Stewart Wallace left his native Australia to get a wider appreciation of what else was happening in the cooking world. He felt that it was critical that he gained some new experiences that could help him shape his future. Stewart has a wide ranging background in upscale restaurants, cafes and hotels. In every case, Stewart has been associated with award winning hotel and café operations, a tribute to his attention to detail, high standards and a personal drive that results in excellence. Upscale Australian cuisine had been his forte to that point, but he knew that his destiny would be shaped by expanding that basic training and cuisine orientation with more experiences from the rest of the world.
London was his first stop and it was a significant one, in that he worked on developing and opening one of the most significant restaurant of that time, the Bluebird Stores. Not only did he grow as a chef, he met Hilary who became his wife and partner in their culinary endeavors.
The Bluebird Restaurant was a significant milestone in Stewart's career, as it gave him his first chance to develop and influence the culinary style of what would become one of the most celebrated restaurants in London. The development of the menu, signature dishes and the management of the opening of the café and restaurant were lessons that would stand him in good stead as he moved on to other challenges.
In a bid to gain more experience and to return to Hilary's homeland, the Wallaces moved to South Africa. Stewart was recruited in London by Garth Stoebel, Corporate Executive Chef of Orient Express Hotels, as chef de cuisine of the Cape Colony Restaurant, the signature dining room of the Mount Nelson Hotel Cape Town. Relying on his skills and experiences with 5 star hotels, Stewart quickly developed a reputation as one of the up and coming head chefs in South Africa. To this day, the signature dishes associated with the Cape Colony are those developed by Stewart, an ongoing tribute to his menu development and creative cooking style.
However, Stewart was not content with simply excelling at what he already knew: "I wanted the buzz of opening another new a restaurant in another country." This led to his collaboration on the opening of the Beluga in The Foundry in Cape Town. The Beluga was also a great opportunity for Team Wallace to work together. Hilary is in charge of the front of the house, ensuring that the training and wait service is up to their high personal standards and that the wine selections are bold and serve as perfect compliments to Stewart's culinary creations. Hilary has a strong background in these areas, developed at the Bluebird Stores and La Gavroche in London. Her career started at the Cape Technikon in Cape Town and progressed through a series of ever increasing responsibilities.
The kitchen and the back of the house operation is managed by Stewart as the Head Chef. The combination has been accepted as one of the most successful in Cape Town and one of the benchmarks for culinary creativity and excellence in this major tourist destination.
The cooking equipment of choice at Beluga is Garland. Stewart takes a simple view towards Garland; "It's the best equipment in Africa. I had to take some other equipment out of the operation, but I knew that I wanted Garland for my cooking." Stewart is also planning for the future, when he recently reviewed the Garland induction cooking equipment. It isn't available yet in Africa, but when it does, Stewart wants it for his next kitchen lineup. The Garland equipment gets a real workout at Beluga, as they have been extremely busy since their opening. Stewart finds that the equipment is very sturdy and gives them peak production and efficiency when they need it most. "The design of the Garland range and its heat is perfect for the way we cook. When we are going full speed, the range keeps up and we don't have any delays in serving the covers." It's always worked well for us and I am extremely happy with Garland, they have always stood by the equipment and provided great service back up when we needed it."
Cooking in South Africa has been a new experience that Stewart is enjoying very much. "It's an honest to goodness approach to cooking! Value on the plate is important to the person that comes into our restaurant. It's all about what he receives and what he sees on the plate when it's presented." The value positioning is critically important to the growth of the hospitality industry in the fine dining segment in South Africa. Stewart's view on the evolution of the marketplace for diners and chefs is; "The South African palate and food knowledge is not developed. Guests come into restaurants looking for the big farm meals that they were always used to at home, they have to have good plate coverage to be satisfied. However, the industry and the expectations of the guests are in a transition mode. We have to teach them the value that you get from that superior marriage of good products, innovative and creative dishes, served in a great ambience."
At the present time, Stewart and Beluga have a well-developed international clientele that come back to them every time they are in Cape Town. This core customer group is much easier to influence and they are the base on which Stewart and Beluga can start to effect a change on the dining trends. A great reputation is also bringing in the tourists to experience this "nouveau South African" cuisine, but more important to Stewart is the emergence of the native Cape Towners and South Africans. "We are starting to see the locals come out on a semi-regular basis. It's not as often yet as we would like, but it is starting and they are changing slowly in terms of their expectations from cooking and new dishes." A lot of this change has to do with Stewart's cooking style and the dishes that he is presenting.
As you might guess, Stewart defines his style as "really sound food". "My cooking is quite simplistic. I like to focus on a fabulous marriage of flavours." Stewart gave us a bit of a synopsis of his style based on his experiences. "In Australia I used fusion as a cooking style, but it has been and gone now as a trend. If you don't know each cuisine really, really well, the product becomes really confusing and the guest is left with no real sense of what the dish was supposed to be about." Stewart now feels that it is critical to refocus the chef's attention on presentation and aesthetics that support the value statement that he is trying to create and deliver with the dish. "Presentation and aesthetics are important, but nothing is as important as a good solid marriage of ingredients that results in a great taste. Taste is everything! You cannot mask the individual taste of great products with sauces or new cooking techniques that blend the ingredients. The guest has to identify with the taste and enjoy the dish based upon that taste.
When he looks at South African cuisine, Stewart cannot stress enough the importance of South African native produce. "It's an incredibly significant part of the cuisine! Produce is the star and we are very lucky to have it. When we are creating the dish, we let it do the work." Another key aspect of the dishes that Stewart is developing for Beluga, is a strong reliance on game meats as a protein. "We can do beef or lamb, but game is brilliant." To date, Stewart has experimented with ostrich, spring bok and kuidu and finds them all to be very exciting as an ingredient for his new signature dishes. "I'm learning as we go, but it's all part of the buzz of developing something totally new."
South Africa is an important step in Stewart's cooking career. "The great opportunities are just coming in this country. It's an industry in its infancy, that has a totally different set of economics when it comes to buying products, setting prices, creating new expectations, setting standards. and satisfying the customer." In many cases, Stewart has to train his own staff to his levels, as the talent pool is not as deep in Africa as it has been in his other stops. To compensate, Stewart told us, "You have to do a lot of things for yourself, you really do "create". When I can't get something I'm used to cooking with, I have to find an alternative and adjust the dish to suit what I have to work with at that time."
No matter where the future leads him, Stewart and Hilary Wallace will be successful. They're committed and have that drive to succeed. One thing that you can be sure of, wherever they go, Garland will be an integral part of any kitchen that Stewart designs.
The Beluga Restaurant · Café · Bar is owned and managed by local partners Rudi Minnaar and Hugh Von Zahn. The two partners have a great deal of experience in the Cape Town market, but Beluga is their most adventuresome culinary undertaking to date. The early indicators are that they have a wonderful success story on their hands.