Posted on 28 August 2012.
Chocolate. The word is in itself delectable. In the words of celebrity chef, Nicolas D. van der Walt, the art of pastry, particularly chocolate, “Is magic!” And what a magical weekend it was bound to be! The second annual Chocolat Festival had its launch at Eastgate Mall recently. We were in for a treat: finger food that included succulent sweet and sour ribs, crumbed avocado and more yummy food for the tummy; two bottles of wine (dry red and white, of course), courtesy of Slent; nice and hot mugs of coffee to fight off that winter chill; and (drum roll please) la chocolat!
The chocolate festival launch started off nice and groovy with the raspy, though smooth, voice of Peter West. The contemporary music star, accompanied by our host, whom they call Beukers, took us back with some good ol’ Rock and Roll. The guests clapped along, some sang along and the shy ones managed to tap their feet. After a short talk from Justin of Slent Wines and encouragement to enjoy their wines, he set us all at ease, “Red wine with dark chocolate and white wine with white chocolate. Now that you know the rules, you can break them!” Laughter flowed and so did the wine.
Up next were the men of the moment: renowned pastry chefs Nicolas (known as Nico) and Lesley Jacobs. With their entourage of students (from their Food and Beverage Institute, or FBI, in Fourways), Lesley took us through Nico’s demonstration of moulding chocolate using a lathe (wood work equipment). This technique was a pleasure to watch; who would have thought to use a lathe in such a manner?
The symbolic cutting of the cake, commemorating the opening of the chocolate festival, took place and was followed by more music. Within a few minutes I was sitting opposite the delightful Nico. Our chat, which ended all too soon, happened as the rest of the guests enjoyed their chocolate cupcakes and wine.
Amandla: You’ve entered tons of competitions; what role do you think your competitiveness has had on your success?
Nico: Competitions make you work harder. They make you push yourself and prove yourself. I think it’s very important for every chef to be competitive.
Amandla: In the year 2000, you won an Olympic gold medal in culinary. I didn’t even know there was such a competition.
Nico: (laughs) Wow! They were the World Championships in Holland and our team won gold. Then I was announced Best Chef in the World!
Amandla: How old were you at the time?
Nico: I was about 22 or 23 years old. I don’t even remember how it happened; I was so shocked I had to read about it in the papers!
Chef Nico with Amandla
Amandla: Why did you decide to focus on pastries as opposed to just ‘normal’ food like a lot of chefs?
Nico: Creativity. With pastries and chocolate you can manipulate it and create something so beautiful. For last year’s chocolate festival I created the Mona Lisa, painted using chocolate. This year we are also showcasing the chocolate paintings done by the students (of the Food and Beverage Institute where he teaches). Creating pastries and chocolate is magical!
Amandla: You’ve prepared and designed pastries for high society in world-class hotels both locally and abroad; how different is the experience to doing it for family and friends, if at all?
Nico: I have been a chef at the Savoy in London, which was wonderful, and the Saxon [Boutique Hotel and Spa in Johannesburg] was the best! There was pressure to make sure my creations were Wow! But when I’m with family and friends, I’m just me. I’ll usually go for a normal thing like a braai. I don’t flash; it’s a bit uncomfortable (laughs). One thing I always forget though is to bring dessert. I get invited to dinners and you know they expect me to bring dessert… but I always, always forget!
Amandla: You’re responsible for teaching advanced pastry students at the FBI Chef School. Would you say that students need to be artistically inclined to excel in the pastry business or is it something that can be taught?
Nico: A lot of the students who painted these [portraits] had never painted before. They are not art students, but that artistic spark and creativity is inside them. All I do is teach them, guide them and then I leave them. And this (points to the chocolate paintings) comes out.
Amandla: Chocolate is one of the world’s most loved delicacy, yet such events and festivals that celebrate chocolate are few in South Africa. What’s your take on this?
Nico: Bloemfontein has hosted the chocolate festival for the past four years and we are now in Johannesburg for the second time. Bloemfontein is lovely; there was a lot of media coverage and the people are also great. Joburg is a bit different maybe the people will warm up to [the festival] in time, especially if they know about it.
Amandla: What is chef Nico’s favourite dessert?
Nico: (blushes as he laughs) Passion fruit crème brûlée. Anything with passion fruit. When it comes to chocolate I love bitter chocolate, but passion fruit is an all-time favourite.
Amandla: Passion fruit for a Passionate Chef!
Nico: Can I give you a little something?
Amandla: (shrugs) Ok!
I followed Nico to the stage where earlier he had demonstrated his lathe chocolate technique, and to my surprise he handed over the top part of the chocolate sculpture – an unexpected choc-ful way of concluding the Chocolat Festival launch.
During that weekend the festival was in full bloom. I came across some gorgeous flower arrangements made of chocolate and faux flowers. “They make the perfect gift. You want to give someone flowers but how long do those last? These last much longer,” Tal, the guy responsible for these delectable flowers explains to me. “They wouldn’t last long around me,” I laugh. House of Coffees was also present at the festival; guests went home with traveller plungers and bags of filter coffee. And apparently Miss Lira (yes, the songstress) also could not resist the chocolate festival; she too, had to get her fix.
If you missed the festival, worry not. Just make sure you catch it next year and make sure you have enough space in your tummy for chocolate, cake, coffee and even more chocolate.