For Western Cape–born chef Dale Stevens, there is duality in cooking. The 29-year-old culinary maestro believes that when you cook, you apply both the heart and the mind.
On the one hand, he says, cooking is a strict craft that involves precise measurements and pre-set times for food preparation. Simultaneously, however, the art of cooking is a creative process that is charged by the heart and soul. It is a passion–fueled, free-flowing process of creative expression, he says.
The young gun was a finalist for the Eat Out Nederburg rising star of the year award in 2019. This was recognition for his work as head chef of FABER restaurant on the Avondale Wine Estate in Paarl, a role he took on in 2018.
He believes that food inspiration is drawn from personal experience. His life’s experiences are embodied through his simple, seasonal and stylish restaurant menu that stimulates the senses.
“Cooking is a passion fuelled, free flowing process of creative expression.”
“The brain is very weird,” he says. “There are so many things that we have gone through and done, it just takes one smell or one taste to bring back that memory. That, for me, is inspiration.”
While he may head up the award-winning fine dining establishment today, ten years ago he was a 17-year-old high school student at an impasse, who did not know what the next step would be.
Stevens was born in the harbour town of Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape region. While many chefs attribute their interest in the industry to their families, he did not come from “a very cheffy family”, nor did he aspire to become a chef.
“You know how every chef is like, ‘I grew up in my grandmother’s kitchen’ and all that nonsense? No, I didn’t have that.”
Growing up he remembers his father being very strict, but his mother was more lenient. “I grew up in a coloured area where it was very easy to get up to no good. I was surrounded by that. Luckily, I had very good parents who kept me on the straight and narrow.”
In 2009 he obtained his matric certificate at Point High School. Like many teenagers, he was confused about which career path to take next. He admits that he did not have dreams of becoming a chef. It was the confusion about what to do after high school that led him down the path.
“You go through high school not knowing what to do next. I don’t think there are a lot of people who actually knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. I think its influenced by people and the times that they are in.”
An open day visit from the Hurst Campus would drive him to take the step in the culinary direction and in 2010 he enrolled in the institution.
While attending the culinary school Stevens did not really take the process seriously. Being a coloured South African he had a turbulent journey at the predominantly white institution, and he says he was often stereotyped as a troublemaker.
“For some reason they had the wrong impression of me. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was completely out of my depth,” he says.
His mentor and lecturer chef George Jardine changed his perspective on the industry.
His belief in Stevens’ potential to make magic would unlock his passion for cooking. While doing his six-month practical training at Jordan restaurant Stevens grew more determined to succeed.
“I don’t like to fail!” he declares. “It was a massive adjustment. I had no idea what I was doing, and there is all this French terminology, but I was determined.”
In his ten years as a chef, Stevens has worked in some of the top-ranked restaurants in the country, including Luke Dale Roberts’ The Test Kitchen. He has been mentored by the likes of Eric Bulpitt, his predecessor at FABER.
He spent ten years honing the craft and learning as much as he could, to develop his own cooking style.
The key to a successful dish lies in the ingredients, Stevens believes.
Avondale Wine Estate sits on a 160-hectare biodynamic farm in the Paarl valley. Here Stevens is spoiled for choice when creating his elaborate dishes. The trick, he says, is to allow the ingredients to take the lead.
“What inspires a chef? Ingredients,” he giggles. “If I am stuck, I can just go for a walk, clear my head and come back inspired.”
Another key to being successful in the industry? You have got to have a thick skin, he says.
“You have got to remember when you put a plate up, you do open yourself up for someone to judge. You have got to be strong and accept that not everyone is going to like what you have put up.”