Barak Hirschowitz started working in the kitchen's of New
York when he was sixteen. After completing his degree at Johnson
and Wales Barak headed to South Africa working at the Dock
Road complex. After a couple of swift promotions Barak found
himself running the kitchen and quickly made a name for himself
in Cape Town as the food progressed.
Due to work permit restrictions Barak was initially only able
to work on one year contracts. After obtaining his permanent
residence he was offered the position of Executive Chef at
the Bay Hotel, which owns Blues Restaurant where he had a
contract previously. The Tides restaurant was a non-entity
on the scene two years ago but now is currently one of the
busiest restaurants in Cape Town - after being awarded the
highest rating for the region, and the second highest in the
country for 2002 by the Wine Magazine top 100 restaurant guide,
South Africa's most prestigious dining guide.
What made you leave New York and head for South Africa?
My parents are originally from South Africa and were involved
in the anti-apartheid movement while at university. They decided
to leave the country as it had become unsafe with increasing
government crackdowns on the underground movement. They moved
to Israel where I was born and then from there to the U.S.
where I grew up. In 1993 the first free elections where Nelson
Mandela was elected president occurred. I decided that this
would be an exciting time to take a working vacation in South
What made you decide to stay in S.A?
I fell in love with diversity of the people, the beauty of
the country, the surf and the weather - which is similar to
southern California. There are 26 recognized languages in
South Africa and the Western Cape where I work, which is about
the size of the state of Rhode Island, is one of the world’s
seven plant kingdoms.
How can other chefs find employment and get the appropriate
visa to work in S.A
Recently it has become more difficult to obtain a work permit
as the government is trying to promote jobs for locals. There
are exceptions, especially if you are established and thus
bringing expertise to the country. Most restaurants and hotels
recruit their staff through placement agencies many of which
have websites and information on visas.
What do you miss most of all from America? Football
on Sundays, Cricket and Rugby, the national sports, are not
quite the same.
Any thoughts on coming back to the USA?
The Rand, which is the national currency, has taken quite
a few knocks over the years. When I arrived here in 1992 it
was 2 to 1. Ten years later it is 11.5 to 1. This is great
for tourism but is terrible if you work here. Although many
things are cheap here, beef tenderloin is 2 dollars a pound
for example, anything imported is becoming very expensive
and travel is becoming almost impossible. I may have to head
back to the U.S. if the currency doesn’t firm up or gets worse.
Can you tell us about your food style and explain the current
S.A food scene?
My style is classically based but I have picked up some interesting
techniques from the African people, especially the Xhosa that
live in our area. I use only local ingredients in my cooking
which means a lot of venison, ostrich, lamb and seafood. There
are also some very unusual foods like the mupane worm, which
is a dried tree caterpillar that is stewed and pureed. The
Cape Rock Lobster is also renowned for its sweet flavor.
The food industry is booming here at the moment. Ten or so
years ago, the menus were very standard with very little creativity.
The traditional cooking is based on a blend of Malay, Dutch
and British styles. The traditional African food was looked
down upon. Much has changed since then. We now grow most of
the fruit and vegetables for the United Kingdom, and we have
virtually every variety that is available in Europe. We even
export cępes to New York. There are over ten types of venison
available as well as things like zebra, crocodile and warthog.
The local chefs many of whom have worked in the top kitchens
of Europe have been developing a modern South African cuisine,
which incorporates classical cooking with African styles and
flavors. It is an exciting time to be cooking here.
What is the cost of dining out (for two) in a good restaurant?
Get ready to laugh.... a top restaurant dinner for two costs
about 250 rand for food which is about 22 dollars US and a
good bottle of SA Wine about 150 rand or 13 dollars US at
What is hot on your menu right now?
Springbok, which is a small buck about the size of a lamb.
Springbok is very tender and virtually not really too “gamey”.
Also the Cape rock lobster is popular, it has no claws but
the tail is much wider and has more meat than the American
Lobster tail. Our Karoo Lamb is also becoming world-renowned.
What inspires you?
The community of chefs here in the cape is very close. We
get together almost bi-monthly and talk about new ideas. When
someone returns from an overseas trip they fill us in on all
that happens. The African people also inspire me. Many of
my staff has had much tragedy in their lives such as AIDS
and poverty and yet they come to work with a smile on their
face and are eager to learn.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a chef right
As the Rand has become weak over the last few years, exports
to Europe and Asia have increased. This means that our best
products are sent overseas and often we are left with second
grade or nothing. Our hake exports to Spain have left virtually
nothing back home and our beef; lamb and ostrich exports have
raised the prices dramatically. What is even worse though
is the poaching and exporting of rock lobster and abalone
for the Asian markets. The season for legal fishing of these
items has been cut by two months already this year as the
resource is being depleted. On the bright side, our local
olive oil is getting worldwide recognition, and one farm Morgenster
won first prize at the International Olive Oil competition
in Italy last year, upsetting all the major olive producing
countries. We also have had a red tide problem where a plankton
build up on the coast shuts off the oxygen for the crayfish
and they literally walk out of the sea. Last month over 20
tons of lobster walked out of the sea and died on our west
coast. Our average lobster size was around 1.5 pounds but
is now down to about 3/4 pound each. The price has also tripled
in the last two years.
What is being done to stop these problems?
The national police seize tons of illegally caught lobster
and perlomoen (the local name for abalone) each month but
it only makes a dent in the total. There is just too much
money in it.
How is the labor market, is training a big focus for you?
Training is extremely important. The government has implemented
the Employment Equity Act a couple of years ago which requires
each business to put a proposal together showing how they
will uplift and train the black staff members so that the
end result is an equal dispersion from the bottom to the top.
Once the proposal has been agreed on there are major fines
for not following it. The government has also implemented
a national qualifications system, which certifies staff for
what they know and highlights areas that need to be worked
on. This is also monitored closely and businesses are rewarded
with tax breaks for staff that complete their training. Both
these programs are new and have bumps to be ironed out but
they are definitely working for the better.
Can you tell us about the South African Chefs Association?
The South African Chefs association is the only national organization
for our industry and is made up of roughly 3000 members. The
President up until two years ago was Billy Gallagher who was
the past head of the WACS (World Association of Cooks Societies)
and who recently received a lifetime achievement award at
the last ACF convention in Las Vegas. He now oversees the
S A Chefs Association on an advisory capacity and is an honorary
lifetime president. The association hosts most of the competitions
as well as the National team training, promotes the industry
through demonstrations and school lectures, and keeps the
community together through meetings and its website - www.saca.co.za
What are your plans for 2002?
We have had a great start to the year with one of our restaurants
being voted the top restaurant in Cape Town and number two
in the country by wine magazine. This means that we have got
to maintain and improve on the standards for next year, as
people will expect more. I am traveling quite a bit in the
next couple of months and will be in New York in March and
Amman Jordan and Vienna in May and June doing promotions.
I am also putting together a banquet, which incorporates 7
of the top wine farms and 7 of the top chefs in the Cape.
Can you offer a word or two of advice to the chef of tomorrow,
especially one who wishes to travel...
Traveling is the best part about being a chef; if you have
good references you can go just about anywhere. Also remember
that it is important to study up on the customs of the country
you are traveling to, it will save you a lot of hardship in
the kitchen as most kitchen workers are from a traditional
background and many don’t speak English. I now know kitchen
slang in four African languages.
For more information on The Bay Hotel visit - www.TheBay.co.za