Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat has a new chef – as of January this year. Perhaps the best way to attempt to describe Chef Ryan Weakley is through the words of Rudyard Kipling, in “
“It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is ‘Run and find out’, and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose.”
“Run and find out,” seems to be the words Ryan lives by… having worked in several restaurants across Cape Town as well as in the wilderness of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, having trekked the great Himalayas of Nepal, summitted Mount Kilimanjaro, gone fishing for giants on the coast of Madagascar, and captured it all through the lens of his camera. He is not made for one title, one label; an incredible Chef, yes, but also a world traveller, a fine photographer, a man “eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity”. It is this passion and experience that he brings to the kitchens of Bushmans Kloof in the Cederberg Mountains.
Discover more about the man behind the chef’s apron in our Q&A below, peppered with a few of his photographs – from Africa to India – and images of his new home… Bushmans Kloof.
10 Questions with Bushmans Kloof’s Chef, Ryan Weakley
1. Five important things to remember when living in the wilderness?
- Living in the wilderness you will always be isolated to some degree. This is something that you need to know before taking on any position at a lodge. You have longer work cycles than most people, you may not have cellular phone reception, you can’t just pop into the corner café if you’re craving chocolate and logistically, getting supplies in is not as easy as it is in an urban environment.
- Make friends with everyone. You work with and see the same people every single day. These are the people that will be there for you when you have a bad day and that you have to support when they’re having a bad day.
- There are also times when you will be alone. If you feel lonely, you can’t just pick up the phone and call your family. You need to be comfortable with this. You live where you work, so you need to do something to take your mind off things.
- You need a mental vacation at times, so take up a hobby. Read, take up photography, build macaroni sculptures. It is so easy to fall into the routine of work, sleep, work. Go to the gym, go for a run, take a bike out – the serenity of the wilderness is one of the most relaxing ways to start your day.
- Watch what you eat. It is difficult to maintain a proper diet. Being at the lodge all day, it becomes easy to overindulge. Skip high tea every now and again or grab a couple of slices of fruit from the platter instead of those chocolate brownies or cheesecake. Choose the vegetarian or fish option once in a while. And stay out of the pastry section on the days they are baking shortbread!
2. Three things being a chef has taught you about yourself, life and love?
- Patience, sometimes things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Often you will fail on the first attempt, but with patience and perseverance anything is possible. This applies to all aspects of life, be it your career, your family or your love life.
- Don’t rush anything.
- Put your heart into everything that you do, do it well and if it’s meant to be, everything will work out.
Above: Canapes from Ryan Weakley at our Gastronomic Bar at this year’s We Are Africa event in Cape Town
3. What is your culinary background and how did it lead you to Bushmans Kloof?
After leaving school and studying Web Design, Information Technology and Architecture, I realised that I was never going to be happy behind a desk. I woke up one morning and decided on a complete career change and moved to Stellenbosch to study at The Institute of Culinary Arts. I was always interested in pursuing a career in product development, but true to form, life had different plans for me. As part of my practical training, I was sent to Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl, Aubergine Restaurant in Gardens, Cape Town and Ginja, also in Cape Town. It was at Ginja where I realised that I wanted to be a restaurant chef. I loved the thrill of getting slammed on the pass, the energy of the kitchen, the adrenaline rush that a busy service leaves you with and the camaraderie and friendships that are developed in a restaurant. In 2006, after my training, I was offered a chef de partie position at Ginja, and I worked my way up to sous chef and finally head chef.
In 2007 I moved to The Vineyard Hotel with Mike Bassett, where we opened Myoga Restaurant. Two years later, my yearning for adventure got the better of me and I moved up country to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park where I joined Sabi Sabi at their flagship property, Earth Lodge. After two years in the bush, I did a brief stint in Johannesburg at the Winston Boutique Hotel.
In 2013 I joined Wilderness Safaris in Botswana and took over the kitchen at Mombo Camp, in the Okavango Delta. It was here that I met the Tollman family, and when a position opened up at Bushmans Kloof, the allure of working for both a Red Carnation and Relais & Châteaux property was too great for me to ignore and I joined Bushmans Kloof in January of this year.
4. What kind of cuisine do you try to create at Bushmans Kloof?
I love the way that Eastern cuisine utilises fresh flavours and ingredients to complement more complex dishes. Think basil, coriander, lime and lemongrass in Thai or Vietnamese cooking. Fresh sambals and raitas in Indian cooking or ginger, garlic and chilli in Chinese cooking. I am extremely lucky to have organic herb and vegetable gardens as well as poly tunnels on the property which gives me the opportunity to start my morning wandering through the gardens and deciding what to use for the daily specials. Obviously being a conservation orientated lodge, our focus is on sustainability, so I try to make use of the resources on hand. Cooking with ingredients that have been picked only an hour or two before, something that was still growing that morning, is an absolute delight. The freshness and flavours of homegrown produce is beyond compare and it is this that I want to highlight on our menus going forward.
Above: Dining in the outdoors at Bushmans Kloof
5. The best dish to serve to put a smile on your guests’ face?
Chocolate – I don’t think that you can ever go wrong with chocolate. Decadent, indulgent and comforting with natural aphrodisiac properties. A bitter chocolate fondant, oozing out its’ rich gooey centre when you cut into it, is guaranteed to end any meal with a smile!
6. The ingredient you couldn’t do without?
Fresh ginger – it’s such a versatile ingredient that can be used in any dish. Think passion fruit and ginger mojitos, golden carrot and ginger soup with fresh coriander, butter chicken curry with warm flavours of ginger and cardamom coming through, dark chocolate and orange tart with maple syrup and ginger ice cream, preserved ginger and chocolate truffles. Everything from pre-dinner cocktails through to desserts, and even into chai teas with petit fours!
7. The best thing about working and living in the bush?
Being so close to nature. Being able to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and all the challenges that come with that. It gives you the opportunity to get back to the basics of cooking. You don’t have to compete with anyone, which allows you to be able to cook your own food, follow your own passion and showcase your own style of cooking without worrying what the chef next door is doing. It takes away the distraction that often comes with competition.
8. Most memorable adventure so far?
I have been very lucky to have gone on a couple of adventures in the past few years. I don’t think that I can single out any specific adventure, as each and every one has been memorable in its own way. The most memorable thing about all the adventures that I have been on, has been that I have been able to do them with friends and family. Fishing in Tanzania and Madagascar with my father and brother, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with my brother-in-law. Trekking the Himalayas with my brother-in-law a year later. Gorge swinging and running the Vic Falls half marathon with great friends. Spending two weeks camping at bomas in the Okavango Delta, helping with the reintroduction of black rhino into Botswana. I truly think that any experience is made more special by the people that you surround yourself with.
9. What makes travel special to you?
Being able to experience different cultures. Being a chef, it’s about seeing how different cultures live. How it influences what and how they eat. Being able to go to local markets, be it the meat market in Tanzania, the fish market Madagascar, the spice markets in Nepal or even visiting Burough Market in London, is always so very special to me. The sensory stimulation that these markets force onto one is always an inspiration and something that will stay with me.
Above: Private dining at Bushmans Kloof
10. I wouldn’t be the chef I am today without…
The opportunities that have been given to me along the way. I was very lucky to have been assigned to three great restaurants when I was doing my experiential training in the beginning of my career, namely Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl, Ginja and Aubergine, both in Cape Town and all Top 10 restaurants at the time. All three of these restaurants stimulated my creativity and passion and in 2006, Mike Bassett, the chef owner of Ginja offered me a position. Without the training and tutorage of Mike, I would never have become the chef I am today. It was his guidance and confidence in me that gave me the opportunities that I have been so lucky to have been afforded.