South Africa’s Mother City is famed for its red-hot culinary scene, but one man has long stood out for keeping his menus astoundingly local and sustainable. Get to know Chef Rudi Liebenberg.
With a career spanning more than 20 years, Rudi Liebenberg has become one of the most celebrated chefs in Cape Town. He has been honing his culinary artistry at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel for almost 10 years.
As one of the city’s most famous sites, there is a lot of pressure to ensure the restaurants remain just as iconic. Chef Rudi’s creative vision has kept the menus fresh and modern, in contrast to the historic setting. His commitment to local, sustainable produce pushes him to find inventive twists on classic recipes and flavour combinations.
Rudi’s career had a humble beginning. Inspired by the great cooking of his mother and granny, he sought a culinary career and first began working in a pizzeria in Melville, Johannesburg. He soon joined the army as a chef, where he trained under phenomenal, qualified chefs. This inspired him to carry on his education at the Wits Hotel School. He worked banquets and moved between South Africa’s most acclaimed hotels. At one point he was even the private chef to one of the chief executives of FedEx. He was eventually sought out by the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel for his stellar experience.
You can sample his avant-garde dishes in the Lord Nelson Restaurant. For an interactive experience head to the Chef’s Table, where you can discuss the recipes directly with Chef Rudi and his team. The latest initiative here is the ‘Wasted!’ menu, which uses traditionally rejected food parts. These are upcycled to perfection as you learn about the growing issue of food waste.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
Unfair, unfair, unfair. There’s three experiences… I like simple food. So when we travelled to Asia, Laos stuck with me. One night we went out searching for dinner and stumbled across the nicest family eating in their family restaurant. We asked if we could have what they were eating. They called it a Lao feast. Whole roasted fish barbecued over coals, with these great dips, herbs, lettuce leaves, and noodles to combine as you wanted. The freshness of everything stayed in my mind.
Then when it comes to formal restaurants I have to mention The Ledbury in London. I sat down for lunch and was looked after by Chef Brett Graham. There were multiple courses of bliss, including pigeon that still makes me smile. Then I remember Luksus, a small restaurant set at the back of a craft beer hall in Brooklyn. The whole meal was paired with beer from all over the world. This was happiness, sitting at the counter watching and talking to chef Daniel Burns.
The first dish you ever learned to cook?
Spaghetti Bolognese. Part of my lesson was given over the phone when my mother was working late.
Which one ingredient do you love to work with right now?
Cauliflower, using every part of it. It’s humbling to understand one ingredient, the responsibility we have in using all of it, from stalk to leaves. These days we only want picture-perfect ingredients, and we’ve forgotten how to cook with everything.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Nature, real ingredients, art and music.
What is your go-to dish when you’re in a rush?
Grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough, or maybe a classic spaghetti aglio e olio.
Appetiser or dessert?
Appetiser. I prefer savoury combinations, I find them stimulating and find you have more possibilities to work with.
What item on your menu best represents you?
Cauliflower starter with a cauliflower creme, masala roasted cauliflower, cauliflower salad, pickled cauliflower and a cauliflower pakora. It fits my philosophy of using every part of the ingredient.
If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
New York. The energy there is insane and there are some phenomenal food choices.
Words to live by?
Respect! Respect the ingredient. Respect the farmer. Respect the process. Respect the guest. Respect the staff.