Chef Peter Tempelhoff: Helping to Spread the Passion Behind the Foods of South Africa

09/04/2011 07:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2011

South Africa might not be at the top of the obvious list for culinary destinations, but there are a lot of reasons why you might want to rethink that list.

Peter Tempelhoff, currently the Executive Chef overseeing the five Relais Chateaux restaurants within "The Collection by Liz McGrath" in Cape Province, South Africa, talks of his career, and some of the great influences that have guided him. He is currently the recipient of 9 Roussow stars in his six restaurants, more than other Chef in the guide's history. Roussow is the most highly regarded restaurant guide in South Africa.

I started my career traveling around the states in my teens. I had a couple of waiting jobs, but the one overriding similarity about all the jobs was the fact that I always wanted to be in the kitchens, and not the restaurants. I moved back home and pursued many other jobs; including tree felling and carpentry -- until at 26, I gave in to the urge and began culinary school in Cape Town.

His first position was at the Grand Roche Hotel, which was Relais Gourmand at the time, the equivalent of two Michelin stars. The Chef, the late Frank Ziomke, along with Aaron Patterson (also of Relais & Chateaux in England) are two chefs that greatly influenced Peter.

They taught me creativity and discipline like no others have.

South Africa has distinct regional foods, and very unique street food. They have African descendents of the Zulu, Xhosa, and Bapedi tribes. They also have a rich mix of settlers and immigrants from China, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Greece, England, Poland, India, Ireland, Italy and Vietnam. These great indigenous cultures combined with their immigrant nations, make for some spectacular food blends, and traditions.

Would you consider your primary techniques to be French, or are they integrated from other cultures?

I am a classicist at heart, my cooking is definitely based on French fundamentals and techniques, with a bit of Italian thrown in, which I picked up from Giorgio Locatelli in London.

With Peter's classic techniques, he has a wide palette of local indigenous ingredients to choose from.

What are some of the indigenous ingredients that are staples?

Waterblometjies (Water Flowers)- The flower of a type of water lily which is harvested in ponds in the Cape. They are a similar flavor to asparagus.

Buchu- An herb found in the fine flora called 'fynbos' in the Cape. It has eucalyptus and mint characteristics.

Rooiboos (Red Bush)- A red woody bush which is only found in one area of the Cape. Commonly used to make tea. It is said to be the healthiest tea in the world with high amounts of antioxidants and many other medicinal ingredients.

What South African culture influences your food?

Undoubtedly the Cape Malay. This culture has influenced my food more than any other culture in the country. Their subtle use of spices (without the heat) and their slow cooked dishes, are some of the best I have tasted.

(The Cape Malay is an ethnic community whose name is derived from what is in present day, the Western Cape of South Africa; whose ethnic mix was Javanese 'Indonesian,' which was a Dutch colony. Although there is a much more involved social and political history, slaves from Southeast Asia, political dissenters, and Muslim religious leaders who stood in opposition to the Dutch presence in modern day Indonesia were shipped off to South Africa, where they were exiled or imprisoned.)

Chef Tempelhoff works in the fine dining segment of the industry, but 'street food' tells a lot of the culture it is from.

What is some primary street food in Cape Town?

Bunny Chow- A quarter or half loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with chicken or mutton curry and then served with the bread that was scooped out and sambals.

Boerewors Rolls- A type of hot dog, beef and coriander sausage, grilled and placed in a bun, served with fruit chutney.

Street food is one place for culinary inspiration, but Peter, like many chefs, also finds inspiration in travel.

Tokyo has been very influential in my food philosophy as has New York.

The business end of being a chef is handled with many philosophies and styles. Peter learned in the London kitchens of Aaron Patterson (Hambleton Hall), Marco Pierre White (Quo Vadis), and Giorgio Locatelli (Zafferano). These are tough 'old school' environments. Peter describes how he manages the over 100 employees throughout three hotels and six restaurants;

I have adopted a style where my employees work in an environment which they enjoy, and they are inspired. A traditional 'Mad Chef' style does not work any more. Believe me I have tried it! Too many chefs left from my ranting and pot chucking days, and I only stressed myself out. I now get better results from the calm approach.

What does he look for in an up and coming cook or chef?

Calmness under pressure, logical thinking, and hard work.

These surely are some of the attributes he carries into his own work. Peter is a long way from the days when he was still figuring out whether to chop down trees or do carpentry work. His name is associated with the very finest chefs in the world: Joel Robuchon, Anne Sophie-Pic, Michael Caines, Kyomi Mikuni, and Yoshi Takazawa. Actually he has worked side by side with all of these luminaries in the past three years.