Meet an executive chef who is passionate about creating delicious cuisine and spreading the gospel. By Marc de Chazal
When I was told that the executive chef at the Devon Valley hotel near Stellenbosch is a Christian who is passionate about food as well as missions into Africa, I was intrigued to find out more. After all, celebrity chefs on food channels have done a convincing job of showcasing the creativity of cooking. So I drove out to the hotel, which is nestled in a tranquil country setting offering spectacular views, to meet him.
Markus Schwemberger greets me warmly, wearing the standard white jacket worn by countless other chefs as they bustle about a busy kitchen preparing delectable dishes for hungry guests. Markus is an energetic character, talking quickly with a distinct German accent – he grew up in Austria. I can imagine him shredding, cutting, chopping, sprinkling and tossing ingredients together with manic precision. And the result is a menu widely acclaimed for its uncomplicated clean tastes and bold flavours – unsurprisingly, the hotel`s restaurant is called `Flavours`.
“I love to work with fresh ingredients,” says Markus, who cultivates his own herb garden on the hotel grounds. “Frozen produce can`t compare. As long as it`s fresh, I love to work with it. And I love to plan and create new menus. The whole process is very creative. Of course, it`s a business and it needs to make a profit – that`s my responsibility as executive chef. But the creative side of the job is my real passion.”
Markus is a keen mountain biker and gets away from his busy kitchen a few times every week. “Taking a break for a few hours is really inspiring for my cooking. I can think up new dishes in the clean mountain air. It may sound mystical, but it`s not. Getting away from the pressure energises me to come back with fresh new ideas,” he says. And he may even come back with a bag-full of handpicked, wild edible mushrooms to infuse his freshest idea.
The dishes he dreams up don`t always work out as expected, but his meticulous nature and commitment to excellence produce plenty of culinary combinations worthy of a place on the menu. “My European influence does show,” he admits, “but I try to incorporate local ingredients as much as possible – I`ll use rooibos, biltong and guavas, and I`ll make up a Cape Malay curry if a tourist group requests it. My kitchen is not a one-man show,” he adds. “I work with some very talented people and everyone gets a chance to influence the monthly menu. My Christian faith is especially pronounced in my dealings with those I manage in the kitchen. I love working with people. I believe in excellence and I try to instil this in those who work with me.”
I can see why their menu is so popular. When I briefly acquainted myself with Flavours` a la carte menu, I felt decidedly peckish. A starter of Chermoula Prawn Salad – “pan-fried queen prawns placed on a bed of garden greens, with baby corn, kiwi fruit and cocktail tomatoes lightly drizzled with a balsamic olive oil vinaigrette” – would easily satisfy my hunger. If I felt particularly voracious, I could go on to a Seed Crusted Kingklip, accompanied by triangles of prawn mousse and set on a creamy saffron and pernod sauce and end off with an Espresso and Pistachio Crème Brulée garnished with fresh fruits.
As a young Austrian boy of six, Markus dreamed of one day coming to Africa. The chance came in 1989 when he spotted an advert for a restaurant job in Namibia. Once on African soil, he travelled extensively throughout the continent, and then took up a number of positions in South Africa, including a stint at the Lord Charles hotel in Somerset West. During a stay in England, he became a Christian. “I`d always been a spiritual seeker, looking into all kinds of alternative spiritual beliefs, like yoga and Buddhism, but there was something just not right in my life,” he says. “Christianity provided what I`d been looking for.”
Today, Markus is very involved in a local church in Somerset West, where he met his Afrikaans wife. They have two young children and together have gone on short-term mission trips to Malawi, Madagascar and Mozambique. Markus also teaches Sunday school, so there is definitely more to this maestro than seared Impala loins and crispy roasted Peking duck.
“When I came to South Africa, I had nothing. The Lord has prospered me since then, not just in a material sense or with my family, but spiritually as well. It`s a wonderful privilege to live in God`s presence daily,” Markus says, talking about his Christian faith with even greater enthusiasm than sharing his latest flavour combination.
When I leave the hotel, I catch a glimpse of the executive chef ensuring his lunchtime guests are receiving their money`s worth and secretly wish I didn`t have a deadline to meet – that roasted duck sounded pretty good.
Find out more about the Devon Valley Hotel and Flavours restaurant at www.devonvalleyhotel.com