BILLY SUTER chats to Janine Fourie, the amiable executive chef at golfing hero Ernie Els’s Big Easy restaurant at the Durban Hilton, near the International Convention Centre. For a review of the restaurant see separate story under the SoSuterBill ‘Food & Drink’ section.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN CHEF AT THE BIG EASY AND WHAT DO YOU MOST ENJOY ABOUT IT?
I was at Big Easy Durban before we even opened. I started in June 2015 and we opened in October.
BIGGEST CHALLENGES/REWARDS FOR YOU AT THIS RESTAURANT?
Some of the biggest challenges are finding consistency in food products. I have seen an inclination towards people producing quantity products for consumer consumption and not quality products with proper traceability. This has become evident in a lot of industries
Rewards? Seeing the team grow. My team started off with 50% of the team being fresh from college and it is very rewarding to see them grow into dedicated chefs.
WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO A DINER AS A GREAT CHOICE FOR A THREE-COURSE MEAL AT BIG EASY ?
It’s very difficult to choose only three dishes….but my personal favourites would have to be:
Gnu Carpaccio with beetroot chutney, toasted pumpkin seeds and horseradish cream
Or Oxtail Marrow Rolls – one of the favourites of most guests
Lamb shank bunny. No dinner in Durban would reflect the city better than this dish, Or Grilled Prime Rib Special – only available on Wednesdays. It’s a 600g prime rib with a Big Easy marinade and freshly prepared sides
Amarula crème brulee. It is a must on the menu!
WHAT HAS BEEN A BIG HIGHLIGHT FOR YOU AT THE RESTAURANT SINCE OPENING?
Our wine dinners. We have held so many different wine, beer and whiskey dinners. It has been a monthly event that is just growing and growing.
It’s a great way for the team to work together and create fun and funky menus for these events – young chefs being creative and contributing to these special menus.
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN AND HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO COOKING? WHAT, FOR INSTANCE, IS THE FIRST THING YOU EVER COOKED?
I was born in East London, South Africa, in 1980.
We are a foodie family, each one of us known for some sort of great dish.
Dad is famous for his beer chicken; my brother for his chimney pork belly; mom for cooking the best meatballs and lamb offal; grandmother the best chicken pie.
If I think back, my first stint at cooking was preparing biscuits – “soet koekies”. I was assigned to mould the biscuits and press them with a fork.
WHAT FORMAL TRAINING HAVE YOU HAD AND WHAT ARE SOME PLACES YOU HAVE WORKED?
I studied at what was called the Granger Bay Hotel School on the Waterfront in Cape Town for three years, and was part of the Protea Hotel in- service training as well.
I have worked in Cambodia and the Maldives, as well as on luxury cruise ships. I was executive chef at the Premirer Prtoea Hotel in Abuja in Nigeria, and also at Stonehill Restaurant in Mossel Bay. I have also worked in Saldanha, , London, George and in Cornwall, England.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO VISITBIG EASY?
We serve pure food, using good products, and enhance the natural flavur by using food items that compliment the dish well.
I like to cook dishes that make you nostalgic – dishes that might be reminiscent of special dishes you remember from years ago, but with a bit of twist
WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CAREER TO DATE?
The highlight has been that I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel in my career to so many countries.
The best thing for any chef to do is to travel, experience new food, new trends, new cooking equipment, and find your own cooking style; to discover who you are as a chef
WHAT FAMOUS FOLK HAVE YOU COOKED FOR?
I have cooked for Richard Branson, diplomat Ban Ki-Moon, Steve Harvey, Katy Perry… there have been too many to actually remember: ministers, sporting legends, local rap artists
WHAT CELEBRITY CHEFS DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
I don’t really have a specific chef I admire
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE DISH AT BIG EASY?
Oxtail marrow rolls.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVE MEALS GENERALLY (DO YOU COOK LAVISHLY FOR YOURSELF AT HOME, FOR INSTANCE?)
Surprisingly, I love cooking at home as well. I have lazy cooking days that could consist of cheese platters, paté, bread and mom’s green-fig preserve and a bottle of wine.
Lavish cooking days will have to be roasted leg of lamb with all the trimmings, red wine mint jus, roasted rosemary and chilli-sweet potatoes, sauté green beens, crushed carrots, and salad. Definitely a favourite!
WHAT HAS BEEN THE FUNNIEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO YOU IN A KITCHEN?
As a chef trainee in 1998, part of my initiation was to be folded like a pocket knife and put into a bin, arms and all, with no way of getting out.
Senior chefs spend time “garnishing” these trainees with kitchen ingredients like flour, honey, eggs, chilli, ketchup and so on. I have to add that it was not funny at the tim., but years later I still remember it like yesterday.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CULINARY SUCCESS? AND ALSO, YOUR BIGGEST DISASTER?
Joining the Big Easy team and seeing our group growing with so many more wonderful properties opening worldwide, and being able to assist the other chefs with setting up their restaurants.That’s been the best success story.
Biggest disaster would be when I was a chef trainee, baking a wedding cake and someone actually putring salt in the sugar container. Luckily, I realided this in advance and this could be rectified .
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVE COOKING INGREDIENTS ?
Garlic, garlic, garlic……who cooks without garlic? I also love lemon, rock salt and Cambodian, fresh, green peppercorns.
I don’t really like the taste of cloves. Reminds me too much of my grandmother’s concoctions for toothache.
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Enthusiastic, passionate, creative, innovative, eccentric.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OUTRAGEOUS DINING COMPLAINTS YOU HAVE HEARD OVER THE YEARS?
A guest once commented, after ordering a Butter Chicken Curry, that they didn’t eat curry spices and would not be able to eat the dish.
I think the best way to handle complaints is to know that, in our day and age, everyone is fighting his or her own battles. It might not always be your fault, but listening – and really listening – to guests is the first way of finding a solution. There is always a way to change a situation.
WERE YOU NOT A CHEF WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN DOING, DO YOU THINK?
Psychiatry. I was planning to take a gap year after school and then started studying in the new year. But I had started working in kitchens already and a hobby became a lifetime career.
WHAT IS THE BEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER GOT? AND WHAT IS THE BEST ADVISE YOU EVER RECEIVED
Best compliment was from a fellow chef that I worked with in Asia. He joined the team as a chef de parti. He was dedicated, but needed some guidance in different areas in the kitchen.
Years later, quite recently, he phoned to inform me he is the head chef of a restaurant. and thanked me for being so hard on him, saying that I inspired him in his career.
I think seeing your team grow in their career is the best compliment, because as chefs we need to mould our teams to take our positions one day.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) ABOUT YOURSLEF THAT THE AVERAGE PERSON IS NOT LIKELY TO KNOW?
I love gardening, flowers, herbs, succulents… you name it/
I don’t like raw oysters and the use of curly parsley in food.
I have a severe fear of lightning and thunder.
I am religious .
I collect paintings from all over the world.