After a 15 year stint in the gourmet capital of London, Max Bothe took up residence at The River Café on the breathtaking Constantia Uitsig wine estate. Food24 sat down with him in the beautiful space he calls home.
1. Max Bothe, very little is known about you in SA, tell us a bit about where you come from and what first inspired you to make a living out of cooking.
I was born in Germany and my parents immigrated to Cape Town when I was barely a year old.
My mother was a passionate cook and at an early age I helped in the kitchen grating potatoes for rosti, cutting spaetzle into boiling water and tasting everything in sight.
Eating was a social affair in our house and we always sat at the table. Often our neighbours, a Portuguese family from Madeira, would join us, or if my dad wasn’t to be found he surely would be next door sampling some home-made red.
After I completed my National Service in Namibia, then South West Africa, I remained in Swakopmund and started working at a family run restaurant.
Immediately I was smitten, the heat, the pace, the waitresses… Well I was young.
I knew then that this is what I wanted to do.
To cut a long story short, I returned to Cape Town, met my wife and got married and the wanderlust struck and we flew to London.
2. Cooking in London for 15 years must have been a very exciting time in your life. Talk us through the highlights and the low lights.
Cooking in London is regimental, fast and furious.
I started off as a commis at the YOCC in Fleet Street under head chef John da Silva from the Dorchester. He was very old school.
There was pain and there were tears. But like the army it taught me mental toughness, discipline and I learnt to never cut corners, to always persevere and when in doubt to adhere to the basics.
I spent the next five years travelling the world, earning my way with cooking stints in various London kitchens.
It was when my son was born that I ventured into contract catering.
Reluctantly I might add as there has always been a negative connotation to this type of hospitality environment.
Fortunately I joined a blue chip company in the form of Baxter & Platts
and soon found myself working with chefs trained by the likes of JC Novelli, Nico Ladenis and John Burton Race.
The highlight of my career was when I was appointed Executive head chef of the FSA in Canary Wharf after my two year stint as Head Chef at Citi Group Canary Wharf, possibly the largest blue chip contract in London.
The other highlight was being invited to join the brigade of chefs at the innovation centre to work with Gordon Ramsay at the launch of his book Fast Food: Recipes from "The F Word"
Needless to say I appreciated the F word on a more personal level!
The evening was a great success and will remain a special memory for me.
Other highlights include functions I have done for the Queen, cooking for Gary Rhodes and last but not least cooking for Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear at his family home.
Of course there were low points, these are learning curves and then you leave them behind.
3. How does being a chef in London differ from the way of life in South Africa?
Compare an overcrowded tube ride, arriving at a grey building on a grey day, a work ethic bar none that will lead you to an early grave, to my daily commute alongside the Atlantic, Table Mountain in view, through the Constantia valley. And looking out of my kitchen into the vineyards!
The difference of working here compared to London is that we Capetonians tend to take things a little slower, a bit more “rustig“ if you like, and with that I include my staff, my purveyors and ultimately our customers as well.
It took me six months just to unwind and take a breath, step back and enjoy being home.
And I’m loving every day!
4. You have been at River Café for a year now, what changes have you seen since you have taken over the role of Executive chef and is there anything up your sleeve for the future?
I realise the RC has a tried and tested formula with a loyal local following, and dishes synonymous to the RC which I won’t change, yet we need to move on.
Above all we remain a breakfast, lunch and salad venue, but I am going to modernise, tweak and challenge myself and the kitchen. Take us right out of our comfort zone and stop resting on the laurels of the past.
I want consistency!
I drive it home; enforce it, monitor it and I think we’re slowly but surely getting there.
I will be launching a new summer menu end of October in time for the new season and am very excited.
6. What is your best foodie memory ever?
For me to pin point a single experience is near impossible as I am privileged to have experienced so many, one that immediately springs to mind though, occurred in Madrid.
My sister married a Madrilieno and on the first night I arrived, the family took me out.
After a frantic night of Spanish hospitality I was feeling the worse for wear the next day and unmercifully was urged on a day outing to Segovia and a late lunch in the surrounding hills in an old mill.
Morcilla and soft fried egg, white anchovies, chunky bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, white asparagus, a white bean and chorizo stew… Rioja!
The Spaniards know how to eat, and take their time about it.
Then again the thought of a West Coast seafood platter is enough to make me shiver with anticipation!
7. Your favourite restaurant in South Africa?
La Colombe, I will say that Luke’s (Luke Dale-Roberts, head chef at La Colombe) cooking, adaptation and innovation in SA puts him top of my list.
8. If you were to have some friends for dinner, what would you prepare for them?
My favourite dish to cook for friends is a fragrant Thai chicken broth with noodles, Pak Choy and crushed toasted peanuts.
9. What's your favourite wine?
My favourite wine, and I’ve consumed enough of it to confidently state this, is Andre’s Uitsig Chardonnay.
I am partial to a hearty Rioja as well.
10. Three things you enjoy doing when you're not cooking.
I enjoy biking, reading and most of all spending time with my son Luca.
11. Your favourite local South African dish?
I love our sweet potatoes, our ostrich steaks, and our local crayfish.
Hell, I’m going to try and combine all three on a plate…