South Africa’s fabulous baker boys

Jane Broughton
18 November 2016

Desserts are the edible status symbols of the century. And who are the people behind these picture-perfect creations, the makers of SA’s most delicate pastries, tarts and cream petits fours? As Jane Broughton discovers, a bunch of blokes. Beards, tattoos and all

The most exacting of sections in restaurant kitchens today is undoubtedly the pastry detail. Desserts have developed into artisanal, provenance-imbued, often insubstantial creations with hefty price tags attached. Being a pastry chef nowadays requires the patience of a saint, the organisational skills of an army general, and the hands of a surgeon. Plus constant inventiveness, often with only a handful of simple ingredients.

Like most kitchen jobs, the daily grind is rigorous, the hours back-breaking, and the environment less than glamorous. Interestingly, most of the top-rated pastry chefs out there are men – Pierre Hermé won World’s Best Pastry Chef 2016 at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards; Barcelona’s Albert Adrià scooped it the year before. Things are no different in South Africa. Prettily plated or packaged sweets designed to seduce the senses are, largely, male territory. We picked half a dozen of South Africa’s most talented pastry chefs (who are anything but cream puffs), to find out why they’ve claimed the sweet spot.

Jason Lilley – Chef and owner
Jason Bakery and Bar Dough
Early-rising Saturday morning devotees of Jason Bakery – Jason’s they say – triumphantly post images on Instagram when they score a limited-edition ‘doughssant’. This local version of a cronut (a doughnut made with croissant pastry) comes in one-off flavours, such as cannoli with pistachio and ricotta. 

But Lilley’s social media alter ego is Captain Bread ZA for a reason: ‘I’m proud to have been a pioneer of artisan breads in Cape Town, without using premixes. It has not been glamorous and the hours have been terrible, but I enjoy seeing people appreciate what we do.’ Bree Street’s landmark Jason Bakery (opened in 2007 with a single-deck oven) and recent addition Bar Dough in Loop Street now employ 35 people. Before Jason’s, Lilley clocked up solid kitchen experience at the Cellars-Hohenort, Arabella Sheraton, Jardine and on board the QE2 ocean liner. 

Best ingredient? 
‘Good flour. I use stoneground flour from Eureka Mills. It’s a science. I get a print-out every month from the miller, detailing the amount of protein in the wheat so that I can tweak my recipes. The qualities of the flour you use determines the outcome of the bread.’

Advice to youngsters?
‘Nowadays, trends are moving so quickly, and people are territorial; we like to do things our way,’ he says. The invention he’s most proud of is a tobacco caramel. A ‘true bloke’s dessert,’ it took many attempts with different tobaccos, steeping times and temperatures to get right. On the La Colombe menu, tobacco caramel goes with smoked chocolate, Hennessy, pickled cherries, and coffee... 

Trademark desserts? 
Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, bitter chocolate azalea hazelnut chocolate, and grapefruit – made into a curd, meringue, and macerated. 

Advice to young chefs?
‘Stay late after work, work through breaks, come in early, do whatever you need to do to experiment. Oh – and buy your own identifiable plastic containers so that you can track them down when the heathens of hot kitchen steal them!’

Cookbooks (most recently Eclair de Génie by Christophe Adam and The Elements of Dessert by Francisco Migoya.) And Instagram for new ideas.  

Best dessert or pastry ever? 
‘My first canelé in Paris was a borderline religious experience, but Pierre Hermé’s tarte vanille infiniment takes top prize for mind-blowing flavour and presentation.’

Local favourites?
A toss-up between Jason Bakery’s bacon croissant and the pasteis de nata at the Hoghouse in Ndabeni or at Spier, in Stellenbosch. ‘If someone can get something simple right, it’s admirable.’ 

Currently obsessed with? 
Learning the art of classic Viennoiserie [sweet, yeast-leavened baked goods such as croissants, brioche and pain aux raisins]. 

Flavours that I’m playing with? 
Limes, wood sorrel, quince, buttermilk and lemon verbena.

Last dessert before I die? 
‘Not very “cheffy”: tinned peaches and Ultramel custard.’

Junior Mdluli
Old Town Italy
Junior Mdluli studied all aspects of the kitchen at the International Hotel School in Durban, but ‘pastry stole my heart,’ he says. ‘It’s the one place where my imagination can run wild, with no limits. I love the discipline you learn in pastry, that there are no short cuts or cheating. And dessert is the last course, so it’s like always saving the best for last!’

As he puts it, ‘If you put a rack of lamb in the oven, the end result is a rack of lamb. But when you put a batter in the oven, you get a cake. I’m fascinated by the science of baking, like how baking powder reacts with heat and other ingredients to transform something from a liquid into a solid.’

Mdluli started cooking when he was eight, preparing simple breakfast dishes for friends and family (he’s still roped into bringing dessert at dinner parties). It’s led to heading up a green fields kitchen at the brand-new Old Town Italy in Pretoria (check website for details). 

Trademark desserts?
‘Our version of the cronut. It’s a doughnut made with croissant pastry,  filled with home-made custard and topped with things like gingerbread men, peppermint crisp, Rocky Road peanut butter frosting, or chocolate ganache. And our candy-floss flavoured ice-cream.’

Who would you like to bake for? 
‘Gordon Ramsay, purely to hear him say ‘that was f&%@ing amazing!’ 

Chef hero? 
[Italian American celebrity chef and reality TV star] Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss fame. ‘One of my baking fantasies is to make life-size cakes, over-the-top Cake Boss-style cakes.’ 

Cooking at home?
‘That’s my mother’s domain. She is the head chef. For as long as I live at home, I need to be careful what I do in her kitchen. Her scones are the best thing ever, light and fluffy with just the right amount of sugar.’

Cooking nightmares? 
‘I constantly hear oven timers going off in my sleep.’

Favourite SA bakery? 
Glenwood Bakery, Durban. The head baker is Sbusiso Ngcobo and his sourdough breads are a must-try.’ 

Most unusual dessert? 
‘A cardamom, kumquat and persimmon cake I once made.’

Bobby Kumar – Head pastry chef 
Table Bay Hotel
Bobby Kumar has made sugary waves over the past four years with his dazzling high tea confections, including a spectacular rainbow cheesecake that has become a menu staple. He thrives on the day-to-day challenges of the pastry kitchen, and the constant opportunities to express his creativity. Working at the Table Bay has meant preparing sweet creations for heads of state from all over the world, as well as foreign and local celebrities. ‘I wanted to be a model,’ he jokes, ‘but my mother said that if you learn to be a chef at least you’ll never go hungry’.

Favourite ingredients? 
‘Finest Belgian chocolates, Italian hazelnut paste, vanilla pods, and saffron.’

Kitchen stereotypes? 
‘People don’t really expect to find an Indian man in the pastry kitchen because curry, rather than confectionary, is assumed to be part of our DNA.’

Advice to young chefs? 
‘Work hard and never turn up your nose at someone who wants to teach you something new – especially in the beginning. Also, if you are a clock watcher, this job just isn’t for you!’

Early disasters?
‘Yes – all related to the preparation of crème caramel. Also when I worked on cruise ships, I would often have nightmares of being left on the dock watching the ship sail away without me after a port stop. [It never happened though.]’

Local favourites? 
The Woodstock Bakery for breads baked in a wood-fired oven. And the hot gulab jamun with kulfi ice-cream served at Bukhara in Cape Town, ‘the perfect marriage of hot and cold’. 

Last dessert before I die? 
‘If I can’t get gulab jamun and kulfi, I’ll take tiramisu.’

One ingredient you won’t find in my kitchen? 

Pet-hate food fad? 
‘Chocolate and chilli combos. And Banting is just another fad…’ 

If not a pastry chef, what? 
‘Right now, I would be slim.’

Jac Kolver – Head pastry chef
Leeu Collection
Jac Kolver was given his first stab at pastry by chef Rudi Liebenberg while at the Saxon, and has worked with SA pastry greats like Paul Hartmann. A late bloomer – Kolver first studied psychology – he says going into the kitchen was a conscious decision, inspired to some extent by the River Cafe cookbooks. 

‘I enjoy the challenge of creating magic out of so few ingredients,’ Kolver says. ‘Bread-making is the most satisfying, rewarding discipline in the kitchen. It’s simple – flour and water – and yet the most complex.’

Currently obsessed with? 
‘The organic, untreated flours from Moffett Milling Company. Their “Wit Wol” has amazing creaminess.’ 

The last cookbook you bought? 
‘The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. It’s taught me that to make grains nourishing, they need the pre-digestion of fermentation. We have started soaking various grains.’ 

Biggest disaster? 
‘A lightbulb exploding above a row of plates just minutes before the plates were due to go out.’

Best part of the job? 
‘Out here in the winelands, being surrounded by some of the country’s best chefs.’

Bad habits? 
‘My wife tells me that I mumble or shout out instructions in my sleep from time to time.’

Best dessert or pastry ever eaten?
‘A batch of marquise. I had recently started working in the pastry kitchen under Vicky Gurovich at the Saxon (my pastry hero), and she handed me a spoon to taste it. Traditionally it’s a creamy, dense, rich chocolate mousse. Her version was lighter, using a Swiss instead of French meringue, giving it a smoother, lighter texture. I’d never tasted anything so delicious.’

Favourite local bakery? 
Woodstock Bakery for its authentic wood-fired breads.’ 

Why does baking intimidate many? 
‘It’s [fear of] The Scale… I think having to break ingredients down into percentages and exact measurements is daunting for most people.’

Most unusual ingredient?
‘Strawberry guavas. They literally taste like a strawberry and a guava all at once, with a very pleasing, soft, ripe texture. I hope to get my hands on them again to start experimenting!’

Leon Cronje – Executive pastry chef
Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff
Leon Cronje manages a team that produces everything from elaborate, multi-tiered cakes for big, society weddings to cutting-edge desserts at View, the Westcliff’s fine-dining restaurant. He also stocks the deli attached to the hotel’s spa. Cronje believes that men aren’t afraid to show their creative side anymore. ‘I’m a farmer’s son, from a very small town in the Free State, but I was more likely to be found in the kitchen making vetkoek with my grandmother than riding tractors.’ 

Cronje’s journey in pastry began at the Saxon in Jo’burg. He enjoys mentoring young chefs in his kitchen and discovering new flavour combinations. 

Men as chefs?
‘Actually, I think you get untidy, sloppy chefs and those who are precise and fastidious about everything. When it comes to pastry, all chefs, whether male or female, are perfectionists and have an obsessive-compulsive streak which is almost essential to get the job done well.’

My fantasy purchase? 
‘An anti-griddle. It’s a high-tech device that “cooks” food by freezing it at extremely low temperatures – up to minus 30°C.’

Biggest disaster? 
‘A chocolate centrepiece that took hours and hours to make. Before it got to the display table, I dropped it and it shattered into a thousand pieces. I had to clean up and start again.’

Career highlight? 
‘Making dessert for Nelson Mandela. All he wanted was home-made vanilla ice cream with gooseberries.’ 

Why is baking intimidating to some? 
‘[Masterchef Australia judge, restaurant critic and food journalist] Matt Preston once said that pastry chefs are the pharmacists of the kitchen because everything has to be exact and precise.’

Best dessert or pastry you’ve ever eaten? 
‘A beetroot parfait with chocolate coral cake and chocolate hazelnut praline, with raspberry and beetroot gel at Harissa Bistro in Pretoria (+27 (0)12 452 5519).’

Favourite local bakery? 
The Lucky Bread Company in Pretoria makes the most amazing sourdough bread. Along with wood-fired artisan bread, they do skilfully made coffee, and exceptional sandwiches, pastries and croissants. All are made lovingly using only the best produce around.’ 

Pet-hate food fad? 
‘Cake pops.’

Lost without? 
‘My palette knife. And the blast chiller is essential.’

Currently obsessed with? 
‘Passion fruit and coconut.’

Most unusual ingredient?
‘Courgettes. I find them tasteless and overrated but chefs do use them in cakes as they are healthier than certain ingredients and add moisture.’

If not a pastry chef, what? 
‘An accountant or veterinarian.’ 


Thembinkosi Cele - Night baker
Oyster Box Hotel
While guests at the Oyster Box are sound asleep, Thembinkosi Cele works through the night. His moist cinnamon granola coffee cake, Bea Tollman’s seed loaf, kitke bread, lemon and poppy seed muffins, buttery croissants and feather-light doughnuts and scones all appear on the daily breakfast buffet. Cele grew up in a home where his mother did most of the cooking, preparing traditional, Zulu comfort food, like his favourite putu and imfino (spinach). But his father, a sous chef at the Royal Hotel in Durban, taught him how to cook on an old charcoal stove. He loved baking cakes, despite not having a sweet tooth. 

After completing his schooling, Cele went to work as a cleaner at the Royal Hotel. In between washing pots, he’d hang out with the night bakers, who taught him to make croissants, scones, muffins, and bread. One night, one of the bakers fell ill and Cele ended up helping out. Bingo. He attended Durban’s International Hotel School and his first job was at the Elangeni, from where he moved to the Oyster Box.