Wednesday 26 March 2014

Michael Broughton is The Flavour Merchant

So last night at 18.15h  I settle in to watch the first episode of a series of one of my favorite chef's in one one of my favorite restaurants on one of my favorite wine estates. Seasons at Terroir on DSTV Nat Geo 181 did not disappoint. But how could it? Magic will reveal itself. 
Now if that sounds gushy, forgive me, but last year I had the privilege of interviewing him for Cape Etc magazine and and it turned out to be one of my my favorite interviews ever. He is a lovely, lovely man. Both inside and out.
Here is that article.

(And yes, I know it's been almost a year since I've blogged and reposting an old article may seem like a bit of a cop out, but a lot has happened the last year and for a variety of reasons I was hesitant to share them at the time. I'll get around to them. You know I will, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve….)

(The Lovely Chef Michael Broughton)

The Flavour Merchant

In some circles, chefs have become the celebrities of choice. They generate a lot more excitement that models or actors do. There is something very attractive, dangerously so, about someone who makes their living playing with fire and knives. And of course, the plus side is that they encourage you to eat dessert which, clearly, models or actors would never do. But by their very nature, celebrities are also the cause of much gossip and misconceptions.  So in walks celebrity chef, a regular (nine times to be exact) on the Eat Out Awards Top 10 list Michael Broughton, good-looking in that laid-back, sleepy-eyed, 5 o’clock shadow kind of way. And you expect him to act in a certain manner; perhaps be a little arrogant?  A tad too blasé? Or charming in that well-practiced I’ve-done-this-all-before manner. But he’s none of these things. He is sincere, kind and principled. And suddenly his celebrity status and his culinary accomplishments, both well-deserved, are overshadowed by the the character of the man.

And that takes some doing. Because the food Michael Broughton creates at Terroir, on the Kleine Zalze Estate in Stellenbosch is pretty damn impressive. The restaurant itself is elegantly subdued, which is perhaps a kind way of saying, slightly ordinary, but the service is excellent, the glassware good, and the linen stiffly starched. The best tables are outside with views of the lovely gardens and historic oak trees. But you come here for the food. Not for design porn or hipster credentials. If you’re serious about food, you go to a place where food is more important than fashion. If you’re serious about food you go to Terroir and struggle to make your selection from the chalkboard menu, because you’ll want to choose everything. Using seasonal and where possible, locally sourced ingredients, Michael’s deceptively simple menu is both a celebration of and a tribute to what eating is all about. Eating is about tasting food, about appreciating flavours. The rest, which admittedly Broughton is rather good at too, is just bells and whistles.

His food is grounded with the magic lying in the sauces. And interestingly enough, according to Michael, had he not become a chef, he would have liked to have been a cabinet maker. ‘There is something very creative but also timeless about working with wood. A good piece should stand the test of time. It should be able to stand alongside a modern Perspex table or next to an antique chair of ancient wood. It has to be solid. In a way that’s the way I feel about cooking. Cooking must be timeless. It must be able to be carried through and stand firm against fashions that come and go. I’ve had to make peace with food fashions. But I still feel you should guard against reinventing something for the sake of reinvention. How many times have you seen a tiramisu dressed up and down when all you really want is a nice piece of delicious tiramisu. Don’t give me the coffee bubbles here, a piece of deconstructed biscuit there and a squirt of cream somewhere else. That makes me see red. It may look beautiful but for me the most important thing is the mouthfeel of something and the deliciousness of the taste. It’s been hard to withstand the pressure of fashions but I’ve decided I will remain authentic to what I believe in.’ And it is this authenticity which he shares with Kobus Basson, owner of Kleine Zalze and Terroir, and for whom he has so much respect. ‘ I learned a lot about wine from Kobus. He is very clever and incredibly knowledgeable about wine. He’s the only guy I know who does not spit, still stands up straight after a marathon winetasting session and walks out with complete control. Every year when we compile the wine list we hold our own blind tasting. About nine of us sit with 40 bottles of wine at a time. Each bottle is covered in brown paper and only the year, the cultivar and the price is known. This way we select the best wines, fairly and without influence. When I first arrived at Kleine Zalze the receptionist was a wine maker, the lady who did the books was a winemaker, then there was the winemaker and the winemaker’s assistant. When you’re in this environment you listen and learn. And for me, coming here from Johannesburg, being afforded the opportunity to listen to the wine ‘speak’, and just taking everything in has been an incredible journey in the food and wine paring world.’ So where does he get his inspiration from? ‘I don’t eat out that much so I don’t get to try other chefs food as often as I should. I get my inspiration from reading. I read incessantly. I’m a great Alain Ducasse fan and I really rate Pierre Hermé. I think that those two guys can keep you busy for years. But my library grows.’

Michael Broughton never set out to be a chef. As a child he was never particularly interested in food but he liked cooking. It was in his blood. ‘I was a first team rugby player who was zipping home in between practices to make scones with my mom. So I enjoyed cooking, but I never thought that much about it yet, tellingly, for my 15th birthday, my dad bought me a Kenwood Chef. In those days you didn’t tell your mates you liked to cook because that would be a problem; you could get your arse kicked for that. But all I knew was that I liked to go home and cook with my mom. But then my mom and dad got divorced, and my mom left and my dad had to look after us three boys. And my dad, being this big time banker, would come home from work in his suit and tie and he’d cook for us. Jacket off, tie on, apron tied around his waist, he’d cook. He’d never cooked before but when he knew he had to feed three boys, he opened a recipe book and began cooking. When he finished, he’d whistle and we would all sit down at the table and enjoy a two course, sometimes three course meal prepared by our dad. Every single day for 5 years, from Std 5 to matric my dad cooked for us. My father was quite arty, but he could never make peace with that. In that time it was verboten. You had to do a ‘manly job like banking. Not cooking or something creative. I’m quite like him in that way. It’s taken me 15 years to come to terms with the fact that I’m an artist. I work a dodgy job. In a dodgy industry. It’s very uncertain, very unstable and it’s hard work. But it’s a compulsion.’

Broughton never formally trained as a chef, he went to hotel school for three years and for the next 10 years he was a hotelier; a general manager for the City Lodge Group. But at 30 he hit a mid-life crisis and decided he’d had enough of corporate life so he handed in his resignation and bought a restaurant on auction. This restaurant was to become Broughton’s (in Johannesburg) and would garner him his first two Eat Out Top 10 awards. He had no formal training and had never worked in a restaurant before. Soon after opening the restaurant he bought a book by the 3 Michelin star chef, Nico Ladenis, who became one of the single most important culinary influences in his life  and who he regards as a mentor and with whom he is in regular email contact. But it wasn’t all that easy in the beginning. ‘ We were empty for 18 months. We would perhaps have 3 or 4 tables on a Friday night. But that was it. And 15 metres up the road there was a very successful Italian restaurant that was full 7 nights a week. And for 18 months I’d watch his customers park in my car park, walk across to my entrance with their bottle of wine under their arm and they’d walk up the road to his place. And eventually I had no money left. I’d borrowed from my dad, borrowed from my mom, from my brother and eventually the family said no more. I was bankrupt, I had taken every single last bit of my savings, I sold my house, my car, my bike. I had no medical aid, So I told the staff that we had about 3 weeks left but that if they got a job offer, they should take it. But on the same day I told the staff this, I got a phone call at the restaurant from Barry Ronge (famous South African columnist and restaurant reviewer ) saying he’d like to have table for Friday night. Now this was Wednesday, and I looked at the reservation book and there’s not a single booking on that Friday. So I phoned a friend of mine, and said ‘Bokkie help me.’ And she did. She got 45 friends to book for that Friday night when Ronge came to dine. And from that Friday onwards, thanks to the Ronge’s favourable review, we were full every day. 60 covers for lunch, 60 covers for dinner. I paid my debt off in 9 months.  And that year I made the Eat Out Top 10.’
‘How did you keep the faith?’ I asked him. Michael’s answer is simple. ‘I have faith. I’m a Christian. And I just stuck my head down. I just stuck my head down.’

And then a few years later came his move to Cape Town, to Terroir, where he won seven more Eat Out Top 10 awards and where his food has been recognized as being consistently amongst the finest in the country. Where he runs a kitchen of quiet generousity. ‘I treat my team the way I treat my children. I teach them about life. I teach them how to talk to one another, how to treat one another. No swearing, no shouting, no screaming. I always say if my daughter was standing in the back of the kitchen, would my behaviour be ok? And 99% of the time I’m fine with it. I don’t lose my rag easily.’

So what does he do when he’s not at the restaurant, when he’s at home? ‘I love being at home. I love having my kids around. I’d rather be there than anywhere else. So for me it’s always a push-pull. How much do I work? How much time do I spend at home. And I know that in between there’s not much time for anything else. But that’s ok. I read. I’m a Bible scholar. I study. I play guitar. We cook. There will be those nights at home when I’m with my wife Jane and I’ve made a kickass pizza, when we’re drinking a great bottle of wine, when the kids are in the swimming pool and the sun is setting. When you just breathe in. Breathe out. Breath in. And you know that it doesn’t get much better than this.’

(This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Cape Etc.)

Kleine Zalze Wine Estate, R44, Stellenbosch
Telephone: + 27 (0)21 880 8167
Terroir is open for lunch 12noon-3.00pm  Monday to Sunday

Terroir is open for dinner 6.30pm – 9.00pm Monday to Saturday


  1. If I had to write an article about Michael after watching last night's episode, I would have written the same and I did not even know all the facts. His humility and kindness shines through his food, what a remarkable man! Thank you for this Sam!

  2. Sam, a story about Michael: we were doing a dessert story for Shape, and challenged some of SA's top chefs to produce a fat-free dessert. We got them all - about 7, including Graeme Shapiro, George Jardine, Reuben Riffel, Pete Goffe-Wood etc - into a domestic kitchen, about the size of a kitchen table. Michael, still in Johannesburg at that stage, we flew down to participate. He had longish hair, tied back in a ponytail; and was a bit of a gym bunny. He didn't know the Cape Town chefs too well - and he was clearly envious of their camaraderie, which he told us didn't exist among the Jozi chefs. At some point in the shoot, things got messy with the Italian meringue, and shirts came off. Michael was instantly christened - and stayed - "that zero-body-fat guy". It was clear he belonged in the Cape, and not much later, he came down. Jozi's loss; our gain!

    1. Heather, I love the story of 'that zero-body-fat-guy'! And even if they're not 'zero-fat' I think our chefs are all pretty damn hot!