Eating at Five Hundred at the Saxon is the ultimate gourmet experience. From the beautifully set tables to the impeccable service (my handbag even got its own seat!) and, of course, the skillfully composed meals with excellent wine pairing. Chef David Higgs was given the prestigious award Chef of the Year at the 2013 Eat Out Awards, and his restaurant is considered the second best in the country after Luke Dale-Robert’s Test Kitchen.
Did you know that Chef Higgs designs his menus starting with what is fresh in his organic vegetable garden on the hotel grounds? Only once he has decided what greens are looking good does he go on to decide what protein to pair them with. As we were strolling through the lush gardens, he showed me the broadbeans and told me to expect some of those in my dinner that evening. He also pointed out some of his absolute favourites in the garden: beautiful edible flowers like nasturtium and pansies, and fragrant herbs like rose geranium.
But there is more to David than prestigious awards and fancy food. In fact, he told me that when he is not in the kitchen he spends most of his time on Food Cycles, a sports, health and nutrition project founded by David in collaboration with the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy. Through this project, youngsters are given a chance to go for a ride, but also to learn important skills such as discipline, hard work and nutrition. Food Cycles aims to educate the youth about nutrition and healthy eating habits; establish kitchens with sporting academies such as Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy and Songo in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch; and utilise the kitchens to introduce the youngsters to cooking and thereby empowering them to cook their own meals.
Two of the promising youngsters in the club, Tsepo and Tendai, have gone one step further, and are now working as trainee chefs in David’s kitchen at the Saxon. It’s hard work. We’ve all seen the stressful atmosphere in a restaurant kitchen courtesy of TV programmes by chefs such as Ramsay and Oliver. Chef Higgs may not scream the way Ramsay does, but he accepts nothing less than perfect. Tsepo told me that in order to be on time for the 6am start, he has to get up at 3am. At the same time he is training for the grueling Absa Cape Epic race. “But how do you find time and energy to train?” I asked. At that moment, Chef Higgs stopped next to us to test one of the tempting, freshly baked rolls that had been delivered for his approval (this must have been the hardest situation I have ever conducted an interview in; freshly baked, warm bread and rich, yellow butter sitting right in front of me). “He has to make time” was chef Higgs’ straight-faced comment. Tsepo just nodded savagely. It is through the commitment from people like Chef Higgs that youngsters from deprived backgrounds are given a chance to go above and beyond. But the hard work is all theirs and I take my hat off to their bravery and determination!