Chef Henrico Grobbelaar made the seemingly radical swimagainst-the-tide decision (or outright mad, if you ask his father) to swap a career in engineering to that of chef; proved daddy wrong when he won the Sunday Times Chef of the Year 2009 and the San Pellegrino International Young Chef of the Year 2009; sailed the seven seas aboard the yacht of a pair of American millionaire brothers in need of chef who could turn out gourmet cuisine in a kitchen the size of a large, constantly moving fridge; owned his own restaurant (Lemons in Somerset West); cooked for high and mighty at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year and, most recently; was nabbed for the express purpose of looking after Football Royalty at the recent FIFA Football World Cup. What next? Grobbelaar himself isn’t entirely sure. I suggest a holiday – he promises me hasn’t had a day off since 2004. Symptomatic of some kind workaholism, or total, utter, dogged focused determination, I wonder? A holiday is not possible, I’m told. He is a member of the South African Culinary Olympic team, and post the footy, all he has time to think about is his next big thing, which in this case is preparation for the Culinary Olympics, taking take place in Luxembourg in November.
I’m intrigued. Most engineers I know would sniff at the thought of rattling pots and pans behind a hot stove for a living, just too menial or for girls. Or too ‘creative’ for the mathematical mind. So, what was the compelling force that drew him away from a promising career in polymer (plastics) engineering and into food? The answer is less demanding or spiritual than you’d think. The chefs jacket had great appeal. Since his youth, Grobbelaar had wanted to wear one of those white, buttoned things and nowhere in the engineers wardrobe did they appear. Not even a white lab coat came close. I’d like to say that he went straight back to school, but he didn’t. First he slogged it out at Erinvale Golf estate in Somerset West, where he peeled vegetables for 3 years under Australian Chef Michael Bridgeman. His father was horrified. After that, it was a win at a Salon Culinaire in 2004 (a competition specific to cold kitchen preparations) and then onto the yacht, a job for which, like many subsequent jobs, he was head hunted.
It was only after that, that he was first inducted with formal training: With Garth Stroebel and Paul Hartmann at what was then their brand new South African Culinary Academy. Grobbelaar was vindicated. Under chefs Stroebel and Hartmann, the world of cuisine revealed itself to be every bit as rich and exacting as he had anticipated.
Henrico’s rise to ‘fame’ hasn’t been meteoric. It has been steady and consistent. After almost a decade in the industry, last year Grobbelaar said hello world, winning both the Sunday Times Chef of the Year and San Pellegrino International Young Chef of the Year, where Hillary Billar described Grobbelaar as ‘clinical, orgnaised and focused’ – probably what happens when you put the mathematical competence of an engineer into the kitchen. To that I would also like to add ‘visual’, because the man’s food is beautiful.
Grobbelaar is also a chef who closely penetrated the inner circle of the World Cup Catering activity. In January of this
year, he was again showing his mettle, this time as executive chef for the World Economic Forum in Davos, where South
Africa was the host country. Two days after the event, the call from FIFA came through. Someone had been watching.
Officially Grobbelaar was responsible for Quality Assurance of the VIP programme maintained by the Local Organising
Committee (LOC – the South African operations arm for FIFA). He worked hand in hand with the two catering companies
contracted to manage that aspect of the World Cup, namely Greens Catering (of whom the head chefs were all German and imported especially for the purpose) and One World Hospitality. Their respective executive chefs would report to Henrico, who would in turn report to the LOC. Required of the Quality Assurance Manager was that he oversee the 7 rotational menus of all 10 stadiums countrywide. Out of a total of 64 games, about 660 VIP’s and VVIP’s were in attendance at each game. He was involved in menu development, giving menus a geographical flavour. Those dining
at the Moses Mabila Stadium (Durban) were given a taste of ‘Durban Masala’, paying homage to Indian cuisine; Cape Town’s stadium had a predictably Cape Malay and Cape Dutch theme (where things like waterblommetjie breedie lay side by side with pickled fish). For the final, taking place at Soccer City in Johannesburg, Grobbelaar bravely put forward ethnic ‘skop’ (ox head).
Grobbelaar reveals himself to be a hands on chef (clearly doing is just as appealing as wearing a chefs’ jacket). As such, he tells me he found the World Cup experience frustrating. At 30, he’s not yet supposed to be a clipboard chef. But the LOC needed his expertise – all food costs had to be checked against quality of the produce, and that is where he stepped in. The hours were often gruelling, sometimes from 7am –2am the next day and flying, directly after one game, to the next game at another stadium. His main task was to be a smooth operator, making sure that service at each match was seamless. His duty was to arrive 4 hours in advance of kick off, to begin checking that absolutely everything was ship shape: Crockery, cutlery, menus, décor, all equipment – freezers, fridges and stoves, water and electricity supply and all food, probe tested.
Then, two hours prior to kick off, bars would open and snacking began, first with starters and then a main dish. The VVIP’s, in their secluded lounges got extra special treatment in the form of oysters and fresh crêpes. Abundance was never lacking and during half time, all buffet tables were replenished, in addition to a ‘half time bite’ being served. Dessert came after. It was hard to go hungry.
Although the game might be over, kitchen work wasn’t. Run with Swiss precision, a full debriefing took place after each game between Match (the hospitality arm of FIFA), the LOC and the caterer concerned. As improvements and mistakes are hammered out, so each event became more efficient.
His greatest challenges, apart from getting to the airport in time to make the flight to his next match, was the perennial burr in the side of the South African culinary industry: Inadequately trained staff. Frequently Grobbelaar found himself coming face to face with staff who lacked proper training, hence skills and stamina. That said, his greatest joy came from seeing staff improve on a match by match basis, and witnessing the level of education that took place. To be a part of this was phenomenal he says.