Closely sourced

Blending technology and sustainability, a restaurant in South Africa’s winelands offers a unique dining experience. Jim Banks discovers how Equus Restaurant and the Cavalli Stud and Wine Farm are breaking new ground

Less than an hour’s drive from bustling Cape Town lies South Africa’s premier wine-producing region, with the town of Stellenbosch at its heart. Lush vineyards line the slopes of the hills and among them stand the many estates where visitors can taste the wines that have become some of the country’s best known exports. Amid the traditional wine farms, however, lies something new – the Cavalli Stud and Wine Farm.

The family-owned estate sits in the heart of the Golden Triangle, a small wine-producing area between Stellenbosch and Helderberg, but even from first impressions it stands apart from the other estates. Its architecture is the first clue to the ethos that inspires every aspect of the venture, from the cuisine in its restaurant to the techniques used to manage the land.

“We are custodians of the land,” says Lauren Smith, owner and managing director of the Cavalli estate. “Since we bought this land five years ago we’ve learned a lot about the wine industry and we found it had affected the biodiversity of the region. I am keen on conservation so I wanted to create a sanctuary and establish a benchmark for sustainability.”

An architect whose passion for horses is reflected in the name of the estate, the sculpture in its grounds and the labels for its wines – i cavalli is Italian for horses – Smith decided to create a business that would work in harmony with the land, while also providing the highest quality in everything, from its produce to its aptly named Equus restaurant.

“We want to show what can be done in a sustainable manner. This is a great platform for us to start a conversation about these core ideas. In South Africa there are proscriptive ideas about what a wine farm looks like. We wanted to create a modern brand with its own language. We offer something new, about my passion for design and for nature,” she explains.

All the architecture and design at the Cavalli estate is informed by a drive to be sustainable and to establish a benchmark for environmental and energy efficiency. Solar panels provide much of the power and wastewater is treated for reuse. While retaining an agricultural component, the estate endeavours to rehabilitate the biodiversity of the land. This philosophy of sustainability permeates everything, including the Equus restaurant, which has become the first Green Star-rated restaurant in South Africa.

“I lived in Italy for a while and the culture there is connected to local suppliers. People buy their produce from the local market. In South Africa it is more like the US, where people are disconnected from their suppliers. Here, I wanted to get some of the ingredients for the menu from our own land. For the bistro, many ingredients come from our garden. Local produce has a better flavour,” says Smith.

High quality local ingredients are a key part of the story. The other key factor is the presence of one of South Africa’s top chefs, Henrico Grobbelaar.

The ethos of Equus

Having traded his career as an engineer in 2001 Grobbelaar quickly became known as one of South Africa’s most creative young chefs. He was Sunday Times Chef of the Year 2009, San Pellegrino International Young Chef of the World 2009, executive chef to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland 2010 and to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in his home country.

His cuisine is based on full, simple flavours that derive from the balance of high quality of ingredients. That philosophy has enabled him to create a menu that has something for everyone. Equus offers an affordable bistro menu for lunch and fine dining in the evenings.

Henrico Grobbelaar“The idea for the restaurant is to be very close to nature,” says Grobbelaar. “We use the harvest from the garden, we recycle a lot, we compost and we recycle all the water we use. In the kitchen there is no deep fat fryer. We have a very energy-efficient operation in the kitchen. In terms of the food, we want people to have options. There is always a vegetarian option and at the moment that uses beetroot and basil from our herb garden.”

“We respect our produce and try to source everything from as close as possible. For instance, all of our pork comes from the pig farm next door, and our trout comes from the farm opposite. Our cuisine is local, basic stuff, but presented in a way never seen before in South Africa. Stellenbosch has four of the top 10 restaurants in the country, so we have to aim high. I draw a lot of inspiration from the huge art gallery we have here. I like that people can see art downstairs and eat it upstairs.”

Grobbelaar was closely involved 
in the design of the kitchen, both in terms of its layout and the choice of equipment, helping to source the most energy-efficient technology and equipment.
“The kitchen is big and open like a theatre. Everyone can see into it and people can come to talk to us about the food. In fact, there are three kitchens – the production kitchen downstairs, the show kitchen upstairs and a satellite service kitchen – so that we can easily change the menu between lunch and dinner.

“I had some specific requirements 
for the main kitchen, the first being a Charvet oven, which is sturdy, looks good, is very efficient and includes many time-saving elements. The second was Adande fridges, which are very low-noise and low-energy,” he explains.

The concept of Adande refrigeration fits neatly with the ethos of sustainability that defines everything on the Cavalli estate. They are easy to use, versatile, efficient and, above all, safer as they enable food to be preserved without any risk of breaking the cold chain.

“It is a very streamlined kitchen and we introduced some new techniques, such as the use of tiles with heating elements in the plating area. From day one the main kitchen has been ready and there have been no changes in its design. I took all the positives from all of the places I have worked before and threw out all the negatives. I knew what I needed and I have a kitchen that was designed by a chef, for a chef,” says Grobbelaar.

Fit for the future

Key to the success of the kitchen design was the ability of the contractors to meet the brief in exact detail, and this is where FCSI Europe, Africa and Middle East allied members Mac Brothers Catering Equipment came into the frame. Smith already knew the company from big projects like Willoughby & Co at the Waterfront in Cape Town, and it is the agent for Charvet in South Africa.

“Originally, we were approached to complete specialised racks for the wine display, from there we were able to further involve ourselves in this exciting project. We were responsible for all structural supports for the bar frames as well as the impressive serving counter. All back of house equipment was also supplied by us,” says Gareth Hewett from the sales department at Mac Brothers.

“Owner, chef and architects were heavily involved in the process. The two main areas that we focused on were the à la carte dining area and how we could integrated this with the front of house area. We also used specialised heating techniques to bring the plating surface – Neolith – up to 70°C as any suspending heating systems would have ruined the visual effect of the kitchen area.

“The banqueting facility also needed to be able to operate singularly without putting any strain on the other areas of the facility,” Hewett adds.

The working relationship between the fit-out team and the chef was crucial, given that Grobbelaar had a crystal clear idea of what he needed.

“Henrico was very specific about what he wanted from the refrigeration equipment. The fact that we could incorporate the Adande drawer fridges, freezers and blast chillers gave him the versatility he required with regard to the layout as well as the stable temperature environment for his product. Since opening, we have made slight alterations to the cold section, slightly increasing tabling space, but otherwise everything was good from the word go,” says Hewett.

“We were living up to our commitment to make our clients successful and our continuing drive to become the best kitchen equipment and full solutions supplier to the food service industry in South Africa and beyond,” he adds.

The efforts of everyone from architect to kitchen contractor have made the Equus restaurant and the Cavalli estate a huge success since it opened late last year.

Guests in the restaurant“I am very happy with and humbled by the response to the estate since it opened,” says Smith. I’m fascinated by details and I would lie awake at night thinking about how to create moments of inspiration for our customers, even down to the design of the restrooms in the restaurant. It was worth it because the reaction has been overwhelming. People are proud of it as a South African project and it is great to see them enjoying it.”

Equus has been fully booked since day one, and is still, many months later, turning people away because demand for bookings exceeds its capacity.

“We opened in November 2013 and have a good reputation for good, honest cuisine made with local produce. We are open about what is in each dish and people appreciate that,” says Grobbelaar.

The popularity of both Cavalli and Equus is proof that innovative design 
and technology can spearhead a sustainable revolution.

Jim Banks

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