Virgil’s love and passion for food began at home with his mother, who is wonderful cook in her own right and made food and cooking a big part of their lives. Large Sunday lunches and delicious homemade koeksusters were an integral part Virgil’s upbringing, and is still a focus today, where his mother cooks hearty meals twice a week for underprivileged children in the area.
Virgil didn’t see himself going into food and beverage as a career – he knew he wanted to study, however wasn’t quite sure of the path to take, so when an opportunity to take part in a Food and Beverage Learnership at the Westin Grand Hotel in 2003 became available, he decided to give it a go. Working his way through the ranks, Virgil spent five years at the hotel, studying various course and gaining invaluable knowledge and insight in the world of cooking.
“It was hard work – especially in the first year of my career. Long hours of standing, hard work in the kitchen and just trying to gain as much knowledge as possible. There are seven kitchens in the Westin Grand – banqueting, pastry, butchery, so I got experience in a bit of everything and it was a huge learning curve for me.”
Virgil was involved in opening the Westin Grand restaurant from the start – his third to date – and it could be said that this type of challenge has become his fortè.
“When you are starting off a restaurant, there are so many aspects involved – menu planning, menu tastings, menu platings, designing dishes and coming up with recipes. The new kitchen is still finding its feet, so to speak, and it’s this type of challenge that I love because you get to know the product that you are selling, you get to know the hotel and all the little details that go into it.”
Following another three years of study at the Cape Town Hotel School, he then decided it was time to spread his wings and gain some more experience from the outside world, where he spent some time working as a chef on luxury yachts and cruise ships in the Mediterranean.
“That was a completely different experience and quite a challenge, as you are working with a small team and everything has to be just right. I had the opportunity to cook a variety of European cuisine, from French to Italian food, and it was a great experience.”
On his return to South Africa’s sunny shores, he joined the team at Indochine Restaurant in Stellenbosch with the aim of ‘transforming local palettes to embrace and enjoy Thai cuisine’. Working his way through the ranks once again from chef de partie to soux chef, he was eventually offered the title of Head Chef, where he finds himself today.
“Being Head Chef is an honour, but it’s a big challenge. It’s a stressful position as you are managing a team beneath you that needs to be constantly motivated, but you still need to produce a mind-blowing dish. My biggest challenge was to take the current menu and to give it more ‘wow!’ for the guests.
Virgil’s love for Thai cuisine began during his time at the Westin Grand hotel where he worked in the sushi bar and learnt all he knows from experienced Asian chefs. Bringing this knowledge, as well as extensive extra research on Asian cuisine to the table at Indochine, Virgil now produces a menu that sees a variety of distinctive Asian dishes from countries all over the East, with the main focus being on Thai cuisine. Combining modern Asian flavours and textures with fresh seasonal produce from the on-site greenhouse, Chef Virgil’s contemporary flair has impressed even the harshest of critics.
When asked what he thinks sets him apart from the rest, Virgil humbly replies that he believes it is his passion and strength of character that has helped him get where he is today.
“I think my willingness to learn, to work hard and my determination to always do my best are some of my core strengths and I think I pass these fundamentals on to whatever team I work with.”
And the way forward?
Chef Virgil would like to see the restaurant achieve a Top 10 placing in the upcoming Eat Out Awards, having just missed out with an eleventh placing in 2013. With the plans to extend the Delaire Graaff Lodge and Spa to include luxury villas, he also wants to ensure he provides an eating establishment and culinary experience that draws diners back time and time again.
“I would love to see people being more experimental and adventurous with their palettes. When it comes to food, South Africans tend to be ‘safe’ eaters and stick with that they know, however they need to explore different flavours, tastes and approaches to food.”