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Footsteps on a journey
From the Cape Flats to the president's residence, chef Hilton Little has taken great strides in his culinary career, writes Brent Meersman.

When serving the president and his guests, "food should not be stacked on top of each other in the shape of a pyramid or tower. This might look good, but once the guest starts eating the prepared dish, it tends to fall apart and might cause embarrassment," explains chef Hilton Little. At a state banquet, the chef should avoid "food that is messy or difficult to eat, such as mutton, snails, lamb cutlets on the bone, frogs and oysters". Indeed, the sight of a table of world leaders slurping oysters is one of the more off-putting things one could visualise.

Little has been the chef at the president's official, and therefore rather modest, Cape Town residence, Genadendal, for the past 11 years, first under Nelson Mandela and now Thabo Mbeki. There are perks to being president, but having a private chef of Little's quality cook for you must count as one of the best.

The second eldest in a family of eight, he started assisting his mother peeling potatoes and chopping carrots at age nine. Once, his mom in a huff decided to teach the family a lesson and walked out on them for a day. When she returned, to her surprise she found the family at supper polishing off a delicious breyani. Little Hilton had cooked his first big meal.

From Wetton on the border of the Cape Flats where he grew up, he moved into a hostel at the Lansdowne Landrost Hotel School. It was "military like and we had to scrub floors," he recalls.

He was apprenticed for three years at the Holiday Inn on Eastern Boulevard, starting in the production kitchen. Little worked his way through the departments to the main à la carte restaurant where he stayed for five years.

Curious and enterprising with a strong work ethic, he was soon at the newly built five-star Cape Sun where people in the 1980s would stare in wonder at the glass lifts riding on the exterior of the shiny building. He worked his way through pastry, butchery, the different venues and ended up running the establishment's fine-dining French cuisine restaurant.

Winning competitions brought him to prominence. In his first national competition, he pre-empted his competitors. Where they presented the prawn cocktail in a glass, he decided to plate it; he deboned his leg of lamb before roasting it; and he made individual apple pies rather than dishing up a slice. Little would draw the food on disposable cardboard plates to work out how it would look.

In 1996, he applied for the position of household manager for the president of the Republic. He was summoned to Genadendal at 6pm one evening, where president Mandela, already in bed, interviewed him. Mandela asked if he could "start tomorrow". It was the beginning of "a great relationship". After he cooked lamb one day, Mandela expressed the wish that Little always cook for him. During his presidency, Little would follow Mandela to Houghton and even Qunu.

His style suited Mandela. "Remember that guests, no matter how eminent, shrink from ostentation. You should avoid the impression of great effort and you should always aim to put your guests at their ease," says Little.

But he puts himself under major pressure to vary the meals. Once he asked Mbeki what he would like for lunch. The reply was, "I am going to leave that up to you." Little keeps a hawk's eye on what returns under the silver cloche. If the plate is clean, he writes down the dish's name and next to it "success". A compilation of these is now in a lavishly illustrated book Bon Appétit, Mr President!.

Actually, Little started working on the cookbook some years ago. To his relief, Mbeki one day made the suggestion to him, so he didn't have to seek permission. Mbeki kept encouraging him and by chance even introduced his cooking to the publisher. On publication, the president, who wrote the foreword, read the copy from cover to cover and congratulated him. "They did a very good job, he said."

"Always remember, recipes are only the footprints; it's only when you cook the dish, that's when you travel the journey," advises Little about the book.

All dishes were cooked exactly to the recipe for the pictures and photographed hot off the stove, during which time the editors checked the measurements for the ingredients. The publishers claim that it is the first book of its kind in the world by a chef to a head of state.

Little belongs to the exclusive Club des Chef de Chefs. Its 30 members are chefs to presidents and sovereigns, almost all from the Western world, and include four women. Information from them helps him formulate menus for visiting leaders.

Has Little ever had any disasters? Apparently not. Protocol procedures are tight and hygiene standards high. "I also put a few drops of vinegar on the plate just before I serve. It kills bacteria and gives the plate a nice spotless, polished look," he says.

As it is the president's last term, the year is particularly busy. Little is also called upon to cook at Tuynhuys. The first lady approves the menus. If a catering company tenders for a state banquet, a tasting panel decides.

Little won't be drawn on what President Mbeki's favourite dish is, nor will he give away any dietary restrictions.

"Do you know any Zulu dishes?" I ask. "No, I don't," he shrugs. "There's a reason I ask," I press him. "Oh!" he laughs, "No, I used to cook for Jacob Zuma when he was deputy president and used to come here often."

A simple supper
Matthew Burbidge selected a simple baked fish dish with tomato and onion from Hilton Little's Bon Appétit, Mr President! and found it basic, but good enough for the head of state

It's somehow interesting to know what a country's leader eats -- his or her excesses, their weaknesses, or austerity. I wondered while preparing Little's baked fish with tomato and onion whether the two past presidents and their guests would really have dined on something so simple and unremarkable. Paging through the book, it really does seem our presidents prefer simple fare, such as boiled or fried brains, umngqusho (samp and beans) or a spinach loaf.

I also wondered whether they'd be willing to tuck into quite so much onion and tomato stacked on top of their fish.

Even though one is at the reins of power, there is no getting away from the fact: one must eat. As far as this recipe goes, one can only imagine the presidential nod of approval after such a tasty dish.

Make sure you've got good, fresh fish (I used yellowtail, filleted). Then get the best ripe, Roma tomatoes, purple onions (or perhaps shallots, or chili?) and fresh herbs that you can find.

Also, use a sharp knife-- the onions and tomatoes need to be thinly sliced.

Salt and pepper the two fillets well on both sides and then lay in the buttered dish in which you intend baking them.

Layer thin slices of onion on top of the fish and follow with the slices of tomato, sprinkling with the chopped fresh basil and thyme leaves as you go. Season well again.

Dot with butter and bake for about 45 minutes. Little says you can use butter or margarine, but I'd stick with the former.

To my mind, the beauty of this recipe is in its simplicity. The secret is in the successful pairing of ingredients, such as fish cooked with butter and tomato and thyme.

Mbeki, in his somewhat rambling foreword, doesn't let on what he specifically enjoys, but nevertheless recommends that "even lowly cooks, such as I" should try out the recipes.