“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes” and other secrets to great cooking

Acclaimed chef Franck Dangereux shares indispensable advice for the kitchen as he reflects on a lifelong love of food.

Chef-Franck-Dangereux

Franck Dangereux and I are sitting at a window seat in The Foodbarn chatting. It is lunchtime on a weekday, and his restaurant — in the semi-rural suburb of Noordhoek, Cape Town — has a civilised bustle. The Foodbarnis “a place of serious food but it’s relaxed still”, he says, waving his hand around to emphasise this. “We try to demystify fine dining here.” He says the world’s fine dining restaurants only reach 3% of the population: he wants to touch 30% of the population with better food. “I don’t want to be in the fine dining game anymore because I find it a little bit elitist and also unrealistic.” He wants this to be a space where children — and not just adults — get to experience exquisitely cooked food (nipping out to the playground between courses) and where no one judges you if you drop your knife.

I don’t want to be in the fine dining game anymore because I find it a little bit elitist and also unrealistic.

A manifestation of Dangereux’s passion to make excellent food accessible are his regular cooking demonstrations at the restaurant, as well as his cookbook Feast at Home — a marvellous concoction of anecdotes, advice and, of course, delicious recipes.

“I urge people to not be afraid to make mistakes,” he says. “When it comes to food, I find people are just so afraid of fucking it up. Don’t be. Nobody’s dead. Flopping a soufflé or a sauce is not a big deal. You really learn best from your mistakes. If it doesn’t hurt somehow you’re not learning. There’s no lesson in joy: unfortunately, you only learn when it hurts.”

When it comes to food, I find people are just so afraid of fucking it up. Don’t be. Nobody’s dead. Flopping a soufflé or a sauce is not a big deal. You really learn best from your mistakes.

Dangereux’s approach to cooking is one that embraces all the senses. He wants to, he says, “teach people how to use their senses for the process of cooking — not only at the end, but to keep your senses engaged from the beginning, [and] throughout the process, because I really believe you’ll become a better cook by doing that.”

For him, making food is an emotional act. “I really believe that there’s a lot of joy in cooking because it’s a sense of accomplishment — when you make something nice, you feel good about yourself; and you make others happy … if you actually ace the texture and the taste, you can make somebody fall in love with you.” He’s seen it happen more than once, “so I know it’s true”, he grins.

I ask him to choose what I should eat. Sometimes choice is tiresome, and anyway, I always think you should trust the chef — particularly one with as many awards in the drawer as Dangereux. He picks the salmon tartare, followed by springbok rump — medium rare, of course.

Dangereux began cooking during his childhood in Cannes. “I’ve always been fascinated by it; it’s always been magical to me that you took some ingredients and you do something to them and you make people happy.” And yet he admits his “passion is more for eating than cooking. It’s not a quantity issue — I’m just passionate about eating delicious things; I’m passionate about what the flavours do and that goes way back to when I was a little boy — I used to save my money to be able to buy that one type of chocolate from that one little shop because it did something to me — it gave me pleasure that I would not find in listening to music or being with friends. And I’ve always felt that way about food and ingredients: it can also be as simple as a ripe tomato, cut in half with a bit of salt and a bit of olive oil — there are some very simple things that make me emotional they’re so delicious. I do what I do today because I am passionate about eating, so the cooking is more the adventure, the ‘What can I eat next?’”

At 14, Dangereux enrolled in hotel school before embarking on an apprenticeship where he worked alongside one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, Roger Vergé, in the three Michelin-starred Le Moulin de Mougins. By 21, after seven years of 16-hour days, he was sick of cooking. “I wanted to party; I wanted to drink; I wanted to play with girls — so I did that.” He took two years off from the kitchen, flitting about the Caribbean as a freight pilot.

A visit in 1987 to Cape Town absolutely captivated him: he fell in love with the city. Intrigued by the promise of a new South Africa, he moved there in 1994. His first proper job back in the kitchen was at Constantia Uitsig with the late Frank Swainston. With southern Provence very much in vogue, the farm’s owners invited Dangereux to create a new Provençal-inspired restaurant from scratch: La Colombe, which opened its doors in 1996.

“Everything was just right: I was fired up about cooking; I loved the fact that I could find more and more ingredients here, and I was just in love with that place and being with the vineyards, the climate. I was given carte blanche… The owner said ‘spend what you must — we want a beautiful restaurant’.”

He describes the experience as “a real, crazy fine dining adventure which nearly killed me”. The petite 35-seater soon grew into “a magnificent restaurant” — he saw it win Best Restaurant in SA six times; by 2006, it was 20th in the world.

While he relished the acclaim, it brought about its own challenges. “It goes to your head very quickly when people rate you and love you. When you get accolades like that you feel fantastic and when you don’t get them anymore you feel terrible. So you need to learn to take both the accolades and the criticism with a pinch of salt.”

Once you enter the top 10, he says, you want to stay there. “I was very much on that treadmill. I wanted it. I’m ambitious and I wanted to stay there, at the top of my game. In the beginning, it was a complete labour of love and I was only focused on doing what I love regardless of what anybody else thought. Three years down the line the pressure was on us because we were the best. Thank goodness I had friends that would bring me back to the essence of why we were the best: because I was doing what I wanted to do.”

This was essential, he says, “because if you don’t cook for yourself — if you don’t please yourself in the process — chances you’re not going to please anybody. It’s a generous act, but you’ve got to be selfish with the process: you must do what you want, what feels delicious to you, and then 90% of the time people will love it. If you try to please too many people, you end up pleasing nobody. You must please yourself.”

By 2006, the relentless crafting of lunch and dinner six days a week meant that Dangereux and his young family were taking strain. He discovered that the “grotty little farmstall — very charming but very dirty” that he, like many other Noordhoek residents, loved frequenting, was for sale. He resigned from La Colombe, bought the farmstall, gutting it completely and installing a bakery, deli and restaurant in its place.

If you try to please too many people, you end up pleasing nobody. You must please yourself.

“I was under some kind of illusion after leaving La Colombe that I would be satisfied with having a little farm stall. Who was I kidding? My wife often laughs at me — she says ‘You were going to make sandwiches in Noordhoek — seriously?!’ I was really convinced that was what I wanted. I was so tired and gatvol of all those years of pressure and I really thought, ‘Fuck, I just want to sell sandwiches in Noordhoek and that’s all I want to do.’ But my wife knew better.”

The Foodbarn has expanded: the deli and bakery (which serves homely light meals during the day and tapas in the evenings) is now in a separate building nearby, while the original space is home to his serious-yet-informal take on haute cuisine.

Dangereux is always developing new recipes, and the Foodbarn’s menu changes constantly. “I don’t like to cook out of season — I don’t believe in importing things from the other side of the world because they’re not in season on my side of the world — it’s ridiculous,” he says. He believes people should “be creative with what you have”. Dangereux is inspired by his “virtual memory of the markets” of his childhood. And, in keeping with his sensory approach to cooking, “there’s always something that comes onto my table that triggers me” — whether seasonal produce, the discovery of a rabbit breeder or the availability of lamb tripe, forest mushrooms and even chestnuts.”

Dangereux places a huge emphasis on sustainably sourced ingredients. He believes the Foodbarn can help to educate people, and believes that slowly awareness about the importance of ethical food production is growing. “Sustainability is an attitude. You’ve got to be consistent. Everyone making a little effort is not in vain — the wheel is turning slowly,” he says.

With frequent chef’s tables, a seasonal wine pairing menu, and a restaurant open every day of the week, there is plenty to keep Dangereux busy. But despite this, he says he’s much more relaxed than his days at La Colombe. The Foodbarn, run in conjunction with business partner Peter de Bruin, operates on “our terms — it’s our business,” he says.

The Foodbarn has seen “very organic growth”, he says. “We’re very happy: it’s a happy place; we have happy staff working for us. I love this restaurant — it’s the kind of restaurant where I would want to go. I really wanted to create a place where I want to go. This is pretty much it.”

This is a revised version of an article which was first published in the December 2013 edition of Wanted.

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