Andrea Burgener is at the heart and in the kitchen of Joburg’s favourite eatery, The Leopard. She is well known for her creative approach, which extends well beyond the culinary, infusing her décor flair, and restaurant’s ethos.
We were lucky to steal a minute with Andrea to find out more about her delectable world.
Please tell us what your official (or unofficial) job title is:
Andrea: Chef and co-owner of The Leopard Restaurant.
What and where did you study?
Andrea: I studied Fine Art at Wits University.
How did you come to be where you are today?
Andrea: If you mean how did I come to be a chef? I started cooking in other people’s restaurants, then opened a restaurant of my own after a while… Not that much to tell!
What characteristics and skills does it take to do what you do, and is cheffing creative?
Andrea: I think one needs to be sort of compelled to do it, otherwise you’d stop very soon after starting. There are much easier ways to earn no money. You need to be fast, physically fit, and must like some adrenalin in your work-day.
Being a chef is as creative as you want it to be, or as the particular job needs you to be. There are many sous-chefs and chefs in big hotel groups who are required to execute other people’s ideas perfectly, so they are technicians and people managers more than ‘creators’. These aspects of being a chef are perhaps more important.
What do you love most about the work you do?
Andrea: Often what I love and hate are the same thing, it depends on the day/night. When I have energy, I love the boot camp aspect, the speed, the rigour, the feeling that you’re in the same terrible boat as a million other restaurant kitchens all over the world. If I’m slightly ill or very tired, I hate these aspects. I love how immediate the work is. You can imagine something, and then execute and test it almost immediately. That’s why I hated sculpture at university. No immediate gratification.
You’re known within the industry as has having a unique approach and philosophy towards both your cheffing and the running of your restaurants, can you tell us a little about this?
Andrea: I guess my approach is fairly defined by the fact that I never went to chef school, so I never even knew I was breaking rules or doing something unique – I didn’t know what the rules were! All I’ve always had to go on was my gut.
How do you go about creating a dish? Do you start with one ingredient and work from there, or is it about flavours and tastes? Please let us in on your creative process:
Andrea: Every dish is different. I happily cook classics such as coq au vin, in which I change nothing and work from an old recipe; dishes which are about adapting something I ate somewhere that I loved, and must shift to suit my kitchen’s constraints; dishes which come about by tasting different elements we work with in the kitchen – sometimes by mistake – and realising how well they will work together on a plate.
Restaurant dishes also have reasons for existing, which are far more boring. Why do we have meatballs on the menu? Because we can’t throw away the off cuts from the perfect fatless, sinewless portion of rump we use for tartare.
What ingredient could you not live without?
What is your proudest work-related moment?
Andrea: Things I like the most are moments such as when I see, out of the corner of my eye, the guy who started in the scullery and is now doing starters and cold dishes, secretly whipping out his phone which he is not supposed to have in the kitchen, so he can take a picture of the tartare plate he just made, and I realise, as I see him gazing at the picture he took, that he realised he has made something beautiful, and feels … …… or, and I know it sounds cheesy, when my children come to the restaurant, and really love the food, and being there, and I feel we’ve made a space with good energy for them to feel part of.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Andrea: First a chef, then changed to a painter, then a brain surgeon, then back to painter, and then, here we are. All three require a steady hand, and two require good knife skills, so I guess there are some links.
Do you have any advice to those who might be considering becoming a chef?
Andrea: Advice seems to be no use if this is what someone wants to do. Everyone has to learn things for themselves. For what it’s worth: do some real hard time in real restaurant kitchens before you pay a fortune for chef school/catering college. It will almost certainly not be what you imagine. And I don’t mean do one or two shifts, I mean work fulltime for at least a month or so. Many kitchens will offer to take you if you accept virtually no pay. And spoiled rich kids, please know, you will be expected to wash dishes, peel potatoes and so on.
What meal that you have you eaten stands out from memory, and why?
Andrea: There are a hundred. I think dishes come and go in your memory, and are jogged by seeing someone, a conversation, looking through photographs etc. As I write this, it reminds me of the most beautiful breakfast imaginable which I ate in Israel, in a kibbutz: this was in the early eighties, when we were really only eating cereals and English breakfasts back home.
On a long counter were laid plates containing slices of watermelon, whitest feta, orange segments, sardines, olives and bread. The red, orange, silver, white, and purple-black together were like a slap in the face. I was a teenager. I had never imagined these ingredients eaten together.
The Leopard is moving to its new home at number 63A, 4th Avenue (corner 5th Avenue), Melville.