Chef Talk: Chantel Dartnall's South African Wine and Food Fantasia

The chef at newly minted Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Restaurant Mosaic preaches "botanical cooking" and local wines
Chef Talk: Chantel Dartnall's South African Wine and Food Fantasia
At Restaurant Mosaic, chef Chantel Dartnall has plenty to celebrate, so there's lots of Champagne on the wine list. (Marsel Roothman)
Sep 26, 2018

In 2006, chef Chantel Dartnall opened Restaurant Mosaic at her family's Orient Hotel on a nature reserve outside Pretoria in South Africa's Crocodile River Valley as a showcase for the European techniques and cuisine she had honed in Michelin-starred kitchens in the United Kingdom. But her surroundings—nearly 700 acres of "the most pristine nature you can imagine" in the Francolin Conservancy—soon became a guiding inspiration. She now defines her approach as “botanical cuisine—to feature Mother Nature on a plate, where each dish is designed to reflect the beauty, balance, harmony and purity that you find in nature."

That harmony extends to wine selections and pairings. Dartnall, 38, runs the restaurant with her father, Cobus Du Plessis, and mother, Mari Dartnall, the wine director and general manager, respectively. The family takes pride in showing off local Cape wines, which comprise some 60 percent of Mosaic's cellar. With 6,000 selections and 75,000 bottles of inventory, Mosaic has one of the most extensive programs in Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards program, earning our highest honor, the Grand Award, in 2018; the list also has exceptional reserves of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne (the Jacquart Brut Mosaïque is a current favorite), as well as depth in Italy, Portugal, Germany and Spain. Every year, Dartnall, her family and her wine team make trips to vineyards and cellars in different parts of the world to shop for wine. Then, to complete the pairings, "we visit the markets, and that is how the influences and the flavors and the inspiration of those countries come together in dishes."

Watch: Restaurant Mosaic's team explore their cellar passions in their submission to our 2018 Video Contest, "The Quest for the Perfect Pairing."

Dartnall began cooking at a young age, attending culinary school and then working with Paul Rhodes at Chez Nico at Ninety Park Lane in London, and British chef Michael Caines. When she returned home to South Africa, Dartnall's cuisine blossomed into something melding Western and Eastern influences with backyard ingredients. Dartnall spoke to editorial assistant Brianne Garrett about how she develops Mosaic's unique pairings, the dynamics of going to work every day with her immediate family and a new ongoing project that’s keeping her busy.

Wine Spectator: What inspires your cooking style and techniques at Mosaic?
Chantel Dartnall: Everyone always asks me what style of cooking I have, and the closest interpretation that I could give is that we do botanical cooking. The one reference I could give is Michel Bras in Aubrac, France. It’s a very natural, very earthy approach. In the portrayal of this philosophy and inventing these dishes, we’ve become a lot more focused on really featuring the purest elements on the plate. It is not only about capturing nature's natural nuances, but also to focus on [improving] the experience for my guests by studying the medicinal properties of the edible herbs and flowers I include in the menu to aid in digestion, promote blood circulation and a general feeling of wellbeing. For example, fennel aids digestion and stops bloating and the hibiscus flower helps to reduce the symptoms of alcohol.

WS: What's your approach on food-and-wine matching, and what are some favorite current pairings at Mosaic?
CD: There are a lot of local wines, because we love supporting our local industry. But when it comes to the pairing, we need to see what is in season, what is in harmony and also which of the wines in our cellar are at their optimal "drink-after" date. So we listen to winemakers at this point if they say, "You know what, my wine needs to age five years, I suggest that you pull it out of the cellar [then], retaste it and then try and see if there’s a dish that complements it." So we take those notes into account when we do our pairings.

I think my ultimate favorite we are currently featuring is the 2013 Lismore Chardonnay from a local South African producer in Greyton, Samantha O’Keefe. It’s just the most feminine Chardonnay that you can imagine. And we’re pairing this with a dish that I call the "Francolin’s Forest Fungi"—a wild mushroom and black truffle risotto.

We’ve also got the "The Flavours of Indochine" on the menu [suckling pig, coconut curry and star anise], and we’re serving this with a Trimbach Gewürztraminer Reserve 2007, which is just really combining with those exotic oriental flavors [in the dish] and is magnificent!

Dylan Swart
The dish "Francolin’s Forest Fungi" is Chantel Dartnell's wild mushroom and black truffle risotto.

WS: What’s the dynamic like working alongside your family?
CD: Everybody always says that you should not work with family, but for me I find that there’s nothing better than working with family because it’s very hard to find people that share your passion and enthusiasm, putting in all of those hours just because they have the same goal. So my mom is with me every single day, she’s on the floor as my maître d. A very, very large portion of what happens overall, including the maintenance of the garden, everything is her hand.

Cobus, my dad, is the mastermind behind all of the design, including the architecture, the wine cellar. I think what makes us special is that everybody that comes through the door says it literally feels like they are visiting a family home. Irrespective of the fact that it’s a fine dining establishment, it’s a comfortable and welcoming environment.

Most of my staff has also been with us ever since we opened the restaurant and they’ve come with us the entire journey. Moses Magwaza, our sommelier, initially started as our gardener, and he is in the final processes of his [sommelier] examinations.

WS: Are you working on any exciting projects heading into 2019?
CD: I am also happy to say that I am having a lot of fun working on my cookbook. It’s a rather lengthy prospect and the aim is to release toward the end of 2020, when Restaurant Mosaic celebrates our 15th birthday. One version is all hand-bound and will be filled with real pressed flowers and leaves with hand-written recipes. So this is a long-term project.

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