Nothing seems to rattle celebrity chef Nicky Gibbs, one of South Africa's fast-rising culinary stars.
She has cooked for the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner and U2's Bono. She coordinated 20,000 meals in 10 days for the 2003 MTV Music Awards. At another party, Bono dropped by her kitchen, ate her food, and thanked her by serenading her.
"(Bono) was just getting away from the paparazzi," explains Gibbs, one of the Grand Formosa Regent's guest chefs. "(While in the kitchen), he asked me if I could give him a bite to eat, and I did."
The 2003 MTV Music Awards that saw her coordinating 20,000 meals in 10 days had been quite a feat for Gibbs and her team.
"We had a restaurant where we were feeding the stars, and at another tent, we were feeding the crew. There was another tent for the dancers," she says. "The people who came to see the show had to be fed too."
To Gibbs, every customer, regardless of his or her status in life, is a star.
Her philosophy says it all: "Love life, love food."
Currently in Taiwan for the "Proudly South African Week" festival at the Grand Formosa Regent, Gibbs is the executive chef of MARCH, a trendy and hip restaurant at Johannesburg's five-star Melrose Arch hotel. She is joined by chefs George Peter Poulos, consultant chef and training officer of Ryalls Hotel, and Nicholas Mills, kitchen manager of Breakwater Lodge Hotel Cape Town.
Prior to MARCH, Gibbs worked at Quaglino's in London, where she was appointed the first female sous chef.
"I want to share all I have learned overseas with our guests through my cooking. My motto is 'love life, love food' and I want every diner to experience that at MARCH," she says in a statement issued by the hotel.
Gibbs acknowledges that she has "a feel" for all kinds of food and culinary events.
"I have been working with some very incredible people," she tells the Taiwan News. "I am learning a lot in Taiwan, and I will be taking home those new ideas that I have learned here with me. Right now, I am simply watching and learning from the Grand Formosa Regent's team. They are fantastic."
Gibbs' rise to fame has been quite phenomenal. One of the few female executive chefs in the business, she has traveled the world, served on luxury liners, and helped elevate South Africa's already exciting restaurant scene.
Gibbs started cooking at age five, but pursued graphics design in college. She did not finish her course, and instead heeded her calling: The kitchen.
After traveling in Europe, Gibbs returned to Cape Town where she signed up for an in-house training gig at the Heerengracht Hotel. She later worked at premium dining establishments such as Royal Hotel and Wolfgang's, and eventually signed up with a couple of hotels, Fancourt and Capetonian Hotels. Eager to hone her culinary skills further, Gibbs worked on the Queen Elizabeth II and Crystal Harmony.
Five years later, Gibbs was back on solid ground, joining Quaglino's in London. A year later, she joined "Eat Your Heart Out," a catering company that counts rock bands and superstars among its clients. During her stint at the catering-on-wheels outfit, she got to tour with the Rolling Stones.
"There are quite a lot of female chefs in South Africa but not many women have gone as far as I have," Gibbs tells the Taiwan News. "A few (women run some kitchens) but those are usually at game farms and safari lodges."
In Taipei, Gibbs is giving locals a taste of South Africa's fusion cuisine.
According to the Grand Formosa Regent, modern South African cuisine has two pillars: Culinary traditions practiced by the indigenous people of South Africa and cooking methods introduced during the colonial period by people of Afrikaner and British descent, and their slaves.
For the "Proudly South African: Exotic Tastes" festival which ends on May 5 at the Regent's azie restaurant, Gibbs has prepared five set menus. All five sets may come with a glass of wine from the Bellevue Wine Estate that is especially selected by the Grand Formosa Regent. Rooibos tea, a "high anti-oxidant" tea produced only in South Africa, and a complimentary bottle of Appletiser or Grapetiser sparkling pure juice may also be served with each meal, the hotel says. Rooibos tea, according to the supplier, is free of caffeine and low in tannin.
South African set meals start at NT$900 without beverages or NT$1,300 with beverages. A la carte glasses of red and white wines are available for NT$210.
Each set menu features dishes representing facets of South Africa's diverse cuisine such as biltong (dried, salted meat) and blue cheese soup, peri peri chicken breast poached in banana leaves with grilled putu papa roasted vegetables, ostrich fillet over sweet onions and chili marmalade, and amarula and dark chocolate mousse with koeksisters ("braided" syrup-coated doughnuts) to name a few.
"Peri peri chicken, for instance, is influenced by the Portuguese - the first Europeans to arrive in South Africa," says Gibbs. "The chicken breast is seasoned with peri peri paste, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed."
One of Gibbs' appetizers, chef's specialty with rooibos and salmon gravlax with honey mustard lavosh, is a blend of Scandinavian and South African flavors.
"South Africa is all about fusion," she says. "We are similar to Australia except that Australia's cuisine is a lot lighter than ours. Our cuisine is heavier and sweeter."
Indian cuisine is extremely popular in South Africa, she adds. One Indian-inspired dish that Gibbs is serving at the Regent is sag aloo potato cake with braised lentils and a mint yogurt dressing.
"South Africa has the most number of Indians living outside of India. They have influenced our kitchen particularly when it comes to vegetarian cooking," she says.
Gibbs' other uniquely South African dishes include marinated springbok loin with a coriander crust served over crushed butternut and potato with apricot chutney. The springbok is a small brown and white antelope.
"Most game meats are low in cholesterol, and go very well with fruits," she says.
The chef also adds a dash of Amarulla liquor to her pastries. The beverage is produced from the round, light yellow fruits of the Marula tree.
"The fruit contains natural alcohol, and is a favorite of elephants and monkeys," says Gibbs. "The animals actually get drunk eating it."
The chef is also proud of South Africa's wines.
"We have been making wines for a very, very long time. In fact, South Africa is the only country in the world that produces the grape varietal Pinotage," says Gibbs. The grape variety is the result of a cross between the Pinot Noir and Cinsault varieties.