Though he’s lived in many countries with his travelling family, Chef Gregory Czarnecki, head chef of The Restaurant at Waterkloof, a biodynamic wine farm, draws inspiration from his French background, and the town of Beaune, located in the centre of Burgundy.
This, combined with his successful stint in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and his magical glass box promontory restaurant set against the Hottentots-Holland and Helderberg mountains in Somerset West, South Africa, has led to the inventive, thoughtful and striking dishes he presents.
His Instagram account showcases his delicate hand and creative flair, with plated food set against a pleasingly uniform grey marble background.
You've lived in 19 countries. Please tell us how that’s influenced you as a person and a chef.
My father was an engineer in a steel factory so he had to work overseas for projects - anything from nine to fourteen months so the whole family tagged along through his career. I was only 15-days-old the first time we moved from my hometown [of Beaune]. It has been an amazing journey for me as I got exposed to so many cultures and food.
It definitely influenced my palate and broadened my horizon. The great thing about our trips is that the destination wasn't the most attractive and touristic area of the country. The factories where always located in a more rural environment so we got to experience the real essence of the countries.
Tell us about your trajectory in the food world.
Coming from a French background I have always been surrounded by food but I guess the biggest influence came from my parents. They are real gourmands and my childhood revolved around the kitchen. From early in the morning there would always be something cooking on the stove or something baking in the oven or my dad making terrines or preserves. After travelling the world with my parents we moved back to Beaune and I decided to start my culinary career off by doing my apprenticeship at local restaurants in my hometown. After this I moved to Paris to work in restaurants in the city. Here, I worked for Alain Senderens [credited as one of the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine]. Seven years later I moved to South Africa where the owner of Waterkloof contacted me to start the project of a new restaurant on the wine estate.
Who's been the greatest inspiration in your cooking?
The greatest inspiration to me definitely has to be Alain Senderens, who was my mentor. He helped me grow as a chef in so many different ways. To start off with the basics he taught me how to treat all produce with love and respect to be able to get the best possible finished product. He showed me that to cook simply and pay attention to your methods by taking no short cuts, is the best way to cook. And lastly, less is more - if the element doesn’t compliment the rest of the dish, it doesn’t belong there. Actually, all the chefs that I have worked had an impact on my career. My first chef when I was an apprentice was a student of the famous Fernand Point, and he taught me all the classical methods and techniques of French cookery.
How would you describe the food you serve at The Restaurant at Waterkloof?
I use three simple words: contemporary, minimalistic, and French. Keeping this in mind, I use local produce and flavours that we don’t use in France for example buchu [a native woody plant used in teas and medicines] and mebos [a sweet and salty dried apricot snack] and incorporate that into my culinary philosophy.
Both the surroundings at Waterkloof and the food you plate are beautiful - how important is the visual aspect of dining in your opinion?
How aesthetically pleasing a plate is, is what creates the mood when you see it for the first time. You consume the dish with your eyes before it even reaches your palate. I believe it takes the same amount of time to plate a dish with a bit of artistry as it does to plate it with no feelings at all.
What are your favourite local ingredients to work with?
At the moment Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and quince are a few of my favourites. All three of these products are grown in Autumn, which is my favourite season. I find that a lot of fruits and vegetables that aren’t very popular have a lot of potential especially these three because they have very subtle, elegant flavours.
What ingredient is posing a challenge or that you've yet to work around?
I am planning to release a dish very soon using fresh snoek [a local barracuda], which I believe is part of the essence of South African cuisine. We don’t have a product like this in France and I haven’t really worked with this fresh product before so I am yet to work my way around it.
On your day off, what are you likely doing?
I do not have a lot of time to relax, but when I do I love enjoying my down time at home doing normal everyday things, like relaxing on the couch, watching Netflix or walking the dogs.
You're hosting a dinner party for six close friends or family - what will you serve?
I will definitely be serving a succulent roast chicken, made the traditional way, accompanied by some chicken jus made from the carcass, and crispy roast potatoe potatoes. A simple dish but when done properly it’s delicious. As for the wine, I’ll serve a good Pinot Noir from Cote de Beaune.
I believe Chanel Dartnall and I have the same cooking philosophy - we both have a contemporary cooking style. Her approach is more floral and botanical than mine. I really admire her passion, work ethic and commitment. Every meal that I ever had at Mosaic was magical. This is a project that is long overdue, fortunately this year we have been able to collaborate together. I hope we get to do this four hands dinner more often.
Tell us about one life-changing meal…
About 10-years-ago I was invited to join the Slow Food movement in Torino. One night they took me for dinner in Alba at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where we got served an 8-course meal. It was served with white truffles. At the beginning of the meal each guest had a big white truffle and a mandolin on their side plates. The dishes coming out of the kitchen were very rational and simple but cooked with passion and love. Every time a dish was served, the waiters would slice fresh truffle off your side plate. It was like this for every single course. The wine pairing was simple, vintage Dom Pérignon paired throughout.
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