“Don’t you think they’re a bit too… cuddly?” I’ve just jokingly asked South African-born chef Jean Delport whether he’d ever consider putting the wallabies that roam the grounds at Leonardslee Gardens on his menu.
It’s a fair question given that much of what blossoms, sprouts, pecks, gambles, trots and even slithers within the grounds of his West Sussex-based Interlude restaurant and its immediate surrounds appears on the menu in some form or other, but I’m still taken aback at his eagerness to serve marsupials to the paying public.
“The time will soon come when we’ll need to get rid of some. It’s just like venison. The population needs to be kept under control and the result is a meat that’s very sustainable. Back home we hunt and eat pretty much eat anything so long as it’s not endangered.”
Delport concedes that some guests might find the thought of eating Leonardslee’s cutest residents a bit much, but also points out that many countryside establishments think nothing of putting animals on the menu that can be seen wandering around outside. Perhaps the wallabies, which were introduced to the gardens by naturalist Sir Edmund Loder in 1889, could be an off-menu thing when the time comes.
"The star was a big thing for me personally. The possibility of getting one was one of the main reasons I came to the UK. It’s not an accolade a chef can achieve in South Africa”
Reaching for the stars
Delport arrived in the UK with his wife Anya to oversee the launch of Interlude in 2017. At the time the plan seemed ambitious, foolhardy even: a 28-year-old South African serving a lengthy and expensive tasting menu that explored a terroir he knew little about.
Delport and the restaurant’s South Africa-based entrepreneur backer Penny Streeter’s decision to jump in at the deep end with an inflexible, high-end dining experience, raised eyebrows at the time, especially given that the maintenance of the Grade I-listed gardens and the Italianate mansion that houses the restaurant had bankrupted the previous owner (the property had been closed for nearly a decade and required an eye-watering investment). Yet Streeter’s faith in Deport’s abilities turned out to be well-placed, with Interlude winning a Michelin star within less than a year.
Though recognition from the little red book was very much part of the plan, Delport didn’t expect to get it so soon. “We weren’t ready for it,” he admits. “As soon as we got it, we got very busy. Too busy maybe.”
While the star proved that Interlude’s approach was working, Delport insists the restaurant has come a long way since the publication of Michelin’s 2019 guide. “In many ways we were finding our feet. We’re a different restaurant now. We understand the ingredients around us much more, the food has become more intricate and the experience is now less drawn-out. But the star was a big thing for me personally. The possibility of getting one was one of the main reasons I came to the UK. It’s not an accolade a chef can achieve in South Africa.”
Firing up the braai
Delport’s cooking is grounded in French technique but also explores his South African heritage. Nods include spiced vetkoek (a South African-doughnut) served with a lobster and wild garlic parfait; a take on traditional Afrikaans onion salad with lamb and magnolia vinegar; and crispy, painstakingly-deboned chicken feet that celebrate the population’s willingness to eat every bit of the animal (chicken feet are affectionately known as walkie talkies in South Africa).
"Everybody braais in South Africa, it’s normal for people to do it at home three or four times a week”
On top of this, the main course is always a celebration of braai, most recently chicken paired with juniper berries and confit chicken hearts.
“Braai takes in low-and-slow as well as faster cooking methods,” he explains. “The key difference is that we do it with a lot of finesse. Everybody braais in South Africa, it’s normal for people to do it at home three or four times a week.”
Delport and his South African second in command Ruan Pistorius have worked with wild food experts and foragers to identify what can be eaten within the 240-acre estate. “The climate in South Africa is so different. There are whole categories of ingredients we’ve never really come across before so it’s very exciting for us.”
Nearly every dish features something from the grounds ranging from the obvious – wild garlic, elderberries, mushrooms – to the less so.
“We’re big on trees. In fact, if I had to pick one thing that has really wowed me since coming over here is how much you can get from one birch tree."
Delport uses the sap, the inner bark, the young leaves and even parts of the root system and makes all variety of savoury and sweet dishes. He says he also gets a lot from elder trees, including the flowers and the berries, which are served in three different stages of ripeness.
The kitchen team also looks after a flock of 45 chickens – the eggs are combined with Exmoor caviar and truffle for one of Interlude’s signature dishes – keep their own bees and hunt the estate’s rabbit population. This haul is supplemented with ingredients sourced from local suppliers, including beef and chickens from Trenchmore Farm, lamb from Nuthurst and escargot from West Sussex Snails.
Setting down roots
In a further boost to its self-sufficiency credentials, Interlude will soon become one of a handful of restaurants in England to produce its own wine. The vines are mostly varieties associated with sparkling wine - chiefly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - but the small plot is also home to the UK’s first-ever planting of Pinotage. It’s not yet known how South Africa’s signature grape variety - a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut - will perform in these climes, but a test barrel produced early this year is showing signs of promise.
All the vines are too young for commercial production at the moment, with the first proper harvest likely to take place in 2023. While there aren’t many vines at Leonardslee, Streeter’s nearby sister property Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate has a much larger vineyard. If all continues to go well, it won’t be too long before the bulk of the wine served at Interlude will be produced in-house, with production across the two sites projected at some 75,000 bottles of wine a year.
For the moment though the wine programme - which is overseen by Anya - is focused on South Africa with wines from Streeter’s Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate given top billing.
The Cape crusader
So how did a South African-born chef come to be living the good life in the West Sussex countryside? Delport attended chef school - as it is called in his home country - in Kuils River just outside Cape Town and cut his teeth at some of the top restaurants in the winelands of the Western Cape.
“Noma was huge when I was training and starting out in kitchens. It’s only know I can see how much of an influence that restaurant had on me and the scene in South Africa”
His mentors included Alastair Little-protégée Dan Evans as well as John Shuttleworth, who at the time ran winery-based restaurant Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch. The late 2000s and early 2010s were a time of significant change for Western Cape restaurants, with many chefs following the lead of René Redzepi and rediscovering local ingredients.
“Noma was huge when I was training and starting out in kitchens. It’s only know I can see how much of an influence that restaurant had on me and the scene in South Africa,” says Delport, who met and became good friends with Streeter’s son Adam while working as a sous chef at a local restaurant (Adam was at the time doing a hospitality course with a view to helping his mother out at Benguela Cove, which she was in the process of buying).
Streeter – who made her considerable fortune in the recruitment industry - saw something in Delport and ended up putting him behind the stove at her Benguela on Main in Somerset West. The restaurant wasn’t a great success - it turned out the town wasn’t quite ready for Delport’s high-end cuisine - but he impressed enough to be Streeter’s only choice for the project that would eventually become Interlude.
“It was an amazing opportunity, I practically bit her hand off,” he recalls. “But leaving family and friends was tough. If Anya - who I had met at Rust en Vrede - hadn’t been keen to come with me I’m not sure I’d have gone through with it. Luckily, she was. We pretty much got married and jumped on the plane.”
Adjusting for taste
While recognition from the Michelin guide came early, the launch has not been without its challenges. For one thing, Delport and a team that was – initially, at least – largely South African have had to reacclimatise their palates. “We season our food more heavily in South Africa. When we started out some of the dishes were too salty for the guests. We’ve also had issues with spices. South Africans gravitate to powerful flavours.”
At times the kitchen has also had to deal with significant push back from guests seeking a quicker, less pricey experience. Things came to a head just before the pandemic when Delport introduced a menu that ran to 26 courses.
“It was tiny bites, and the flavours were quite intense. People were getting too full. It’s taken us a while to work out what our guests want, which is a mix of small bites and larger dishes. We’re now offering 21 courses (priced at £145) but the majority of them are light. We can get that out in about three hours, which I think is people’s limit out here.”
While the main restaurant is only open four services a week (evenings only Thursday – Sunday), the team is also responsible for the Leonardslee afternoon tea operation, which serves 40-60 guests per day five days a week. It’s pitched at roughly the same level at the restaurant in terms of attention to detail, but drops the focus on foraged and hyper-local ingredients.
“There’s a lot of competition round here [Exclusive Hotel's South Lodge is opposite] so it needs to be good. My standard is that what’s served would not look out of place at a top London hotel. Nearly all the elements need to be made fresh each day so it’s a lot of work, especially as we’re far from a full team at the moment.”
Calling home for help
Given Interlude’s location – it’s not an easy place to get to without a car - staffing has always been tough but the aftershocks of the pandemic have made things close to unworkable.
The staffing situation is so precarious that development and further exploration of local ingredients have had to take a backseat to some extent.
A solution to its staffing woes has been found, albeit an expensive one. Delport has taken advantage of the South African government’s handling of the pandemic - including a complete ban on alcohol sales and a curfew that allowed restaurants to only open at lunch - which has forced some country’s best restaurants to trim teams. He has forked out for visas to allow him to bring in two chefs, a sommelier and two further front of house staff from the country.
At roughly £10,000 per visa, it’s not a cheap approach, but, as he points out, having too few staff to operate would be even more costly. “These are highly skilled people that have had a tough time back at home and are now looking for stability. The hires will allow us to take more of a long-term view on things.”
Looking to the future
Streeter has invested heavily in Leonardslee and Interlude. The gardens now feature sculptures made by high-profile South African artist Anton Smit and 10 bedrooms opened on the upper floors of the mansion last month.
Priced between £350 and £550 the rooms are traditional in style, to some extent echoing the aesthetic of the dining room and afternoon tea rooms below. Becoming a restaurant with rooms is a key part of Interlude’s growth strategy, allowing it to package its experiences – access to the gardens, afternoon tea, dinner - together.
“It will open the place up to people coming from further afield. The lack of a place to stay has been a bit of a barrier for some guests, especially as they’re often coming here for celebratory meals,” says Delport, who hopes to soon introduce a breakfast offer that’s more in line with the Interlude experience in time for Christmas (he and Anya were recently blown away by the breakfast served at Gareth Ward’s Wales restaurant Ynyshir, a creative, multi-course affair).
"Two stars is what we want and what we’re working towards. Moving Interlude into a new space would give me an open kitchen and would allow us to refine the experience"
Further away on the horizon is the possible relocation of Interlude’s dining room to a more modern, purpose-built space that would be bolted on to the main mansion house. Such a move would free up the main house for weddings and other large events and would also allow Delport to make meals at Interlude more experiential.
“Two stars is what we want and what we’re working towards. Moving Interlude into a new space would give me an open kitchen and would allow us to refine the experience; the idea is that guests would move through different parts of the restaurant as they eat. We’re not at two-star level currently, though. I’m bringing the skills up to where they need to be and the new team members from South Africa are a big part of that.”
With this aim in mind, he’s not looking to increase the number of services at Interlude any time soon. “A lot of work needs to take place early in the week to get it all ready,” he says.
“If I have to go beyond one team in the kitchen it will reduce our focus. I don’t want to lose what this restaurant is. I’m not at the point where I can let go of anything yet.”