winemaker Jan “Boland”Coetzee from Vriesenhof Vineyards. There is also a 32-seater private function room decked out rather like a gentleman’s club with leather arm chairs and dark wood and thick rugs. One of the big draws of the restaurant is its family friendly environment with a play area corralled with a low latter fence. A great many local mothers appeared to park off with their children there for the day.