Diabetes was shot in arm for chef
The disease set mom off on culinary adventure that titillates taste buds of high-end restaurant’s customers, writes Lesley Stones
When chef Stacy White prepares a meal, she is creating an adventure on a plate. Her salad might start quite normally, with a cluster of green leaves, a few tomatoes and some beans, all freshly picked from the garden.
Strawberries, bananas and avocado are added, with pretty purple garlic flowers adding a fiery bite. Poached eggs are perched on top, then slices of nectarine emerge, tinged with a curried marinade.
The chef’s inventive fruit-and-vegetable combinations sparkle on the plate and on the tongue. White, 37, loves to make food fun, but there is nothing amusing about the reason why she does it. She was diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic four years ago and needs insulin injections, despite following a healthy diet.
"I have to inject five times a day because I’m on two different types of insulin," she says.
"Everyone in our family has diabetes, so it wasn’t much of a shock when I was diagnosed.
"Sometimes it’s been a bit rough, especially after they put me on insulin because it takes a while to get used to it. But it’s not the end of the world if you look after yourself."
White is the chef at the Brahman Hills Hotel in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and a raconteur with an infectious laugh that she exercises often. She chats to guests at every meal, explaining the dishes and inevitably collecting compliments on her colourful creations.
It is crucial for diabetics to manage what they eat to reduce the amount of insulin they need, but the dietary restrictions are tough. "I avoid anything white — like pasta, rice and potatoes — anything fatty and extremely sweet things," White says.
Although her meals don’t include foods that are staple ingredients, you never feel that you’re missing out on anything because she leads you on a journey into different tastes.
It starts at breakfast, with chia seeds stirred through bananas, strawberries and nuts.
Her home-made yoghurt flavoured with roasted pear and thyme has a light and almost foamy texture.
"Having a dietary requirement like diabetes helps chefs to think out of the box," she says.
"Despite the fact I’m diabetic, I want to be able to enjoy good food and have fun with it, because if food is boring, you’re not going to be happy."
Ideally, she should eat something every three hours, but often, she is so absorbed in her work, she forgets until her colleagues remind her.
Brahman Hills has an elegant upstairs dining room and a wonderfully convoluted cellar of a dining space. Dinner for a food-and-wine pairing evening included cream of kohlrabi soup, followed by risotto with exotic mushrooms served with Parmesan and thyme biscuits.
"I enjoy the fact that I can play with the food here because if it’s not fun, you’re not going to enjoy it," White says.
Her father started working on trawlers in the Cape as a youngster and worked his way up to become a seafaring chef.
"My brother and I ended up in the same industry as our father because he gave us the bug," she says.
Her mother was always feeding the neighbourhood, with visitors constantly popping in and out of their house.
"In our family, we show love with food," White says.
She joined the Royal Caribbean International cruise line in 2002 and spent two years travelling the world cooking for 3,500 passengers and 1,500 crew.
But the risk of diabetes made the cruising lifestyle too risky, because getting sick in the middle of the ocean could be fatal.
On dry land, White has worked at the prestigious Le Quartier Français with Margot Janse and at Babylonstoren’s farm-to-table restaurant. In a nice twist, White can now spend more time with her daughter Gabi, who has joined the Brahman Hills spa after graduating as a beautician in 2016.
Free time is rare, with the kitchen team working up to 19 hours a day when there are weddings or conferences. White works with six assistant chefs and is inspiring them with her spirit of culinary adventure.
"They love it when I’m busy with something new.
"They say ‘what are you doing now, mum?’ They call me mum because we spend so much time together that we feel like family."
Not every flavour combination works. "There’s a lot of trial and error.
"If things don’t normally go together, I’ll put them together, and I’ll sometimes say that was a mess. You experiment, and if that doesn’t work, you experiment again and say, bingo. Fish and lemon go together, so I’d go fish and lemon sorbet!"
When she designed a new à la carte menu, there was a lot of scepticism about her filet, because she served it with ice cream. "I’m playing with the temperatures. It’s tzatziki ice cream with a harissa paste on the filet and people were saying ‘that’s a bit weird, that’s very strange’, but it’s one of our biggest sellers."
One of her favourite dishes is a red-and-pink salad with red lettuce, beetroot, pomegranate seeds and purple beans, topped with the surprise of smoked salmon ice cream.
"It works very well," she promises. "I always believe every dish is me on a plate and shows who I am and what I like, and I like putting smiles on people’s faces."