First appearances can be misleading. A pristine white tablecloth in a conservatory restaurant suggests a formal mood and stiff dinner service. Similarly, a head chef whose entire left arm is tattooed with stars, aliens and planets comes across as anti-establishment to some. I’m sure Ashley Moss has raised eyebrows greeting mature guests in a short-sleeved chef’s jacket at The Greenhouse restaurant. We are talking the flagship eatery of Cellars-Hohenort hotel in well-to-do Constantia.
This kitchen team is shaking up The Greenhouse – during the eight-course menu, chefs serve a dish and chat with guests. Moss is doing the same. But his is no rebellion, rather stamping his culinary identity gradually. ‘I have no problem with people wearing T-shirts if they’re there for the food. But there’s definitely a market for people dressing for dinner and after good linen,’ he says.
‘We’re seeing more younger diners though. Now we’re trying to break the mould with our table set up.’ It’s a small detail, but a knife and fork lie together at an angle in the top right near the wine glass, instead of on either side of the plate.
Moss seems older than 28, and his food reflects this maturity. Recently married, he joined The Greenhouse as head chef in July, after positions in serious UK restaurants. He proved his worth on a previous four-year Greenhouse stint, departing in 2011 as sous chef.
This nature-lover is a fit, early riser who cycles 30km before work. En route he fills plastic bags with foraged wild dune spinach on the False Bay coast. It’s used in a tempura dune spinach snack, dipped in Asian dashi with smoked snoek.
‘I did a bit of foraging in England but here it’s a practical thing,’ says Moss. ‘We’re hesitant of spending on micro-herbs or whatever else is “trending” at The Greenhouse – we’d rather use what we find. But our number one priority is deliciousness.’
The five-course spring menu (R550) features sashimi with farmed abalone, seaweed and kelp. ‘I waded into the Atlantic for the kelp, which we cook,’ says Moss. ‘The sea lettuce just had to be rinsed.’
He’d be stupid to ignore the magnificent produce from the hotel’s vegetable gardens. The gardener consults the kitchen before planting. So a few courses into the spring menu, you’ll eat an earthy quail and wild leek dish that skids to a halt with sweetly acidic raw guava puree zing.
It was Moss’s idea to combine guavas and macadamias, but he struggled with its pairing. ‘Then the wild leeks came out in our garden. It’s such a strong flavour we use it with milder regular leeks,’ he says.
If you’re splurging on the eight-course menu (R850), an African theme is introduced early on with tapas snacks. So local gemsbok on a slab of salt partners fermented waterblommetjies. A carved bowl holds indigenous madumbi potato ‘chips’ alongside the tastiest mushroom crème brulee you’ll eat.
‘I have a lot of work planned before the end of the year. I’ll go Japanese,’ says Moss. ‘I’ve had it on the cards for six years. It’s not something you jump into.’ This time he’s not discussing food but the next set of tattoos.
THE GREENHOUSE, The Cellars-Hohenort, 93 Brommersvlei Road, Constantia. Tel 021-794-2137, Collection Mcgrath
This appeared in The Times on 8 October 2014.