This local chef spent R70k on culinary inspiration - & it shows in his food

Jackie Clausen meets Alex Poltera, the gifted cook who flew to the UK to eat at 31 top restaurants

23 November 2017 - 00:00 By Jackie Clausen
Chef Alex Poltera at work with pastry chef Cayley Slater.
Chef Alex Poltera at work with pastry chef Cayley Slater.
Image: Jackie Clausen

Alex Poltera, the talented head chef at the Midlands-based Fern Hill Hotel, comes out to play at his occasional food and wine pairings.

Held at the hotel's Snooty Fox restaurant, such events give him the opportunity to experiment with ingredients and pair them with some spectacular wines.

Poltera's story is fascinating. Trained by his hotelier parents and through the South African Chefs Academy in Cape Town, his dream trip - which he spent most of his life saving for - was to travel to the UK to dine at as many high-end restaurants as possible.

In 28 days, he managed to eat at 31 restaurants, 19 with Michelin stars and four with three Michelins. That cost him R70,000.

The experience opened his eyes to endless possibilities and, on his return to South Africa, he eagerly began his gastronomic experiments. But the drastically changed menu was hard for the Midlands folk to swallow.

People in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, he says, still want a big steak and chips. "I had to go back to the drawing board and take baby steps to introduce things slowly."

Now, Poltera describes his menu as having a gastro pub vibe, with ethically sourced, good-quality ingredients.

"People's attitudes have changed in leaps and bounds," he says, "and now customers enjoy different cuisine occasionally."

Eager to sample his talent, I made my way up the long and windy hill towards Howick last week for one such evening, and wasn't disappointed. The winery for the evening was Edgebaston, made by David Finlayson on the Finlayson family vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Poltera paired the first course, fresh Luderitz oysters with mignonette, crisped Nori and caviar, with the fruity Edgbaston Berry Box. The fruity berry note in the wine was juxtaposed with the fresh saltiness of the oysters and caviar, and presented beautifully on top of a large block of pink Himalayan salt.

Fresh Luderitz oysters with mignonette, crisped Nori and caviar.
Fresh Luderitz oysters with mignonette, crisped Nori and caviar.
Image: Jackie Clausen

The second course, my favourite, was marinated homegrown artichokes (fresh from the hotel garden), prawn and asparagus linguini with dill and lemon sabayon which was paired with Edgbaston chardonnay. I did exactly what we're taught not to do - I played with my food, eating slowly and savouring the tastes and managed to sneak in three top-ups of the wine.

The main course was venison (an unfortunate impala) with black lentils, seared mushroom, roast vine tomato, marrowbone and rosemary jus.

The marrow bone was quickly whisked off my plate by my husband, so I can't comment on that, but the flavourful lentils were a surprising compliment to the game. It was paired with a blended red, a David Finlayson Camino Africana Cabernet Franc.

Of course, like most women I am a dessert lush, and the dark chocolate and raspberry marquise went down a treat with an unusual pairing, a pinot noir. It was a rich, heady combination which should have led me to one of the hotel's 26 rooms. Alas the baby sitter awaited.

• This article was originally published in The Times