These days, you’ll find Bernard Hartzenberg as a sous chef in an ancient rainforest; his signature dishes a far cry from the spicy potato chips, vetkoek and deep-fried chicken that encapsulate his childhood in Mzansi.
He is a bundle of joy in a Rwandan kitchen. Every day, he wakes up in the land of a thousand hills to cook for the rich and famous who have checked in at the world-class fine-dining establishment he works for. Most guests will never get to meet him, but his cuisine will leave a lasting impression.
“I’m crazy about Asian cuisine and also Cape Malay [food],” he says.
His diverse food interests resembles his travel aspirations. “I’ve cooked [everything] from French, Italian, Asian [to] Mediterranean cuisine, but my favourite is still Asian. I believe in cooking the basics and taking everything from there.”
Hartzenberg believes that any meal rests on the flavours of the underlying sauce. His go-to Cape Malay spices, which he describes as “not super spicy, but very flavourful”, include turmeric, cumin, ground coriander and masala.
He often infuses this with some Asian secrets like lemongrass, Thai chilli, makrut lime leaves, fish sauce and galangal, a spice native to Southern Asia.
Today, he is also a master of infusing Rwandan staple foods like sweet potatoes, cassava and yam with 101 cooking secrets from Asia. The results are mouth-watering, “not just in taste, but I give it attention to detail with some gastronomy feels to it”.
A book of cooking secrets…
Hartzenberg’s life in Gisakura, just south of Lake Kivu on the Burundi border, is certainly a dream come true for the Cape Town-born chef. In fact, he could never imagine that one day he would even be cooking for top political, entertainment and sport figures.
He lives for experimenting with new dishes. “I do, however, respect and follow necessary instructions and guidelines from my seniors in my kitchen brigade unless they give me the freedom to express myself.
“I have a book full of ideas that still need to be implemented and those ideas come from different food I’ve tasted in all the places I’ve been to and worked in. Those are reserved for the day I step into a senior position where I have full creative power where the menu is concerned. I guess, when that time comes, I’ll definitely go all out, experiment and be a culinary rebel, if one can put it that way.”
A second chance at life
While he may be reverential in the kitchen, he admits that he was a bit of a rebel at high school, never even dreaming about becoming a professional chef.
“Things at school weren’t all that great. I did not want to be there anymore, but my aunty was having none of it. She has always been the one to keep my cousins and I on our toes.”
It was his aunt, Barbara Arendse, who dragged him to Northlink College to study hospitality.
“We spent a few days trying to figure out what I should do until she eventually said, ‘But Bernard, you like cooking.’ I just looked at her and thought, ‘Yarre, this aunty’ but I took it because it was my second chance.”
Failure was not an option. This was the big moment he was waiting for. “This, truly, was my second chance at a better life, so I pushed myself. Taking life seriously this time around was life-changing and it made me a better man.”
Hartzenberg admits that his childhood “was not the fairy tale every child dreams of”. “The tough part was having to move all around Kraaifontein due to [difficult personal] circumstances and simply struggling to make ends meet. However, I’m grateful for our struggles in my earlier years. It has taught me valuable lessons about life and to push through, no matter what.”
Despite the turbulent times, he has fond memories of watching his family cook. First, there was his grandmother, Bernadina “Dolla” Hartzenberg, whom he describes as “the OG”. His mother, Francis Hartzenberg, has a creative flair, but his late father, Trevor Whiting known as “the spice guy”, was the undisputed king of cooking.
Watching his loved ones cook delicious meals from scratch was therapeutic.
“My grandmother always served us love and happiness with every meal. My mother can’t read or write, but she can cook and bake anything from scratch. She’s one creative lady! Watching her make something out of nothing was and still is pretty cool.”
Today, the roles have been reversed and Hartzenberg’s mother is the one watching her son to “steal ideas and tips”, he says. “And my father loved his spices. We would stay up late and he would then decide to make spicy slaptjips in one of those old, deep-frying pans that our OGs used to make ‘KFC-chicken’ and vetkoek in.”
These are the moments he treasures, even while he is surrounded by the opulence of the tea plantation-adjacent One&Only Nyungwe House and the serene jungle canopies of Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Hartzenberg says, “I cherish those moments as it is a blessing and a reminder of where I come from. I dedicate my life’s work to my loved ones who have been there with me through all my struggles and failures; and to those who have even seen me rise and rooted for me.”
4 questions to Bernard Hartzenberg
How would you describe yourself to a total stranger?
I am a humble, loving, caring person who only wants the best for others. I’m the kind of person who will root for someone’s success and share love with no questions asked, be it family, friends or even a complete stranger.
Do you miss home?
Being away from home, my wife, Andrea Hartzenberg, and loved ones is terrifying. I miss out on all the important celebrations and special days, but having an understanding partner who has fully supported my journey since day one makes it all worthwhile. Video-calling and texting is our best friend while I’m away.
Describe a typical day in your life
Before the pandemic, it was hectic early mornings, late evenings, 16-hour shifts with little to no off days. I do not complain as that’s part of the package. I have since found new employment and I am now in a more senior position, so it definitely is a bit more taxing.
The pandemic really shifted my focus and the way I see life. I start my days with gratitude, doing affirmations and saying a prayer before getting out of bed. I don’t always get to have breakfast, so a cup of tea or coffee is usually my go-to.
I’m back to working the 16-plus-hour shifts. So now my days not only consist of cooking, but also administration and making sure the shift Mise en place (a French culinary phrase for “putting in place”) is done for service and have the team prepped and ready for the day.
In the evening, I prepare for the next day, jotting down some ideas and planning what to cook for guests and to make sure I follow their dietary requirements and preferences. I also jot down ideas for dishes I’d like to experiment with.
Before I go sleep, though, which is either just before midnight or in the early hours of the morning, I make a bit of time to catch up on a few minutes of a movie that usually takes me a few days to complete.
What would you cook for someone who needs some TLC?
I would go with Asian-infused Cape Malay curry and a kick-ass sambal mattha (a yoghurt-based spiced drink) with some chapati and a lekker salted caramel and banana trifle.
I miss South African food. Those slaptjips from the fisheries in the hood, those fat gatsbys from Golden Dish (a renowned Athlone take-away joint), those lekker koesisters, my mother’s malva pudding, her KFC chicken and macaroni and cheese.
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