Heinrich Koen: The organic gourmet

2011-06-10 15:48

Heinrich Koen isn’t afraid to spend long hours on his feet, which is just as well because as the executive chef of four Cape Town restaurants, he has got his plate full. He’s at peace with his industry’s punishing schedules.

“You get used to the hard work from day one,” he says.

Koen, who will be 30 in September, has been a fully qualified chef since

he was 21. Nine years into his food journey – which has taken him around the country and abroad – he is happy to be providing good, handmade food.

At Café Paradiso his team makes all the bread, all the pasta, and even the butter is freshly churned every morning.

The herbs in the tubs around the garden aren’t for show; they are for lunch. Koen’s food philosophy is all about keeping it simple.

“Simplicity is the easiest. Five or six ingredients are enough for a whole meal to get the best flavour out of each ingredient.”

His love of the hospitality industry was fostered in the strangest way – with a tough job as a caterer’s assistant when he was in high school.

“When I was 13 or 14, I started helping out the lady who had a catering business on the side. My brother and I helped in the kitchen peeling and boiling 100kg of potatoes for an event.”

While some might baulk at the backbreaking work, Koen was delighted to find that after a whole day of hard work, people at the event had a lovely meal and a good time. Something that still feeds his soul.

And so he turned down a place at Stellenbosch University to study chartered accountancy and went to chefs’ school. He’s never looked back.

As part of his company’s One Life Project, Koen spends a lot of time training people off the streets to work in the quartet of restaurants – Café Paradiso, Café Mozart, Bombay Bicycle Club and Sidewalk Café – he’s in charge of.

“Everyone always starts in the scullery, then you work your way up.

I know everyone in the kitchen – from the lady who makes the salads, they all started in the scullery.

“The man who is in charge of making the fresh pasta every day started as a cleaner seven years ago.”

With his constant contact with his generation, Koen is confident that things are looking good for the future.

He says: “If I look at myself, I would say that in a few years there’ll be a few more restaurants and double the number of people we have now.”

Koen is a young man who is happy to stand the heat in the kitchen to improve his lot and that of the people around him who are willing to put their backs into making a better future.

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