Chefs Gone Wild

Three hot chefs and one celebrity party planner wine, dine, and whisk their way through South Africa. Richard David Story goes along for the ride.

Kruger National Park, South Africa: here in the bush, barely a quarter of a mile away from the cutting-edge luxury of the new Singita Sweni lodge, it is still dark. At 5:30 a.m. the mist, thick and mysterious, hovers above the savannah. The quiet is deafening. One senses but does not see life beginning to awaken—except of course for the five of us. We've just yawned our way out of bed and piled into the back of a Land Rover for our first game drive of the day. The last to board is Rocco DiSpirito, the Manhattan chef. "Uh, excuse me, mate," says our young ranger, a fellow named Malcolm, who winces as Rocco climbs aboard trying to balance an enormous cup of coffee. "That may not be such a good idea. It's going to be pretty wild and bumpy this morning."

Rocco pauses, cuts a sideways glance, then settles into the backseat. "Man, you've obviously never been in a New York City cab."

Rocco is one of three big-deal chefs—New Yorker Geoffrey Zakarian and Ming Tsai from Boston are the other two—who have been invited by the South African government, along with jet-set party planner Colin Cowie, to cook their way through the country showcasing the food and wine industry. Our safari at Singita is the last stop on a seven-day trip. At this moment, the sight before us has nothing to do with food or wine: Some 100 chacma baboons are galloping across the dirt road, some climbing into trees, others staring with ferocious attention. Geoffrey and Ming begin adjusting their digital cameras; Colin, who grew up in South Africa, merely pulls his sun hat farther over his face as if to say, For God's sake, it's six o'clock in the morning.

But it's Rocco, once again, who gets off the memorable line. "What's with those hot-pink asses?" he asks with that mix of lower Manhattan cool and Eddie Haskell wise guy that's made him a culinary superstar with his own TV show. "Well," begins Malcolm, clearing his throat, "it's like this, Rocco." He tries to explain delicately how the female's derriere swells and brightens in color—as a way to attract the male.

"And there are exactly how many males?" asks Rocco, persisting.

"Usually only one per troop."

We all do the math. "Cool," says Rocco, taking off his Ray-Bans. "So he's, like, the P. Diddy of the animal kingdom."

Everyone, it would appear, brings his own special perspective to Africa.

When I was first asked to accompany this group, I was a bit wary. One week wasn't a lot of time to do Cape Town, the Winelands, Johannesburg, and Durban, plus a safari. Even if you fly in the comfort of South African Airways' new lie-flat sleeper seats, that's a lot of ground—and sky—to cover. Ten years ago the country was still bound and gagged by apartheid, but today it is a brave new world buoyed by a strong economy, with smart hotels, ambitious restaurants, and world-class vineyards. While the actual itinerary could certainly be duplicated (see "A Cooks' Tour"), the experience could not. The foursome was to cook with local ingredients and improvise accordingly—a challenge, because ostrich kebobs are not often found on menus in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the home of Ming's Blue Ginger restaurant. And where would Colin ever find the goblets, topiaries, and tiny white roses that are de rigueur at his parties for the likes of Oprah Winfrey and John Travolta?

Not only would the landscape be foreign; so too, the kitchens. In the end, how could I pass up the opportunity to see these four talented guys up close and personal—on the savannah and in some of the most fabled hotels on earth. And so on Sunday, May 2, 2004, surrounded by my soon-to-be best friends, Geoffrey, Rocco, Ming, and Colin, I boarded SAA Flight 204 at JFK International Airport, nonstop to Johannesburg.

Fabulously pink and deliciously recherché—think Hotel Bel-Air meets Africa—Johannesburg's Westcliff hotel is International Luxe, albeit with plenty of local character. From the terrace of my high-speed Internet-ready suite, for example, I am told that I might hear hippopotamuses splashing and braying at the nearby Johannesburg Zoo during their early-morning ablutions. (I don't.) By the time we arrive at The Westcliff, it is close to 8 p.m. After a quick shower, we sit down to a very elaborate, very formal dinner. I finally lose count of the various carpaccios—ostrich, lobster, the antelope called kudu—prepared by the hotel's 30-year-old German chef, Sven Niederbremer. Dinner finishes late; the morning flight to Durban comes very, very early.

An early-19th-century Dutch settlement on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Durban is an hour-and-ten-minute flight from Jo'burg and the site of one of the world's infamous spice markets. Vendors hawk every known incendiary substance—piles of powders, variously colored and evocatively labeled "volcanic curry" and "mother-in-law exterminator curry." Just outside and across a crummy overpass, there is another and quite different market. Here the local witch doctors, or sangomas, ply their homeopathic remedies from open-air stalls. To be frank, the treatments appear more frightening than most ailments I can conjure up. I will never, ever forget the sight of a sangoma named Mrs. Deameni with a sort of buffet of mostly unrecognizable things—except for a monkey paw, dried and shriveled but still quite meaty.

At the market, the chefs are like kids in a candy shop, buying this herb and that pepper. They mingle with the vendors, striking up conversations, comparing varieties. Ming has even arranged to tape a segment for his public television show, Simply Ming.

Part of the itinerary has the American chefs going whisk-to-whisk with their South African counterparts. But tonight at the nearby Zimbali Lodge, the resident chef, Conrad Gallagher, is cooking. An Irish-born chef is a surprise in these parts, especially one who studied under Ducasse and has already written three cookbooks. He is eager to show just how haute South African cooking can be. The results are indeed impressive—if, as Colin observes, "a bit much for the bush, don't you think?" He should talk: Upon arrival, Colin finds an already quite fanciful outdoor dining room that has been transformed into a tented, glittering Versailles-meets-Bollywood fantasy, replete with sitars, musicians, Bharatanatyam dancers, brass candelabra, and ostrich plumes. He takes charge of the table, tweaking it into final shape and wrapping chandeliers, tables, and gold-leaf chairs with tangerine-colored chiffon. "Love candles, don't you?" asks Colin, lighting another dozen or so votives. "They make everyone look fabulous! Not just fabulous. Beyond fabulous!" Colin, who has written five books on entertaining and hosts his own syndicated show, Live Like a Star, is a master of extraordinary spectacle. But what makes him so remarkable is that he can pull it off even when he's in Durban.

How, I think to myself, can Gallagher hope to compete? But he does. He begins with baked local oysters finished with a foam of coconut and curry. Scottish salmon, cured with Earl Grey tea and kaffir lime leaves, is surrounded by beady little mounds of osetra caviar in cucumber oil. Quail, shot this very morning, are stuffed with capers, truffles, and foie gras. It's now approaching midnight, and still to come are steamed kingklip fish with dried and fresh mangoes, vanilla, bitter chocolate, and cardamom, and a sorbet of passion fruit with fromage blanc. "The problem," says Gallagher between sips of a Château d'Yquem and puffs on a big Cohiba, "is that it's hell getting produce in these parts. If we have fresh tomatoes, they're exported to some goddamned other place." So how does he do it? "I just do it."

Where Durban was gritty and tough, Cape Town sparkles with chic boutiques and stylish restaurants. We settle into the grand old Mount Nelson Hotel. In the kitchen of this picturesque colonial masterwork, Geoffrey will be the first of the group to don a toque.

Zakarian was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and studied economics at the University of Massachusetts. He didn't decide to become a chef until visiting Paris, where he apprenticed. Later, in New York at Le Cirque, Daniel Boulud would become his mentor. Three years ago he opened Town restaurant and promptly received three stars from The New York Times.

Other than a few flavorings he brought on the trip—his favorite green and yellow peppercorns and some salts that "I couldn't live without"—Geoffrey will try to use only regional ingredients at tonight's sit-down dinner. It's tough working in a stranger's kitchen, he says. "Sort of like jumping into someone else's band and taking the mike," is how he describes it. "You don't really want anyone to notice a difference. You just want them to think it's great." He starts the meal with a cauliflower-and-caviar bisque, a variation on a cold soup he serves in New York; this version, however, is spiced with the garam masala he bought in Durban. In New York he might have chosen lamb for the meat course; tonight it's ostrich, roasted and served with a sweet onion-caramel sauce.

With every meal, one looks forward to the exceptional local wines. These days in South Africa the choice is staggering. Among our favorites is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Meerlust Estate, just outside Cape Town in Faure. The day before, we'd met George Myburgh van Reenen at the vineyard founded by his family in 1757. Meerlust's 270 acres are planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Experts say the cooling effect of the summer's southeast winds makes the region climatically similiar to Bordeaux. I notice from the inscription in the leather-bound guest book in the tasting cellar that among the vineyard's fans is Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, who visited just last month.

After two days in Cape Town, the group flies to Kruger National Park. From there it's just a 30-minute drive to Singita. Located deep in the African bush inside a 37,000-acre private reserve within the park, the lodge embodies the African game reserve at its most modern and luxurious. The main lodge, Singita Lebombo, has 15 suites, but a brand-new boutique version, Singita Sweni, has only six villas, where we stay. It is an architectural triumph, as though Le Corbusier collaborated with some tribal genius to create these chrome-and-glass tree houses, with chic interiors, an infinity pool, and outdoor showers of such beauty that you could weep—or better yet, shower—all day.

Singita is, of course, all about the safari drives—one in early morning, another, late afternoon. The place promises and delivers the legendary wildlife of Africa—finally I see those braying hippos I had expected back at The Westcliff in Jo'burg; kudu and water buffalo are everywhere. A herd of elephants takes our breath away, as do giraffes that move from tree to tree, crunching the tops with such languid grace they look like Jurassic creatures filmed in slow motion. The first night out, a pride of lions, maybe 20 strong, commandeers the road ahead; the next morning we slowly track from the safe confines of our Land Rover a leopard as it roams, with great stealth, the savannah.

Also on the agenda are two dinners: one prepared by Rocco, the other by Ming. Rocco is set to partner with resident chef Kirsty-Lee Worthmann, but let's put it this way: Chefs are a competitive lot, and this partnership is shaping up as—how shall I say it?—a not particularly fruitful one. She wants things her way; he wants them his. But by evening's end (and with a negotiated menu), they appear to be the best of friends. Rocco, whose cooking at Manhattan's Union Pacific has been described in the most recent Zagat survey as both dazzling and exciting, does a wonderfully simple seviche of white salmon and an absolutely perfect tomato-and-lobster risotto. An appealing blend of playboy, rock star, and celebrity chef, he is, at his best, serious and focused.

Tsai grew up in Dayton. Like his grandfather, father, and brother, he graduated from Yale. Despite majoring in mechanical engineering, though, he decided to become a chef. He worked in the family's Chinese restaurant in Ohio, but it was a summer at the Cordon Bleu during college that changed his life. "I realized that the French, not just the Chinese, could cook. And that got me thinking, Why can't I blend the two?" Ming's Blue Ginger restaurant is considered the pinnacle of contemporary fusion cooking. Tonight's fête shows why.

Colin has created a very grand braai, a traditional South African barbecue complete with African dancers and roaring bonfires. Ming begins with his signature aperitif, the Blue Ginger gimlet (vodka, lime juice, and ginger syrup). Garlic-ginger calamari with coconut rice noodles is followed by ostrich grilled with a curried tea rub, created from spices picked up in Durban. The ostrich is served with sweet potatoes and a guava, grapefruit, and tomatillo salsa made by one of the Singita chefs.

This is our last night together before we head home. Rocco, Ming, Colin, and Geoffrey smoke cigars and swap stories around the bonfire. "It's been overwhelming," says Rocco. "The variety and the vastness—from the food and the wine to the animals and landscape." Tsai says he'll never forget the real banquet. It's called Africa—so voluptuous with smells and sounds and flavors. This, says Geoffrey, is the most exotic experience he's ever had.

"I love watching the first-timers," says Colin, who was born in Zambia and raised in the South African town of East London. "You see people experience something very thrilling. And I don't mean just the cheetahs and the elephants. You see them experiencing a country being reborn."


Closer to Home

ROCCO DISPIRITO is the force behind two very different New York City restaurants: Union Pacific (111 E. 22nd St.; 212-995-8500) is spare and modern, as is the cooking; Rocco's 22nd Street (12 E. 22nd St.; 212-353-0500) features Italian favorites. His new book, Rocco's Italian-American, will appear this fall.

GEOFFREY ZAKARIAN presides at Town (15 W. 56th St., NYC; 212-582-4445), where the design is just as sophisticated as the chef's New American cooking; his second restaurant, Country, is slated to open early 2005.

MING TSAI holds court at Blue Ginger (583 Washington St., Wellesley, Mass.; 781-283-5790), located just outside Boston.

COLIN COWIE produces weddings, parties, and charity events through his firm, Colin Cowie Lifestyle (212-396-9007; www.colincowie.com), based in New York and Los Angeles.


South Africa: A Cook's Tour

JOHANNESBURG'S Westcliff may be only six years old but looks and feels as if it's been part of the Jo'burg landscape forever, thanks to the stunning location and to the efforts of Mark Holden, the talented general manager. Rates, $370-$1,540; 27-11/646-2400; www.westcliff.co.za. JOHANNESBURG'S Westcliff may be only six years old but looks and feels as if it's been part of the Jo'burg landscape forever, thanks to the stunning location and to the efforts of Mark Holden, the talented general manager. Rates, $370-$1,540; 27-11/646-2400; www.westcliff.co.za.

CAPE TOWN provides a choice of first-rate hotels, but I can vouch only for the comforts of the Mount Nelson, especially if you're lucky enough to be sumptuously ensconced in one of the luxury suites. Afternoon tea is everything you would want from a onetime colonial holdout, the pool and gardens are divine, and the hotel's Planet Champagne Bar is a stylish late-night boîte. Should you wish to venture further afield to dine, the Africa Café (108 Shortmarket St.; 27-21/422-0221) is very cool and very good. With a menu of dozens of little plates, it's the perfect place to sample the local cuisine, and there's live music and dancing. The Mount Nelson's concierge can make all the necessary arrangements, including tucking you safely into a Mercedes for the trip there and back. Rates at the Mount Nelson, $840-$2,000; 27-21/483-1000; www.mountnelson.co.za. CAPE TOWN provides a choice of first-rate hotels, but I can vouch only for the comforts of the Mount Nelson, especially if you're lucky enough to be sumptuously ensconced in one of the luxury suites. Afternoon tea is everything you would want from a onetime colonial holdout, the pool and gardens are divine, and the hotel's Planet Champagne Bar is a stylish late-night boîte. Should you wish to venture further afield to dine, the Africa Café (108 Shortmarket St.; 27-21/422-0221) is very cool and very good. With a menu of dozens of little plates, it's the perfect place to sample the local cuisine, and there's live music and dancing. The Mount Nelson's concierge can make all the necessary arrangements, including tucking you safely into a Mercedes for the trip there and back. Rates at the Mount Nelson, $840-$2,000; 27-21/483-1000; www.mountnelson.co.za.

Just outside Cape Town are some of the world's most exciting vineyards; we particularly fell for the Cabernets at Meerlust Estate (27-21/843-3587; www.meerlust.co.za). Let the Myburgh family know that you're a departures reader and you'll be treated to an extraordinary tour of the vineyards, a cellar tasting, and a glimpse inside the family's original 17th-century house. If you'd like an expert to guide you through other viticultural wonders of Cape Town, visit Vaughan Johnson's Wine & Cigar Shop (Victoria & Alfred Waterfront; 27-21/419-2121).

DURBAN is certainly not on every tourist's list, nor need it be. However, the stunning Zimbali Lodge and Country Club is worth a visit. Nestled amid the tropical flora, the rooms are really like colonial tree houses. I was told that local vervet monkeys will often sit on your terrace, enviously eyeing you as you peel your morning banana. Rates, $565-$1,115; 27-32/538-1007; www.sun-international.com/resorts/zimbali.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK'S Singita Lebombo and Singita Sweni can be reached by plane in an hour and 15 minutes from Johannesburg. Staying here is truly the experience of a lifetime. Cocoon in one of Lebombo's 15 suites, or take over one of the six new villas at Sweni, the boutique addition next door. Rates include accommodations, three heavenly meals a day, and morning and afternoon safaris. There's reflexology and aromatherapy and a boutique where we wanted to buy everything. Rate, $2,240; 27-21/683-3424; www.singita.com.

SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS offers direct flights to Johannesburg daily from New York, and to Johannesburg and Cape Town from Atlanta. I can't vouch for how things go in coach, but the service in business class on one of the new A340-300Es was superb. 866-722-2476; www.flysaa.com.

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