Chef Ransley innovating & creating memorable experiences through food and wine

by Kyla Van Heerden

Executive Chef Ransley Pietersen has come a long way from a bursary from Protea Hotels at 18, to an award-winning chef who has cut his teeth at renowned restaurants like Overture, Fermier, and Serengeti Estates to finally launching The Old Oak restaurant at The Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club. His latest venture sees him partnering with Circle Senior Living to consult on their upmarket food offering at their new urban retirement development in Sandown.

Tell us about your journey to being a full-time chef.

My culinary journey started just over a decade ago and my time has been dedicated to aligning myself with some of the best chefs in the country. I have worked in many different kitchens honing my skills and developing a vision that I set out for myself.

I have been blessed to surround myself with great mentors that have given themselves willingly to my foundation as a chef. I have served as Executive Chef for the past four years of my career and have subsequently started my own consultancy, which has afforded me the opportunity to serve as an Executive Consultant on food and beverage for a leading hotel group as well as the most unique senior care facility.

This journey has been one of great sacrifice and reward in that it has given me the platform to change people’s lives through food. The relationships I have built with chefs, guests, and suppliers alike have been a blessing that I will forever be grateful for. I have learned in my short time that being gifted with a skill means nothing unless you use it to change people’s lives – people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

What do you enjoy the most about being a chef?

What I enjoy the most about being a chef is the ability to be innovative and create memorable experiences through food and wine. The Chef’s Tables that I host for private guests or winemakers have been a turning point for my career as this has enabled me to completely bring a blank canvas to life.

Marrying a wine with a dish has been what drives my creativity in creating an intrinsic yet harmonious setting where both can exist for a short space of time. I truly believe that a chef is an artist who has the ability to create a masterpiece that only lasts for a short time and lives the rest in memory. If we approach every situation with that in mind there is no reason why we can’t be phenomenal in what we do.

Apart from blank canvases in cooking, I have found the most joy in the development and building of restaurants. I have been blessed to have built three restaurants from scratch and revamped half a dozen. I thrive in understanding the mechanics of a restaurant and I am driven to make sure that efficiency and ease are of the fundamentals that set the conditions for operating in one.

What would your top tip be for anyone who enjoys cooking?

Enter into it with complete abandon or not at all. Yes, cooking for home cooks is something of a hobby and cooking is for the most part a systemic result of sustenance to some degree. But, I believe that our generation has changed in the service of food and beverage.

It is vitally important to know the origin of what you eat and understanding your ingredients opens a whole new world of what you eat and the manner in which you do it. Eating at good restaurants can be very expensive but this should be looked at in the light of being an investment in developing your palette and understanding of food. Once you have a solid foundation and understanding of cuisine, take recipes and apply yourself to make it your own.

How would you best describe the challenges you face or have faced, and how you overcome these challenges?

Challenges and setbacks are inevitable, if anything, I think it is indefinitely the only factor that we are sure to experience. In my earlier years, I made the mistake of allowing these challenges to dictate my behaviour and ultimately decisions in the kitchen.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve when it comes to your craft is a massive feat that isn’t easily accepted by those around you. It is vital though to stay grounded and steadfast in your aspirations and ambition to be better than you are every single day.

Channeling your energy and time toward a positive mindset allows for your creativity to follow through. Shake it off, head down, and keep chasing your dreams. My goal was always the person that I would be in the future. That way I knew I would never settle and that’s what keeps me alive every day.

You have worked with many well-known chefs. What was the most valuable lesson you learned from doing this?

I’ve had the privilege to work under some great chefs in my career and this has catapulted my career to a point. My focus now is to leave that same legacy and culture in my own way.

The legacy allows future generations to benefit from the foundations that are instilled today. I truly believe that the chefs I have worked for have helped pave my journey to a point where I was able to pave the next few for myself. I will forever be indebted to them for their guidance and contribution to who I am. The mentors that I’ve worked for in my time include Bertus Basson (Overture), Adriaan Maree (Fermier), and Shane Smit (Jamie’s Italian & Mozzafiato).

What is your favourite wine and what would you pair it with?

Over the years I’ve been blessed to be exposed to wines that most haven’t heard of or probably would never have the opportunity to try. I have had the unique experience of having wine that I would never be able to afford and this I do not take for granted at all.

To ask what my favourite wine is, is a difficult question to answer.

At The Old Oak, we host something called The Chef’s Table which is a multiple-course curated dinner pairing food and wine. We host these dinners for private guests but have also been blessed to feature winemakers. As one can imagine these winemakers have featured some of their most prized possessions during these dinners.

I recall serving ex-springbok captain, rugby legend, and fellow PBHS Old Boy, John Smit, at one of these occasions. My philosophy on food is one of extreme love and care, understanding produce and the market of supply and demand.

I think that’s why I am so passionate about the slow food movement and farm-to-table cooking. With a little extra introspection and inspiration a chef with a blank canvas can be as good as a Salvidor Dali – but creating food from expression and intent that questions the diner about what he is about to experience. I experience profound joy when people gaze in awe at a plate of food that they’re about to eat in excitement yet guilt for destroying what it looks like.

The perfect pairing on the night was a symphony of contrasting yet similar flavours with every bite taken together with every sip of wine. Featuring the Orpheus and the Raven No.7 Pinotage 2018 vintage, paired with a Pork Head Testina. Yes pig’s head!

The process starts with a whole pig’s head that we brine in a salt solution with a mixture of fresh herbs and toasted spices. The head sits in the brine for approximately 10 hours depending on the size. Then it is carefully deboned and rolled into a roulade. This is then vacuum sealed and sous vide at 85°C for 12 hours and then cooled overnight. This allows the gelatine to set.

We then slice it into a perfect disk and sear it on the flat top till golden brown. The accompaniments on the plate are very clean flavours that allow the pork to shine; charred aubergine puree, confit onion, pickled beetroot cones, mustard seeds bloomed in vinegar, and a touch of raspberry gastrique. To finish off we add a silky smooth pork jus and wood sorrel.

What makes the Orpheus and The Raven No.7 Pinotage 2018 so special is the fact that Ettienne Louw (winemaker) has sourced these Pinotage grapes from seven sites, all adding different layers of complexity, texture, and overall taste. Grapes from each area are fermented and then put into 50% new oak barrels contributing to a round and elegant wine with a complex yet comfortable tannin structure that supports the abundance of fruit on the palate.

What have you accomplished so far and how would you inspire other young chefs to stay motivated?

What I have accomplished thus far solely rests on my team who have made the journey easier in carrying out my vision daily. I would like to thank each and every one of my staff members that I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years in contributing to my life.

I’ve managed to start my own consultancy recently, which has changed my life and my vision of where I want to be in the next couple of years.

With the opening of The Old Oak Restaurant, I’ve managed to put together a team of professionals that share in the vision I’ve had for many years. Running a restaurant at an esteemed golf club, probably one of the most prestigious clubs in the country, has been a challenge in its own right. The guidance and support from the board as well as our CEO, Chris Bentley, has opened avenues in delivering an award-winning restaurant that is taking Johannesburg by surprise, to say the least.

The Old Oak Restaurant, just four months after opening its doors, boasts ‘The Best Luxury Family Restaurant in South Africa’, awarded by The Luxury Lifestyle Awards based in New York.

There are a few plans and synergies lined up for the near future with top-tier personalities and TV shows that should materialise by the end of the year.

My words of wisdom to young chefs would be to remain hungry and stay foolish. Always commit 100% of yourself when you walk through the back door. Never allow a salary or status of a position to deter you from learning daily and honing your skill and understanding.

It is extremely vital to take the time to develop yourself and making it to the top too quickly can be detrimental to your career. There is so much more that can be said, but in everything, we need to remain humble and disciplined in our craft for future generations.

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