Chef Rudi Liebenberg took a huge risk when he introduced a 6 course vegan menu at the Planet Restaurant in one of Cape Town's oldest, grandest luxury hotels, because most South Africans are committed meat eaters. Biltong, a kind of beef jerky, and Boerewors, a coil of spiced fatty sausage are cultural staples (like rice in China and turkey at Thanksgiving) but this meat-mad trend is starting to change at the Mount Nelson Hotel. We recently checked out the 5-star menu ourselves and Liebenberg told us "Our guests are starting to ask for healthier and more sustainable options". So the visionary chef managed to convince his superiors that it was time to make a switch, even though sourcing sustainable vegan food in a country of carnivores is no easy feat.
The Mount Nelson Hotel hosted us and a guest two weeks ago while we were touring Cape Town’s numerous eco-initiatives. Our appetizer consisted of light pastries filled with beetroot, eggplant, turnip and other yummy veggies. This was followed by a Waldorf salad that was so good, we forgot to get a picture of it, and then a delicious marinated portabella mushroom terrine. We found this to have a little too much vinegar, a balance Liebenberg explains is difficult to find when food is no longer drenched in creamy French sauces and other sneaky veils.
The gazpacho soup had just the right kick to it, and the bean risotto was perfectly creamy and delicious. Our non-vegan guest was not so convinced and joked about heading to McDonalds afterwards, but that was more a dig at how seriously we were taking this awesome 5 star experience. The meal was rounded out with an excellent spiced chickpea fritter served with bean salad and quinoa – a difficult grain to source in South Africa, and an amazing fresh fruit terrine served with mouth-watering sorbet that even had our guest drooling.
Despite having worked 14 hours, Liebenberg sat with us at the end of our meal for a good half hour. We waxed philosophical about how South Africa is slowly cottoning on to the need to consume less meat and more pesticide-free vegetables and grains. He explained that while he has always had an affinity for foods that sit at the periphery of mainstream gastronomy, it wasn't until he read The Omnivore’s Dilemma – a behind-the-scenes look at the industrial food system – that he really began to re-think his approach to food.
Liebenberg is committed to buying produce from farmers with the highest standards and frequently has to rearrange the menu depending on what is and isn’t available. “It’s challenging to get our clients to understand that all food isn’t available 365 days out of the year,” he said, but most of them actually educate him. For example, it wasn’t until a client told him that Liebenberg knew that certain wines contain egg whites. Now vegan wines are also available. After the New Year, there will be an upgraded vegan menu. “You should come and check it out,” he offered. If it’s as good as our first Planet restaurant experience, we’re there!