Chef Barak Hirschowitz, Cooking In South Africa
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 Africa.
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 cêpes 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 restaurant prices.
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 now?
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