Today I am so excited to be able to post this interview. I met Jill Okkers about a year ago and walked away from the evening with a sore stomach from laughing so much.
Jill is warm, intelligent, feisty and very talented both as a chef, and a photographer. Read below to find out more about her.
- Please share a quick bio.
I have been a chef for the past 13 years. I started my culinary education under the phenomenal Alex Docherty at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town. I spent 6 years under his stern guidance, and then moved on to work for the Caviar Group, which at the time included, Beluga, Sevruga, Blonde, The Caviar Deli and The Caviar Development Kitchen (this being my baby), we did development, from products to menus, for all the shops. I then worked in Zanzibar, setting up kitchens for the Elewana Afrika Group of Hotels which was an amazing experience. Came back to South African and based myself in Cape Town as a Private Chef, moved up to Johannesburg with a family I worked for there, was with them for 3 years. I am currently working at Gemelli, also doing product development for them.
- Are our restaurants doing enough to encourage sustainable food practices?
No. The basic notion of sorting, separating and recycling waste is not in practice in the majority of restaurants. Menus using produce out of season makes zero sense and passes on sky high costs to the customer for often inferior product from abroad. Kitchens seldom have procedures in place for handling the massive amounts of uneaten food wasted daily.
- Seasonal produce is important, but we keep seeing the same fruit and vegetables on plates. How can we influence change in the restaurants?
As a chef, the influence must come directly from us and our menu design. Food cost is often the bottom line for owners and management, and a balance must be struck between seasonal availability and the effect it has on margins. Tomatoes in the summer make sense. In the midst of an icy winter, they’re inferior in taste, quality and get sold at an inflated price. The customer may demand a Caprese salad in July, but it’s the chef’s duty to educate the patron on seasonality, and at the very least, offer a suitable alternative using his/her knowledge, experience and creativity. As chefs, we make a plan. A little strategy upfront when compiling a menu is key to this.
- What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
I have loads, but I tend to always gravitate to the classics. Butter, garlic, black pepper, truffle oil or salt, parmesan (loads of parmesan) and fresh tomatoes.
I also try to create an umami base for everything I cook or make, so sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavour components, this helps balance the plate and create mouthwatering food.
- After work, when you’re home and need a quick meal, what do you like to eat?
A chefs eating habits are so weird, we gravitate to towards junk food because its easy and fast, and oddly comforting, but I try to be aware of what I consume and put into my body.
Fresh pasta with olive oil and truffle salt are my go to midnight snack ( I make the fresh pasta and keep it in the freezer)
I tend to cook a lot of Asian styled foods, stir fries, broths with noodles and egg fried rice.
Coffee, Green juice and Cereal are also staples.
- If you could go back in time to any foodie era, which time period would you choose?
The finest days of Marco Pierre White’s cooking at Harvey’s
- What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
A range of insects, crocodile, sheep brains, “Rocky Mountain Oysters” (bulls balls deep-fried)
- Which country do you love for its food?
Korea. Thailand. Morocco. Italy. South America.
- What’s your favourite kitchen tool?
Ha…..the trusty tablespoon. My Knives. The Thermomix TM5 and recently the Nutribullet.
- How do you incorporate technology into your daily food life?
Inspiration on trends and ideas through social media platforms. Posting my own intellectual property on these platforms and interacting with industry insiders to gain traction on these posts. In the kitchen, we incorporate modern cooking techniques into our food preparation through the use of crafty technology.
- In your opinion, what is missing in the Joburg food scene?
Cohesion amongst the industry insiders. Chefs in particular. If we all got together a little more, shared our ideas and looked at the eating public as one, we could all benefit from this information and form a reputable forum to help us deal with the everyday issues that arise in restaurants.
- Being a chef means long hours on your feet, how do you do it?
I always tell people that its ingrained in my DNA, it might be weird to say that, but I’ve been around long enough to see trainee chefs drop like flies, because their perception of what a chef is is completely screwed. It boils down to passion, you need to live, eat, breathe food. It needs to be what you talk about, dream about, read about. You can’t come into this industry thinking that its all food shows, fairies and romance. Coffee, water and carbs sustain me, when I have a day off, I go for deep tissue massages, eat well and sleep, I also try to get some training in, wether its just a quick run or a yoga session. I have become used to always being exhausted, but on the flip side, I have the happiest heart, knowing that I do what I love (so cliche, but its the truth)
- So many chefs burn out especially when they’re young, how do you prevent it?
Step outside your head often enough to see the bigger picture. To many chef school graduates get sold a dream, then find themselves peeling onions or cleaning squid for 5hrs a day and simply lose themselves in the process. There has to be a gamelan, an end goal, a strategy. To become a chef, one needs to seek one’s own voice, a unique representation of who you are, not who you’re trying to emulate.
- What do you miss about being a private chef?
Weekends. The normal 9-5. “Normal people” holidays. This year will be the first year that I will be able to actually have a December holiday without having to work, the first in 6 years.
- We love your Instagram photos – how do you find time to snap the beautiful images when you’re cooking?
With my FoodbyJill Instagram, I make the time while I’m cooking, and just before I serve/eat it. I also try to seee the food outside of the confines of the vessel it’s plated on, or the table its served at. I see everything around the dish too, so a photo must allow for more than just the food at times. Currently, my team at Gemelli give me the creative scope I need to take the snaps too, to their endless frustration!
- What is your favourite store-bought bottle of wine under R150?
Optima, By Anton Rupert
Please go on a show Jill some social media love: