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Review of Sabi Sabi Game Reserve + Chef Eric Chavot : South Africa

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PHOTO: Lobby, first views of the Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

To enter the presence of a classically trained, French, two-star Michelin chef (that would be Chef with a capital “C” followed by exclamation point) remains a rather fatalistic endeavor for me as an American culinary ingenue. The French are notoriously judgmental and precisely difficult in their expectations in all things be it food, beauty or fashion.

Yet when the opportunity arose to meet and experience Executive Chef Eric Chavot’s -- of Brasserie Chavot in London -- collaboration with South Africa’s premiere luxury game reserve Sabi Sabi, I impulsively leaped at the opportunity to taste the African-infused version of Chef Chavot’s classic yet inventively artful culinary skills.

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PHOTO: Executive Chef Eric Chavot, of Brasserie Chavot, in the wading pool/dining room at The Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

“Darling! Darling! A pleasure!!!” Chef Chavot spitted in a Tasmanian Devil worthy level of enthusiasm to the gathering cast in Sabi Sabi’s kitchen before streaming a dizzying amount of affection, charm, stories and instructions.

I was admittedly struck dumb by the stark contrast I had in my mind of a severe, foreboding French Chef with the Cartoon Network-level engaging personality twirling all around me. “He must be on drugs,” I laughed to myself, which he most definitely is NOT!

But over the course of three breathtaking days at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, what I discovered about Chef Chavot is his intensely unpretentious engagement towards life. Despite his accolades and acclaim, Chef Chavot loves to learn and grow and teach, which is the same attitude infused throughout Sabi Sabi Game Reserve’s staff.

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PHOTO: Sunrise at The Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

Even though Sabi Sabi was designated as one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges in the World” the day before our arrival, Nadia and Stefan Schoeman, the lovely managers of Earth Lodge, work diligently to turn The Earth Lodge into the absolute best -- our Lodge during the duration of our stay and one of four lodges on the 65,000 hectare (1 hectare = 0.40 acres) property which is Sabi Sand Wildtuin, the wildlife oasis Sabi Sabi Game Reserve is encased in.

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PHOTO: Breakfast on Safair at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

This is why this year Sabi Sabi launched an international collaboration with chefs around the world to bring to the food a much-needed lesson in seasoning, basic preparation, texture and color so as to equal the rest of the poignantly flawless experience at Sabi Sabi. Chef Chavot’s collaboration is both a tutelage of the Sabi Sabi kitchen as well as an opportunity to showcase the rapid ability of the Sabi Sabi culinary team to learn and grow, forcefully evident in a delightful five-course dinner in Earth Lodge’s wine cellar -- a place Nelson Mandela frequented -- on our final evening.

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PHOTO: Apple Crumble at The Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

Whereas the food at Sabi Sabi is pedestrian at best, Chef Chavot’s five course dinner playfully showcased his skill in broadening culinary palates by infusing viscerally unusual meats and plates -- Kudu anyone?! -- with comforting, understandable twists. It’s like when the iPhone came out. Steve Jobs took two readily understandable staples (a phone and a computer) and then proceeded to revolutionize the world with his hand-held device.

That’s what Chef Chavot is doing with the Sabi Sabi menu: revolutionizing it.

The five course dinner was artfully paired with sublime South African wines by Stefan Schoeman, including my new favorite white wine the flawless 2011 FMC Chenin Blanc, which has a nice, velvety, languishing finish, essentially equivalent to the center of a molten lava cake.

The first course was a blazingly unique, yet comforting, Petite Gazpacho. “This is like my grandmother’s cooking, or Cuisine Chavot, with a very rustic feel to it,” Chef carefully explained. “It also has a unique surprise,” which turned out to be a beautiful tortellini with pecorino and feta under the flat biscuit of a crouton. I scraped the bowl clean of this Andallouille style petite gazpacho.

This course and the fourth (a divine Fillet Loin of Kudu with a “pimp my food” arresting plating with hazelnut cream, beautiful black radishes) and fifth courses (a Fraise a la Creme of strawberry jelly and juice, vanilla ice cream, a little foam of cottage cheese and shortbread, which is essentially happiness in a cup) tied for my favorite, while the brightly fresh and sweetly simple yet complex Semifreddo Ceviche followed closely.

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PHOTO: Chef Eric Chavot's Fillet loin of Kudu at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

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PHOTO: Chef Eric Chavot's Fraise a la Creme (c) Sery Kim

I take particular note of the ceviche since I dislike ceviche so much, which for me has a garbarge pail like style of throwing all sorts of random, non-symmetric ingredients in. Chef Chavot’s ceviche felt like a summer’s day where you feel warm yet cool, and the dressings’ balance of citrus, olive oil, lemon, lime and pickled syrup created a great base for the slight punch of ribboned chili. Thus, even though I dislike ceviche, Chef Chavot managed to turn me into a ceviche fan with his warm yet coolly dichotomous infusion of colors and clean ingredients, a remarkable feat considering his kitchen is in the middle of an AFRICAN SAFARI BUSH!

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PHOTO: Chef Chavot's Semifreddo ceviche at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

It is unfortunate to ding Sabi Sabi’s food when unquestionably the point of a safari trip is to experience the innocent wildness of the game, which the diverse habitat of this south-western section of Kruger National Park clearly has housing the “Big Five”: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant, as well as cheetah, wild dog and some 200 other animal species indigenous to the area. However, any tag of “luxury,” which Sabi Sabi has, must include unparalleled food. Food, essentially, which should not taste like it came from a microwave.

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PHOTO: Rhinocerous at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

For me, without Chef Chavot’s guidance and tutelage, I would have continued my newly acquired habit of skipping meals and subsisting on coffee, Gin & Tonics (thank you Great Britain) and fruit.

From the first meal, I left the majority of the food on my palate. My breakfast of Eggs Benedict lasted two bites. Although given a choice of three different preparations of egg yolk, my medium egg was cold, hard and tasteless. Then the tastelessness of the egg carried over to the blandly soft English Muffin, the unseasoned Benedict sauce and the rubbery ham. I merely took a second bite of this dish to confirm my initial impressions were correct before slowly putting down my fork in disappointment.

This same disappointed attitude could be said of the dinner of beef fillet. Though much better in seasoning than the Eggs Benedict, the beef fillet was certainly not the best I have ever had. It was like the Impala car: serviceable to rent but never worth spending real money to buy.

Yet whatever judgment I cast upon the hardworking kitchen staff at Sabi Sabi, it is simply a result of their own failure to live up to the creative explosion of flavor in their free bread basket. A wooden cutting board is artfully cast with two different types of butter, stacked like two truffles, with three small piles of salt of numerous textures and variety. This free dish to every guest exemplifies the level of thought the paid meals should have so my expectation levels of food performance were set high … only to be tremendously disappointed.

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PHOTO: Bread Basket dressing presentation at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

Of course, it should be noted, this was my SOLE complaint of the divine Earth Lodge, as well as of the three other properties at Sabi Sabi. The scale and breathtaking visage of Kruger National Park -- where Sabi Sabi’s 65,000 hectares is but a mere fraction of the 2 million hectares of this prized South African national park -- remains unsquallored. Instead, Sabi Sabi has created the perfect harmony between nature and luxury with its elegantly appointed rooms, i.e. individual lodges, and generous inside/outside communal spaces.

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PHOTO: Three giraffes on safari at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

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PHOTO: My new "pet elephant" Bubba on safari at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

Each of the 13 rooms (plus a presidential suite) at Earth Lodge is its own hidden oasis from the world. Carefully crafted with spacious square footage, the crisp clean aesthetic slowly detoxes the stressed-out system of the average global citizen. And if the king-sized bed, cavernous dual sitting areas and liberating scenery does not create a relaxing sensation, then the indoor/outdoor bathroom will.

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PHOTO: Outdoor shower at The Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

With its dual showers (either large enough to stuff four Patriots offensive linemen), I became not-so-subtly obsessed with the Sabi Sabi bathtub. An oversized dinosaur egg with a buttery smooth finish, the bathtub was so large and deep, I literally had a phenomenal time trying to extract myself from this divine tub. Of course, this was equally credited to the soothing effect of the bathtub as well as the sheer scale in size! My favorite design feature of the uber-deluxe suite room. (You can find my full video on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/Yl7lOQXDebA.)

For me, the trip was worth it for that tub alone; however, the entire experience of Sabi Sabi was a remarkable journey. This game reserve transcends the diametric opposites of being wholly natural yet wholly luxurious with the great care I have come to expect from premiere luxury resorts in G-8 countries. Even the Amani Spa on the premises, has the best stone massage I have had in my life -- say hi to Joyce for me.

Therefore, if you have the opportunity to experience Sabi Sabi this year, then its certainly well worth it … and the price is not anything beyond what a trip to Europe costs. Fly direct from JFK to Johannesburg on South African Airways before taking a puddle-jumper with Federal Airlines.

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PHOTO: Chef Cavot cooking with a flashlight at Bush Lodge at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

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PHOTO: Baby Elephant playing on safari at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

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PHOTO: Giraffes on safari at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

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PHOTO: Happy Hour on safari at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve (c) Sery Kim

Cheers to a delightful experience at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve courtesy of South African Airways, Federal Airlines and Sabi Sabi Game Reserve!!!

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