I’m posting reviews of Adam Mason and Peter Tempelhoff’s Marvelous and Yardstick wines this week, so I thought I’d set the mood with a profile I wrote on Chef Templehoff last year for Wine Style Magazine.
Image Source: The Collection by Liz Mcgrath
“I did an aptitude test.” This is not the answer one expects when you ask a chef how they got into cooking. A life-long love affair with food, perhaps, a quirky anecdote of how his mother couldn’t keep him out of the kitchen; or maybe even an engaging tale of how he perfected a complicated soufflé first try, when he was 8. But no, when I asked Peter Tempelhoff – Executive Chef overseeing the 6 Relais Chateaux restaurants within ‘The Collection by Liz McGrath’ – how he became a chef, he told me he took a test.
At the time he was sleeping all night and working all day as a lumberjack. He calls it ‘tree-felling’, but if you take one look at the man you can easily imagine him in a plaid shirt swinging an axe. Recently back from the US, 26 year-old Tempelhoff took an aptitude test in-between all the timber felling. While you already know that cheffing was the result, what Peter may have been is quite amusing. The other options the test results suggested were accountancy and refuse removal. While I have no trouble seeing Peter fell trees, it’s harder to imagine him as a tie wearing pencil pusher, or hanging off the back of a rubbish truck careening around the suburbs.
Though Peter does admit while working as a waiter and barmen in the States he did find the other side of the pass more attractive. “It was much cooler with the flames, and the chefs were shouting and shit. Clearing tables and speaking to guests and kissing ass, I hated that,” he told me, chuckling.
Probing further back he said he has always enjoyed cooking, and as a kid would experiment with flavours. He remembers cooking dinner for his folks and throwing “odd combinations together, chucking olives into this, and ham into that. A lot were misses, but some were hits.”
Thankfully his cooking has progressed from throwing around bits and ham and olives. Accepting the test’s score, Peter grabbed the last remaining spot at the newly opened Institute of Culinary Arts in Cape Town and graduated top of his class in 1996. When he told his friends of his new career they didn’t quite get it. One, Peter told me, said “isn’t that a job for homosexuals?” But this was in Durban, in 1996, and Peter used to cut down trees, so maybe that sort of question was to be expected.
Peter, of course, knew this was total bollocks and went off to work at the Grand Roche under Grand Chef, Frank Zlomke for two years.
Next stop was London. He started off in his sister’s joint, a little bar called Mono in Crouch End, cooking dim sum. They took him in, paid him cash, and he survived in London without a work permit. One of the barmen at Mono was a good friend of Curtis Stone – now an Australian celebrity chef – who was sous chef under the even more famous Marco Pierre White at White’s Quo Vadis restaurant. That was Peter’s gap, he took it.
From there Peter moved up through the ranks in London working at Michelin starred restaurants Hambleton Hall with Aaron Patterson and Zafferano with Giorgio Locatelli, before taking over as Executive Chef at Automat in Mayfair. This quickly became one of the places to eat in London.
That was then. Now, after a brief but successful stint at Grand Provance in Franschhoek, Peter oversees the 6 Relais Chateaux restaurants within ‘The Collection by Liz McGrath’. The Greenhouse – Eat Out’s 2011 restaurant of the year – The Conservatory and The Cape Malay Experience restaurants at the Cellars Hohenort in Cape Town, Seafood and The Pavilion at the Marine in Hermanus, and Sand restaurant at The Plettenberg. This is a bit of a mouthful, and seems like ridiculously hard work, but Peter deals with it all affably.
That’s the word I sit with as I look back on the interview. Affable. I hung out with Peter in the Greenhouse’s kitchen as he prepared the simple recipes for this feature. I asked him about local flavors, and if South Africa has a culinary identity. “South African food is the original fusion,” he replied quickly, “it’s a melting pot of all these cultures coming together. While South African food itself is nothing special, it has all the right influences.” The problem Peter sees is these influences are not being reflected, and all we see is bobotie after bredi after bobotie.
How do we reflect these influences then? “It’s all about the ingredients,” Peter says. He wants to explore local flavor through ingredients that are specific to our locale. This is how Peter’s dishes gain character and interest. At The Greenhouse there is a “big mountain man with a massive beard” who visits the kitchen selling mushrooms and herbs from the surrounding forests. Or take the num-num berry from dense rambling scrubs found across Southern Africa. These have been eaten since there have been people around to eat them. This season The Greenhouse will be serving num-num puree with foie gras and granola. It’s a good example of how Peter describes the identity of the award-winning Greenhouse: “keep innovating, keep coming up with new things, new dishes, new flavours, always stretching the boundary.”
It’s not all food. Chef Tempelhoff is also a burgeoning wine producer. In 2006 when he joined Cellars Hohenort Peter wanted a Pinot Noir put on the tasting menu, but the local Pinots were too expensive. So he made a barrel and sold to the restaurant at cost. Everybody won. Peter made wine, the restaurant got a bargain, and the customers had an affordable Pinot to drink.
Things escalated quickly. Peter started making wine with Adam Mason (ex-Klein Constantia wine maker now at Mulderbosch). “It started off initially as a little hobby with Adam,” Peter said, “we thought let’s just make a barrel of wine; and then we kinda liked working with each other. We thought, you know what, to join a chef and winemaker, it’s more than just wine, we can bring the food into it . . . It’s a natural union.”
The project is called Yardstick Wines and features two top end wines – a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay – with three entry-level wines jauntily named Kapow, Kaboom, and Shazaam. It seems like it’s going to be a very worthwhile hobby. Their fledgling company has been bought by Mulderbosch (50% is Adam and Peter’s 50% belongs to Mulderbosch), which is owned by Terroir Capital the American investment company that specialises in wine assets. Did you say American Market? Kaboom.
There’s no doubt Peter’s an excellent Chef. He makes food that is fresh, clean and intricate. “We try to make it an adventure,” he says of the food at The Greenhouse. It’s food made with the experience of eating in mind, and the results are exhilarating. With that mindset now being applied to wine you can expect great things from Peter and Adam’s Yardstick wines too. For those of us who appreciate eating and drinking the finer things, we have a lot to thank a simple aptitude test for.