World-class chef stirring up the pot at Drakensberg Sun

“A meal fit for a king and queen” is more than a saying at Drakensberg Sun Resort. It’s the standard of excellence Michael Pather aspires to in his role as our executive chef – aptly so for a mover and shaker who “was constantly exposed to perfection” when he began his career in the employ of the Sultan of Brunei, once regarded as the richest man in the world.

Michael joined Drakensberg Sun in December 2017 and has been using his world-class expertise to revitalise our culinary offering to timesharers, hotel guests and day visitors. The work is exhilarating, he said, with many successes notched up and innovations introduced so far.

Among other things, in the past year and a bit, the resort hosted numerous smash-hit corporate events that “ran like clockwork”, served “record numbers of lunches and dinners” over the Christmas season, and, thanks to a redesign, now has “the funkiest, most amazing menu in the Berg”.

The thinking behind Drakensberg Sun’s new menu follows several principles, Michael said: “Use clean, simple, fresh ingredients; whatever you do, make sure it’s seasoned and has flavour; and incorporate very simple modern styling – don’t overdo it, and don’t overcrowd the plate.

“So, I’ve brought in some of my Japanese skills, brought in some Asian-influence sauces, and improved our curries. Something we’ve become famous for in our buffets is our crab curry.”

In an era of celebrity chefs, Michael is also a believer that fine-dining should be an experience, in the full theatrical sense of the word, and is by now well-known for a presentation of his called Café Diablo.

“It’s a little show I do in the centre of the restaurant with coffee I make from cinnamon bark and different types of liquor. The lights go off, blue flames come swirling about a metre high into the pot … it’s a sight to see. The coffee is absolutely delicious, and the ladies go crazy.”

For all his front-of-house flamboyance, though, Michael said his position as executive chef has “a lot of hidden scope” that comes as a surprise to people who assume it’s all about glamour and handing pots, woks and rolling pins. It is, he said, much more about business management and administration.

“As executive chef, I’m responsible for everything from picking suppliers and hiring staff to sourcing resources, executing various ethnic menus, and managing finances. The first question people tend to ask me is, What’s your best curry or signature recipe? In reality, you’re 90% a businessman.”

Expecting a person of executive-chef level to “chop onions and garlic for three hours a day” is a waste of that person’s experience and the value he or she can add to a resort’s culinary operations – and in Michael’s case, that experience is illustriously diverse, spanning decades’ working with leading hotel brands worldwide.

Born in South Africa, young Michael Pather finished school in the 1980s and spent about five years learning the ropes as a trainee hand-cook and butler in a hotel owned and managed by the royal family of Brunei, spectacularly wealthy despite the tiny size of their sultanate on the island of Borneo. “They paid for the finest of finest things you could ever ask to work with – the best cutlery, the best linen, plates and crystal glasses … I was groomed in an environment where second-best was not accepted.”

The perks and privileges were lavish, but Michael felt the need to spread his wings, setting off to take up a scholarship under a renowned French chef in Singapore and, from there, embark on a journey of a professional growth covering Asia, Africa, Europe and the Bahamas. An engagement of especial note came during the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when he served as executive chef to the German football team under the guidance of the Michelin star chef Holger Stromberg.

At Drakensberg Sun, Michael’s focus is again on helping a team maximise its potential and go for gold – with the team this time being his staff contingent of some 28 people.

“My number-one priority when I came here was to implant knowledge, skills and understanding,” he explained, saying his approach is to lead by example, motivating staff with practical demonstrations that not only show how to solve problems but reveal the possibilities that open up with advanced skill.

Michael is confident he has a top-performing staff team on his hands, and had high praise in particular for how successfully it handled the various big corporate functions hosted in 2018. These ranged from a master-braai competition with 16 braai stations in simultaneous operation to a splashy Hawaiian-themed gala dinner and the resort’s Epic Summer-Slam Pool Party event.

“We’ve done numbers of people where you think the wheels are going to come off,” he said, “but I’m proud to say we’ve not failed at a single of these challenges, and have carried them off smoothly.”

Creating cuisine at a resort is not a one-man show, and indeed Drakensberg Sun is not a single space. “Remember that everything isn’t just confined to one dining and restaurant area. We also have open-pit spaces, events, pools, conferencing … At any given time, all of these areas can be occupied, with a lot happening all at once. The resort is spread out, and you can’t be everywhere at once.”

This is where strategic planning and coordination become paramount – and where Michael believes he makes one of his strongest contributions as executive chef.

“I call it ‘the hover’ – I’m the helicopter in the operation. I train the minds of my line staff onto a focal point, breaking them into ever-smaller task groups until it is a chain of events in motion. For my part, I have the eyesight to see what problems and opportunities are coming up and to adjust what we’re doing. I become the brain in the game, and they become the players.”

So, what does Michael regard as his finest achievement so far at Drakensberg Sun? It’s when guests compliment him on a meal fit for a king and queen, thinking he’s cooked it himself. “I’m so proud of that, because when I tell them, ‘No, it’s not me cooking it, it’s the staff’, they go: Wow!”

It’s the kind of rush of positivity he feels every day at the resort. “You wake up to this magnificent scenery – birds chirping, mist in the air – and can almost feel the energy from all the greenery coming into your body. It’s an absolute blessing to work here.”

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