Friends of Wüsthof: Jackie Cameron
Jackie Cameron has been in the South African culinary spotlight since pretty much the second she graduated from the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in 2001, spending a year at Mount Grace County House and Spa before starting a 12-year stint at Hartford House in the KZN Midlands which saw the establishment achieving national Top 10 status four times, Top 10 Eat Out, American Express Platinum Fine Dining Programme and People’s Choice awards, amongst many others.
She’s appeared on TV shows such as MasterChef SA, Top Billing, and The Ultimate Braai Master, is a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs member, and a proud SASSI Trailblazer chef. A published author, columnist and kitchenwear designer, she now runs the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Hilton, KZN, which offers an intensive 18-month, internationally-recognised course with a maximum intake of 15 students.
“I’ve always loved seeing the development and growth in my staff – it’s what gets me up in the morning, going into work and improving their skills, their lives and their families. It just makes sense to me,” she says of her shift from the restaurant kitchen to the teaching space. “I’ve had some very strange and weird questions coming my way since I opened my school, like ‘What’s it like to no longer be in the industry? What is it like to no longer be a chef?’ – but I’m cooking more than I have in years!” she says. “I’m working longer hours than I ever thought I could - I often laugh at the fact that I thought I used to work long hours as a chef in a restaurant, but this is something completely different”. She spends at least 11 hours a day working side-by side with her students before moving onto the demands of any start-up business - function coordination, invoicing, ordering, student plans, marking, marketing and more. The Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine only accepts 15 students each year, hand-picked by Jackie herself. “They need to be as obsessed with food as I am,” she says. “I always tell them that if I’m willing to give then 150%, they should be willing to give me 200%”.
Calling her style ‘heritage food’, Jackie believes in serving South African classics like chilli bites, samp & beans and Dom Pedros with a new-age twist. “I don’t really know life without food, to be honest,” she says. “My mom and I made a bread and my mom dated the recipe and signed it off as ‘Jacqueline’s White Bread’. Looking back at the dates, I realise I was three years old at that stage! I didn’t make the bread from beginning to end by myself but I was already very much so involved with food”.
“Food is never just items on a plate - it conjures up memories and complete warmness within. I never feel as good as when I have just had a fabulous meal,” she says. She couldn’t pick a favourite meal to cook for a celebrity-packed dinner, but would have loved to cook a South African-influenced menu for Nelson Mandela and Escoffier – but she’d settle for Oprah, Ferran Adria and Richard Branson as guests. Adria is one of her food heroes and she was lucky enough to dine at El Bulli just before it closed. “They served an amuse bouche that looked like a hot dog - the ‘bun’ was white and the ‘vienna’ was a bright green paste. As I bit into it, it was light as a cloud and was bursting with mint - the best Mojito I’ve ever had!” Jackie believes even amateur cooks can bring a restaurant experience to the table by adding a new or unusual ingredient, or serving something that guests probably wouldn’t have eaten in years. “I think a restaurant experience is memorable when a meal teaches me something or rekindles a happy past memory – which is simple enough to do at home,” she says. The most common amateur cook error? “I would probably have to say that home cooks do not season their food enough… I always say that if you think you have enough seasoning - add more, and it will be right. Seasoning can take a relatively basic dish to another level,” she says.
Every chef has their pet hate – and Jackie’s is seeing someone in the kitchen with one of her knives in their hand. “Nobody is allowed to touch my knives – they’re from the Wüsthof Classic Ikon range and they’re engraved. I use them, sharpen them and wash them myself,” she says. “I am very classical and old-fashioned in many ways and these knives are truly stunning – and they fit my hand like a glove,” she says. Having bruised and cut herself early in her career with blunt knives, Jackie makes sure her knives are always sharp. “I bought my first Wüsthof narrow diamond sharpening steel in Germany about 16 years ago and I only use that to sharpen my knives, so I can make sure the sharpening angle is always perfect”.
Having done some TV work, she’d be interested in looking at hosting her own show if the time was right. “I feel more and more people are entertaining at home, because food is expensive - and so are restaurants. I’m all about education and I know that if people are cooking better at home, they expect a better standard in restaurants - and so these demands improve standards all round,” she says. “If I could get into people’s homes via their TV screens – as I’ve done with my cook books - and show them how easy good food can be, I would also promote better day-to-day eating”.
For information about the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine, and to get the inside track on some of Jackie’s favourite recipes and ingredients, visit www.jackiecameron.co.za. Instagram @jackiecameronincolour & Twitter @jackie_cameron