‘Hell’s Kitchen’ chef backs J’Bay culinary academy

Global Table, with Louise Liebenberg

TOP OF THE CLASS: Brent Mills, principal and head chef of the Mills Culinary Academy in Jeffreys Bay, with his top student of 2013, Leigh Kooiker
TOP OF THE CLASS: Brent Mills, principal and head chef of the Mills Culinary Academy in Jeffreys Bay, with his top student of 2013, Leigh Kooiker

THEY’RE one of the Eastern Cape’s coolest foodie couples and together have built up a flourishing chef’s academy that now also has the name of Britain’s esteemed Gordon Ramsay attached to it.

Brent and Emmy-Lou Mills, of Mills Culinary Academy in Jeffreys Bay, also have a much-in-demand catering and events company called 3 Fat Fish, while their artisan bakery and cafe, Love Food Cafe, is a popular spot to kick back and relax in at the town’s Billabong Surfing Village.

The two began their business with 3 Fat Fish, which they established in 2007, followed by the realisation of their dream of a chef’s academy in 2010.

“Our International accreditation for the academy came through in 2011, which was very exciting,” said Emmy-Lou, 32, who, like Brent, 37, is a trained chef with international experience.

Between the two of them they have worked in some of the world’s top kitchens in France, Italy, Croatia, the Americas and South Africa.

“Together we’ve experienced all genres of the culinary world – from peeling potatoes and chopping onions;, to champagne poached crayfish with black truffle shavings; French butter beurre blanc and the finest Russian caviar; to cooking in snow-ski lodges in the French Alps and private catering on the super yachts,” Emmy-Lou chuckled.

But after all their foreign adventures, home beckoned and they have been based in J-Bay since their return to South Africa in 2005, save for a two-year stint in Durban.

Their academy’s more recent involvement with Ramsay was a question of being “at the right place at the right time”, Emmy-Lou said. “Timing is everything in business and I guess lady luck was on our side.

“A good friend of ours was out from London for his brother’s wedding in 2011. Brent and I went for a catch-up and over a cup of coffee at Love Food Cafe we discovered he was ‘the main guy’ for all the accreditations for CTH (Confederation of Tourism & Hospitality), which Gordon Ramsay and Tante Marie [Ramsay’s chef’s academy in the UK] are affiliated to.

“To cut a long story short, the necessary documents were e-mailed, inspections done and here we are today – one of only six chef’s academies world-wide to have this very prestigious accreditation to our name – one we are very proud of!”

The accreditation came through in the middle of last year and has been a great selling-point for qualifications offered under the banner of the Mills Culinary Academy.

But the couple is yet to meet the temperamental British chef, known as much for his liberal use of the “F- word” as for his Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen series, and other international initiatives.

“Hopefully, one day soon, we’ll be able to host him for a proper South African braai, take him for a surf …and get the signature!” Emmy-Lou said.

Besides running their various business interests the two have a hectic family life with three beautiful children, Tanner, 7, Georgia, 4, and Maxen, 2.

Brent said the secret to their success was “passion, hard work, support and the drive to continually develop and be better than yesterday”. “You can add to that the dream to have lived a good life.”

He said that, “unofficially”, 39 young chefs have used the academy as a stepping stone to international culinary success, with various part-time and short courses offered, as well as lessons for junior chefs and children.

But their “big” qualification is the one-year, internationally accredited diploma in Professional Culinary Arts, with daily “hands-on” practical cooking, intensive baking and theory classes conducted under Brent’s watchful eye.

“Our first intake of chef’s school students graduated earlier this month,” he said. “They’ve all been offered numerous jobs to choose from – at this stage we have more job offers than qualified chefs.

“We’d love to be able to educate more chefs and, in turn, send them out with a professional, full understanding of how the industry works and the demands it requires.

“Not only do we train professional chefs, we give them a holistic experience from organic gardening, food photography, food styling, nutrition, design and multi-media skills to front of house management, food and wine pairings and business management, to mention but a few.”

BRIGHT FUTURE: Emmy-Lou Mills, right, with student chef Nicole De Raedt, one of the stars of last year's course at the culinary academy. Graduation took place earlier this month
BRIGHT FUTURE: Emmy-Lou Mills, right, with student chef Nicole De Raedt, one of the stars of last year’s course at the culinary academy. Graduation took place earlier this month

Emmy-Lou said the academy was a place where people of all ages could pursue their passion for hospitality and the culinary arts in a “safe, secure, coastal environment”. “People come from all over the world to train here.

“Because our academy is internationally accredited it provides our students with an excellent first set of skills in food preparation, in a professional environment – we think of it as their ‘entrée’ to a culinary career,” she joked.

South Africa was experiencing a revival in the hospitality industry and especially in the culinary arts, she said. “This is no more obvious than what we are seeing in the form of the many gastronomic, gourmand and artisan food expos cropping up country wide …from back-street markets to contemporary food trucks to international celebrity chef cook-offs on our shores with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Bill Granger and Jamie Oliver added to our own brigade of talented and provocative local celebrity chefs.”

She said the academy offered custom-designed practical and lecturing facilities for its chefs-in-the-making. “About 75% of our tuition is towards the practical training, as we believe this provides students with the fundamental basic skills foundation for the real kitchens as well as allowing them the freedom to explore new techniques and trends within our food service industry.

“We also impart on our student chefs the confidence to experiment with home-grown flavours and traditional ‘veld-kos’.”

Brent said classic international gastronomic principles using contemporary techniques were taught, from which the students were then also inspired to explore and embrace South Africa’s “rainbow nation cuisine”.

The couple espouses the importance of using locally-sourced and organically produced ingredients wherever possible. “Our area, for instance, has an abundance of freshly caught local linefish, hand-caught squid, wild oysters and black-lipped mussels,” Emmy-Lou said. “Educating our student chefs about SASSI sustainable fishing and seafood practices is a priority to us.

“The proximity of Karoo lamb, pasture-reared beef, free-range pork and venison provides quality cuts for our students to gain practical experience in butchery. And our own student chef-managed chicken run provides free-range eggs for baking and egg cookery.

“Most of our fruit and veggies – other than what our organic garden provides – are sourced from the Gamtoos valley and our local dairy produces products according to our needs, from hand-made goats’ cheese and mozzarella to halloumi and ricotta. Even our meat is milled and stone ground the old-school way on a friend’s farm.”

TomatoSoupRed pepper and tomato soup

2 x 340g tins whole, peeled tomatoes

1kg skinned tomatoes

100g celery

100g carrots

250g onions

3 cloves garlic

1 tbsp grated nutmeg

1 tbsp fennel seeds

250ml tomato juice

125ml olive oil

500g red pepper

500ml chicken stock

125ml extra virgin olive oil

Start by grilling the red peppers on an open flame (or under a really hot grill in your oven), as this allows the skin to blacken and char.

Put the red pepper in a bowl and let it steam – this will help in the removal of the skins.

Now rough-chop the celery, peeled carrots and onions.

Sweat this off in 125ml of olive oil, allow to brown and just start to catch on the bottom of the pot – this should take about 20 min. Now add the nutmeg, garlic and fennel and cook slowly for five minutes, releasing the spice flavour.

Add the whole peeled tomatoes, skinned tomatoes, tomato juice and chicken stock.

While this is cooking, peel and de-seed the now charred and cooled red pepper. Add this to the soup and slow-simmer for one hour. To blend, use a stick blender on the lower speed, while slowly pouring in the remaining 125ml of olive oil. Doing this will give the soup a velvety finish.

Check seasoning.

This soup is excellent served with basil pesto and buttered sour dough ciabatta (recipes available from the Mills Culinary Academy).


Leave a Reply

Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment moderation policy. Your email address is required but will not be published.