Q&A: Paul Hartmann

HL chatted to chef Paul Hartmann about his love for cooking and his role models. Paul ate dinner with his family every night until he was 16. His maternal grandmother was a cook, and paternal grandfather a butcher.My mother always allowed us to get involved, even if we made an unholy mess,’ he explains. It’s no surprise then that his family are his role models when it comes to food. ‘I was drawn to the kitchen because of the creativity and challenges it presented,’ he says. A hotel school graduate, Paul spent many years working in some of the most reputable kitchens in the hospitality industry. Now, besides a great passion for bread, which led to his opening the Woodstock Bakery, he is also the sole proprietor of one of the top culinary schools in the country, The South African Chef’s Academy. An inspiring teacher with a no-nonsense approach, his best advice for hopeful kitchen apprentices is to forget about Masterchef and all the television magic– make sure you have a thick skin, strong legs and learn the basics,’ he says… ‘In order to be a good chef you must want to please people with food’. What tastes remind you of childhood? Coco pops in ice-cold milk, eaten as fast as possible so they didn't get soggy. Watermelon (dumped into the pool to cool before slicing), pork chops with dried thyme, pancakes with lemon juice and cinnamon sugar, and my father's lemon tea. What’s always in your pantry? Olive oil, sherry vinegar, tinned tomatoes, chilli flakes, sea salt, mustard, flour and instant yeast. Current favourite restaurant? Bombay Brasserie at The Taj Hotel. The food is authentic, the room is unique and the service is just as it should be at a five star hotel. What would your last meal be? Arabic meze– tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, beetroot salad, kibbeh and flatbreads… Lots of variety, eaten with your hands. Top of your kitchen wish list? An epoxy floor with a drain in it so that I can hose it down – like we have in the industry. Any culinary vices? Wine gums! It's to do with texture more than taste. Your ultimate breakfast is… As children we were not allowed out of the house before eating a hot breakfast, so I've been spoilt. Things like boiled eggs and soldiers, poached haddock on butter toast, kippers with thick slices of cold tomato, fried chicken livers on caramelised onions, and grilled cheddar on rye toast with cayenne pepper, were put in front of us immediately after the perfunctory cereal in milk. I'm also partial to a good bacon and tomato omelette. You won’t eat? Kidneys. They filter urine. Enough said. What’s your signature dish? I make quite a mean porchetta. Marmite – love it or hate it? Love it. It tastes like a slap in the face– sometimes just what the palate needs. Food aroma you love? Bread– as dough while it ferments and in the oven as it crusts and caramelises. Absolute food weakness? Bread. You can taste the time and work in a good loaf. Secret talent? My daughter will tell you that I'm very good at painting nails! She's five and a half. What do you think will be the next food trend? Hopefully a return to sanity! I'm encouraged by Adria closing El Bulli and look forward to the demise of tasting menus. What’s the best thing about what you do? Teaching is demanding but very satisfying.  I enjoy being with youngsters while they grow in ability and confidence and I'd like to think that I have contributed to that in some way. What was your most memorable meal? Anton Mosimann's exhibition dinner at the Sunnyside Park hotel in 1983 or 1984 while I was studying.  Most memorable course was the starter of chicken liver parfait on marsala gelee – it was sublime. Light, subtle but full of flavour with an attention to detail in plating that he is renowned for. Can’t live without? Sadly, my mobile phone. In today's times it is our leash. What should every kitchen have? Good knives, a wooden cutting board and an induction hob. Most used recipe book? Not so much a recipe book, but Culinary Artistry is always close at hand for confirming wild ideas about flavour combinations.  And Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread is well used! Favourite sandwich filling? Thomas Keller devised this one for the movie Spanglish– two slices of sourdough, with melted smoked cheese on one slice. Stack the other from top to bottom with thick mayonnaise, butter lettuce, steak tomato slices, crisp streaky bacon and a soft fried egg. Cover with the 'cheesed' slice and go at it. Also a masala steak gatsby from Athlone when I'm feeling brave. We teach both at the academy and they're always a hit with even the most conservative eaters in the classes! Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? Giraffe and zebra. While working at The Royal Hotel in 1986, we were compiling a new menu and exploring options to appeal to foreign tourists looking for authentically African meats. Both are obviously equine and were very rich and dark.  The texture of the giraffe was similar to that of chicken liver. What wine are you enjoying right now? I'm a teetotaller. Who are your foodie icons? Manfred Meullers, my lecturer at hotel school was my earliest influence. Marco Pierre White for two reasons – his book White Heat was revolutionary in content, approach and design. Also, for his courageous manner and approach on the Hell's Kitchen TV show. He’s a master craftsman and a down to earth, no bullshit chef. Favourite flavour of ice cream? Chocolate. The darker, the better. What’s your entertaining style? I'm a chef so everything is prepared the day before. It's easy-going with too much food and lots of instruction. ‘Try this with that.’ ‘Can you taste the coriander?’ ‘Try the bread.’ ‘Have you had the oil?’ Top three tips for seamless entertaining? Don't over analyse, it's just food. Make dishes you enjoy. Don't experiment on guests. What did you want to be when you were little? Awake and unwashed. Bedtime came to early and we hated baths. Where is your favourite foodie destination in the world? Italy for its history and diverse repertoire. I've not been and am afraid that if I go, I won't leave! Advice for aspiring chefs? Cooking is a craft that requires an apprenticeship in order to master it. You are not a 'culinarian' studying 'cheffing' (fabricated words anyway). You are a young person learning some of the most basic skills known to man. Biggest culinary passion? My family are my role models regarding food, always giving me things to taste, even today! I remember my grandfather in the butcher shop offering advice and special treats to his customers. My grandmother in her canteen calling me aside during a visit to give me a jam tart, or some other tasty bite. My mother always allowing us to get involved even if we made an unholy mess… They always gave of their best when hosting visitors to their homes and kitchens, choosing the best items and dishes to serve in order to be hospitable and kind to the people. Food was central to our social interaction and we ate dinner together every night at a properly laid table until we were 16 years old (when we started 'jolling'). Interviewed by Raphaella Frame-Tolmie