• Levelling up

    The way we eat is changing; our engagement with food is no longer just about taste. Ilze Hugo talks to Matthew Foxon, executive chef at Joburg’s fine-dining Level Four
    Levelling up

    With ethical dining being lauded as one of the top food trends for 2019 and a chef, José Andrés, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with disaster relief through his non-profit organisation World Central Kitchen, diners are expecting a lot more from chefs. And Matthew Foxon, executive chef at Level Four (on the fourth floor of luxury boutique hotel 54 on Bath) fits the bill.

    Matthew has spent years refining his brand of classic cuisine with contemporary influences. A second-generation chef, he grew up in the kitchen. After graduating from the International Hotel School, he worked at five star hotels the Michelangelo in Joburg and the Sheraton in Pretoria. This was followed by 11 years in the UK, where he ran kitchens at the award-winning Greyhound at Battersea, The Rosendale (where he won the Time Out Award for Best Gastropub, beating the likes of Gordon Ramsay) and Criterion Restaurant. While at Criterion Restaurant, he guest-starred on the BBC hit series MasterChef, where three amateur chefs were sent to work and compete in the kitchen under his watchful eye.

    In 2016, he returned to South Africa to take up the mantle at Level Four.

    The ingredients

    As befits a hotel restaurant, the menu at Level Four changes seasonally and caters for a wide range of palates. On the winter menu, diners can choose from options such as Peking duck with red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, confit duck, apricot relish and cherry jus; ‘Black Angus’ fillet with osso buco, spinach puree, baby spinach, carrots and sweet potato; or beetroot risotto with roasted beetroots, smoked mozzarella and beetroot gel (the summer menu launches in October).

    But when conceptualising a dish, taste, for Matthew, is only part of the equation. A considerable amount of time and concentration goes into the sourcing of the ingredients. ‘I’ve always been one for provenance,’ he says. ‘I do a lot of research. I go out to farms and work closely with my suppliers to make sure that I have a full understanding of where the produce is being grown, where the animals come from, and how they are reared and slaughtered.’ The beef, for example, is sourced from retired dairy cows, which is a more sustainable, environmentally conscious option, ‘and the meat is fantastic’. Nose-to-tail cooking is an ethos Matthew strongly believes in and practises in his kitchen. ‘It’s a skill that’s been lost because you can get a lot of stuff pre-portioned and done for you. But as chefs, we should be able to break down carcasses and utilise all the different cuts in different ways.’

    To give diners a taste of the effort that went into sourcing the ingredients, the menu attempts to highlight the origin of each dish, ‘including animal breeds and where they’ve been farmed, or which cheesery the cheese comes from’, says Matthew.

    The story

    ‘Part of my ethos with food is also to be a storyteller, and explain to the guest the story of, let’s say, a freshly caught fish.’ He recently discovered an app created by a Cape Town company where fishermen can load their catch and members of the app can buy directly from the individual fishermen. ‘You’re supporting local fishermen, empowering struggling communities, and the first delivery nearly made me cry, it was just so beautiful. Each delivery comes with a QR code that tells you about the fishermen who caught the fish, where, about the fish and about the app.’ The seasons drive his creativity. ‘I usually look at what we have coming in that season, what’s available, and then I like to play around and put unusual flavours together. Currently, we have a pumpkin jam with truffle and buffalo mozzarella that was purely inspired by the seasons.’

    Does he have a specific diner in mind when creating dishes? ‘I want to go to a restaurant and eat food that I can’t eat at home, so that’s always at the back of my mind when creating a dish,’ he explains.

    The experience

    The ambience at Level Four is stylish and inviting. Black and white marbled tiled floors are framed by warm red damask wallpaper, a period fireplace, tall vases with flowers on white tablecloths, plush dining chairs, and French doors that look out on to the perfectly manicured, tree-lined terrace garden.

    ‘While we do offer a fine-dining experience, we don’t make it stuffy,’ says Matthew. ‘It’s not an in-your-face, jacket-and-tie kind of atmosphere. Although you will get immaculate service, it’s done in a non-invasive way.’ 

    The wine list is extensive and includes a selection of rare local wines (Level Four is a participating Auction Wines restaurant). The terrace garden adjoins the champagne bar of the restaurant, sponsored by exclusive boutique Champagne estate Perrier-Jouët Champagne, which earmarks only a small number of bottles for the African continent.

    The tea

    Afternoon teas are a big drawcard. ‘Sitting on the terrace, you completely forget you’re in the middle of bustling Rosebank,’ says Matthew. Everything on the tea menu is made in-house, and includes a selection of savoury sandwiches, scones and sweet treats. There are a number of loose-leaf teas diners can choose from. ‘There’s even a black tea blended with cracked coffee beans for coffee drinkers not quite convinced about having tea.’

    The kitchen

    The menu accredits each dish to the Level Four chef who created it. When planning a menu, Matthew asks everyone in the kitchen to come up with a dish. ‘Then we’ll start working on it, adding things, removing things, changing the plating. The team gets an opportunity to learn, and it also gives them ownership. It’s empowering,’ he says. ‘One of the reasons I came back to South Africa was to give back to the profession.’ If there’s anything he would still like to achieve, it’s for Level Four to be recognised as a centre of excellence for training and development. ‘I think that carries more weight than any other kind of accolade,’ says Matthew. 

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