Ever wonder who the creative minds behind Townhouse hotel’s delicious menus are? Meet our Executive Head Chef Stefan Schmidt and Senior Sous Chef Yaseen Walter.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE OF COOKING?
STEFAN: It’s based on classic French cooking.
YASEEN: Classical, old-school cooking, simplicity and flavour.
WHICH CHEF DO YOU ADMIRE?
YASEEN: Michel Roux Jr.
STEFAN: Yes, he is original and he stays humble, he does it for the love of food. His dishes refer back to his grandmother’s time, when he was a child.
YASEEN: I’ve worked with many chefs, they each have a different quality, but chef Stefan inspires me – the way he runs a kitchen, professional to the core, there are no short cuts.
I don’t have many heroes, but I like chef’s stories, where they come from. Like Michel Roux Jr. and Marco Pierre White. He was poor, but his dad insisted that he put on his best Sunday suit and go and look for a job. And he did – he knocked on doors – and look how far he went.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE FOOD EXPERIENCE?
STEFAN: I was in New York City, not yet 21 years old, there was this grill place. Self-help, with the menu on the wall. I ordered the T-bone steak with coleslaw. It was very simple, you grab a tray and I will never forget that steak – one of the best I’ve ever had. From a simple grill, you just order and it arrived.
YASEEN: There’s no specific experience but rather a lifetime of memorable meals. People look at you as a Muslim guy, Cape Malay, and they expect curry and samosas. But that’s not how I grew up: my mom liked Italian food. I grew up with salads and aubergines, and I think I got my love for food from my mom’s cooking.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A CHEF?
STEFAN: My brother was a chef – I was around 7 years old when he finished his apprenticeship. There was this gathering, and all the graduates had to cook something. The event was huge, and everything was colourful. For me at that age it was mind-blowing.
I blame my brother for me being in the trade. My brother was always cooking at home and could get produce that wasn’t available to normal people in those days. And I thought I want to be able to do that. Around 11 years old, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.
I’ve eaten in a few Michelin star places in Germany. You really appreciate it. It makes you proud that you’re part of this craft. And as a chef, you see it always from the kitchen point of view – but when you sit on the other side, you realise, actually, it’s not bad what we do by comparison, and you’re filled with a certain pride.
YASEEN: Sometimes I like to walk out to see the guest’s reaction when they eat, you watch, and you see the nod of the head, the sharing of the plate, the reward is seeing people enjoying our food.
Years ago, I wanted to be a dentist but my school didn’t offer physics. Luckily, we were the pilot school for hospitality as a subject. Chefs like Garth Stroebel came to our school and told us about the opportunities, such as travelling the world – it was awesome. And it wasn’t long before I realised I wanted to be a chef.
My first exposure to a hotel kitchen was shadowing at the Table Bay Hotel in Grade 11.
In my final year of school, I was shadowing at the Cellars Hohenhort under a renowned British chef. And later that year, after I had written my final paper, they said there was a spot for a trainee at the President Hotel. Three of us from my school went. “Be there. Prompt. There’s one spot” were the instructions we got. When I got there, there were 10 trainees. I was interviewed, and we were told we’d hear by the Wednesday. I couldn’t bear the wait. Eventually, I told my mom I was going to phone and ask if I was successful. I knew my parents didn’t have the money for me to study, so I planned to say how much I wanted it.
So I phoned and the chef picked up and said, “Hey! I was just about to phone you. Don’t tell the others because I’m still going to send the letters out, but you got the job. You start month end.” I was so stoked.
I worked there for two years and then went to the Breakwater Lodge. Working my way up till I was a junior sous chef and then I went to a restaurant called Karibu. There I learnt how to run a busy kitchen.
I had one son already and when my daughter was born I wanted the work-life balance. I phoned Chef Stefan and asked if he needed any chefs, and he said yes. He needed two commis and one sous chef. I thought he was joking, but he had faith in me. And here I am six years later.
WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD COMFORT FOOD?
STEFAN: Ice cream
YASEEN: My mom’s spaghetti Bolognese.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH YOUR DELICIOUS MENUS?
STEFAN: It works best in the kitchen, where everyone contributes. We bounce thoughts and ideas around. Even our junior chefs have good ideas which we incorporate. It takes 5 minutes. We’re looking for the unexpected, and for different textures.
YASEEN: We check what’s in season but we’ll think of interesting combinations.
STEFAN: We feed off each other’s knowledge and passion and where we come from. Where I come from, venison is served with fruit, whether it’s dried apricots or prunes or apples. And Yaseen takes it and does something else, totally different. He likes to challenge me, which keeps me on my toes.
YASEEN: That’s why I love working with Stefan: he’s not dogmatic, he’s open.
STEFAN: Everybody has some input to give. Ten minds are better than one or two. It gives the team a feeling of involvement and pride. That’s what I want to encourage because chefs need to be creative. My first position, the chef gave me the menu – that’s what we’re cooking and that’s how we cook it. It was a Michelin star menu so that was the way it was done. And when I came to South Africa, to Grand Roche, and the á la carte menu was written by the chef in my position and I could go wild. Sure, you had to present your dish and your menu to the head chef, and you’d get guidance, but you were fully involved in the menu creating. It was really, really great. It’s important that the youngsters get into that.
YASEEN: You have more pride and passion when you cook your own thing – you want to make it to the best of your ability and show the chef that people will love this dish.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE DISHES ON THE MENU?
STEFAN: The laksa, definitely.
YASEEN: It’s a toss-up between the fishcakes and the short rib. But the seafood gratin is one of the best dishes. And one of the best-selling.
See Tress Resturant menus here