It’s a beautiful day at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, the luxury South African property that readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted third on its list of best hotels and resorts in the world. And while I’m excited for our early morning visit to explore the San rock art, some of which dates back 10,000 years, executive chef Ryan Weakley is already hard at work.
“The first few months have been busy but fantastic,” says Weakley, whose typical day is from 07:30 to 22:30. “I have great support from management and the owners. I’ve also adopted a team of skilled staff (trained by Floris Smith, Bushmans Kloof’s previous multi-talented chef extraordinaire), which has made my job much easier.”
Balancing flavour and beauty
Weakley, who hails from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, studied at the Institute for Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, where he graduated in 2006 with a Diploma in Culinary Arts, Professional Cheffing, and Baking. He started his hospitality career as Chef de Partie at Ginja restaurant in Cape Town, where he was runner-up in the Jeunes Commiss Rôtisseurs Competition, Bailliage du Cap.
In 2008, he opened the Vineyard Hotel’s Myoga restaurant under chef Mike Bassett. But in May 2010, his love for the bush drew him from the city to Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge where he worked as Executive Chef for the first time. Eighteen months later he moved to Wilderness Safaris’ Mombo Lodge in the Okavango Delta in Botswana as Executive Chef, before joining Bushmans Kloof in January this year. Not only did this allow him to work at a prestigious Relais and Châteaux property in the Red Carnation Hotel group, but it fed into the love for nature. That’s important to someone who enjoys rock climbing, scuba diving, and anything to do with the outdoors.
“I love the diversity and creativity of the job, and being able to work anywhere in the world,” he says. “But when I moved into the game lodge industry, the requirements changed. It wasn’t just about making the perfect dish for dinner; I had to become more ‘well-rounded’, with breakfasts, lunches, and high teas as part of my repertoire. I also had to become preoccupied with making a dish look pretty; balancing the flavour of an ingredient – the main factor in the dish – with the beauty of it. I’d like to think my food has become more ‘honest’.”
Fresh, organic ingredients
Indeed, there’s something wholesome and authentic about the food at Bushmans Kloof. Breakfast includes items like homemade granola bars, individually bottled yoghurts with coulis, and fresh-baked pastries that guests can take on their nature drives. Lunch in the garden, which often features fresh quiches and a ‘Chef’s salad of the day’, includes many ingredients that we saw during our tour.
“Most of our fresh produce is grown on the property, so the garden team has spent countless hours watering that fresh rocket in your salad or tending to that tomato on your plate,” Weakley says. “The preparation of food isn’t just about frying, sautéing, or roasting something in a pan. A lot of work goes into a dish, even before the cooking starts.”
The onsite organic gardens, which have been developed significantly over the past few years, include raised beds and a temperature-controlled poly-tunnel. Because so much work goes into maintaining them, Weakley wants guests to experience the fruits of this labour.
This means daily picking of vegetables and indigenous herbs, including the famous Fynbos and Rooibos, to incorporate them in the menu. It also means sourcing sustainable inputs from local suppliers so that the output is the best it can be.
“Sustainability is key,” he says. “Not just the sustainability of ingredients, but also the sustainability of local producers who provide you with the best produce possible if you nurture a good relationship. If you work with organic and fresh produce, there’s no need to mask flavours. You can make those items the centrepiece of a dish.”
Accommodating different tastes
Soon after lunch we’re savouring the extravagant High Tea. And soon after this, we’re on a nature drive, spotting animals in the reserve. But while we’re sipping sundowners, Weakley is working on dinner, a highlight of the day.
“Being a chef isn’t always as glamorous as it looks on TV,” he says. “A lot of hard work goes into preparing a dish and getting it out perfectly every time. For example, that sauce on the plate is the result of gently attending to a base stock that’s been simmering on the stove for two days. The meat is sealed off and slowly basted in clarified butter, a process that yields much better flavours and results than conventional frying. And that cut of meat on your plate is the result of sourcing the right supplier to make sure it’s sustainable, eco-friendly, and was raised in a humane way.”
It’s also a challenge to make sure all guests are happy, although that doesn’t seem to be a problem given that everyone at the table is smiling at the end of our eight-course meal. But even though accommodating different tastes can mean working longer hours to prepare a special dish, Weakley loves challenging his creativity.
“No two days are the same,” he says. “With this constant change, one never gets complacent or falls into a rut. As soon as work becomes ‘stagnant’, boredom sets in, so this keeps excitement in the kitchen. And because food trends are always changing, we have to keep learning, keep improving, and stay in touch with the times.”
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