Deep in the African bush, more than wildlife is stirring. Safari camps like Londolozi in the Sabi Sand private game reserve are leading South Africa’s quest to become an international culinary destination. Chefs, like trackers and rangers, are rewarded for daring and creativity—and for rising to the daunting challenge of white-glove, gourmet service in the wild. What’s cooking is a culinary revolution, and right there on the front lines this past summer was Sarasota’s Michael Klauber of Michael’s On East and the Gulf Coast Connoisseur Club.
An epicurean adventurer who has led food trips all around the world, Klauber shepherded 27 Connoisseur Club guests to the luxurious yet astonishingly eco-friendly Londolozi reserve. The founders of the property, brothers Dave and John Varty, say they named Londolozi for a word in the Zulu dictionary that means “protector of all living things.”
“It was the trip of a lifetime. In five days, the staff and the wildlife touched our souls—we’re connected forever,” says Klauber. “The guides post photos of the four lion cubs we followed on safari so everyone on our trip can watch them grow.”
“The highlight of our trip was meeting Dave Varty. I’ve read his book, Circle of Life, and John’s book, Nine Lives,” adds Terri Klauber, Michael’s wife and co-host of 10 Connoisseur Club gourmet trips in the past eight years. “They’re untouched in eco-tourism and their commitment to bringing the bush back to its original landscape.”
Because the Sarasota group included six children, they stayed at the five-star property’s family-friendly Varty camp on the owner’s original family homestead. Every room had a private swimming pool framed by a timber deck overlooking the bush. Living spaces are raised off the ground and decorated in the style of the original Varty home. “Everyone felt a spiritual connection to Londolozi, and no one left without crying, not even the kids,” Terri says.
Klauber says six months of work went into planning dinners and wine events for his Connoisseur Club guests, including a surprise visit by award-winning Marc Kent, a founding partner of Boekenhoutskloof winery who brought in wines for two dinners and joined the group for game drives—the South African’s first safari.
In the process of creating menus with Londolozi’s executive chef, Craig Paterson, Klauber discovered that South Africa doesn’t really have a cuisine of its own. “It’s a layering of flavors and a melting pot of ethnic recipes from Malaysia, India, and Morocco,” Klauber explains. Indeed, Cape Town, South Africa, was founded by the Dutch East India Company, which used the port city as its restocking station for ships traveling between Europe and Asia in the 17th century. Dutch settlers imported Malay slaves to the Cape, and with them indigenous spices. Later, immigrants from England, Germany and Scandinavia followed, and more slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar and India.
Each ethnic group contributed to the culinary legacy that inspires modern South African cuisine. “There’s a mix of curries, chutneys and Eastern spices—cardamom, ginger, garlic—and Africa’s most famous ones: saffron, cumin, turmeric and nutmeg. But the food isn’t hot: South African food is aromatically spiced,” Klauber explains. Klauber and Jamil Pineda, head chef at Michael’s On East, have created a South African three-course dinner duplicating classic recipes provided by Londolozi’s chef Paterson. While Pineda and Paterson collaborated on ingredients and technique, Klauber’s role was taster.
“It was a challenge to recreate Craig’s recipes. They have different equipment than we do, and their measurements are different. I had to taste each dish until we got it right. And we did! Everyone who took the trip with us has come to the restaurant for our South African dinners, and they say we’re spot on,” Michael says.
Diners, who range from those who have gone on safari to a “surprising” number of South Africans living in Sarasota, says Klauber, wax poetic about menu items like kingklip, a South African fish reminiscent of halibut, or sosaties, classic marinated lamb kabobs with dried apricots, and South Africa’s national dish, bobotie, a baked minced beef curry pie reminiscent of shepherd’s pie but with custard topping. Every dish represents a fusion of cultures, including beef samosas, the crispy beef pie made from Malay-spiced ground sirloin and served with plum chutney. Meals are finished with desserts like malva pudding and Londolozi crunchies, a cookie the Klaubers relished on game drive breaks.
For those who shared last summer’s trip, the mere mention of those crunchies awakens memories of magnificent wildlife sightings, bush barbecues and dinners in the Londolozi Boma (a braai, or barbecue area, enclosed by rustic wooden poles and open to the sky). One night, the chefs sang Pavarotti and the guides serenaded Terri with I Will Remember You. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” remembers Michael. “The music and camaraderie we all experienced that night were magical.”
This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.
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