Monday, 14 November 2011

Do It Write Now

I'm trying to write a column and I'm struggling a bit. This is nothing new. I have a love/hate relationship with writing. Even the late great Dorothy Parker had this problem, 'I hate writing, I love having written.' is what she said. She also once said that 'A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.' I completely agree with her on both counts.

So as any procrastinator worth his or her salt knows, when you have a print deadline, it's so much easier to blog/do the dishes/tidy your cupboards or surf the internet than to focus on what you are supposed to do. I originally wrote this piece sometime in July for a website called Plate to Page - It's all about writing. So once I've posted this, made a cup of tea and snuggled with the dog I'll work on that column.

But in the meantime take a look at Plate to Page. I first heard about it via the lovely Jeanne of Cook Sister! fame who is one of the clever people behind the workshops and I know that my friend Ishay who puts the fabulous into attended one of the workshops and loved it. For those of us who can't make these incredible workshops in Europe and the UK, we can still gain inspiration from their website. Having visited you'll either feel like writing, cooking, photographing. As for me, sadly, I only feel like eating...

What I wrote for Plate to Page


I was the last in my class to get a reading book. I was according to the teacher, ‘too slow to read’. She made me nervous with her flashcards and angry eyes. And so written words were frightening. A few years later another teacher opened up the book cupboard in her classroom for me, telling me that if I read, I would never be alone.

And so I think that’s why we read. To escape. But also to know that we are not alone. To recognize an emotion as described by someone else, and realize that they too were, sad, frightened, happy, hungry, turned on…

And I think that’s why I write, to tell people about the time that I was sad, frightened, happy, hungry, turned on. Writing reaches people.

I am not a novelist. I have the greatest admiration for their creativity and determination, but I doubt that I have a novel in me. I write what I know. What I feel. But writing is hard. Especially if you have self-doubt. Because you will never feel that your words are good enough. It took me a long time to eventually become a journalist, I waited until I was almost 30 before attempted to write. I was too afraid to start, I case I should fail. I still feel that way later, 12 years on. Every time I begin writing, I hope that I’ll be good enough, that I won’t fail. My husband, Jacques, responding to my many bouts of writer’s block thinks I’m ‘beautifully complex’, my mentor, Joan, practically encourages ‘completion not perfection’. I trust both of them. And myself eventually. I believe in The Muse. She waits inside of you, until the anxiety stills, and then breathing softly, she reminds you to write with your own voice. Because that’s how you should write, with your own voice. Write the way you speak. To do any differently would be akin to having a conversation in another, faux, accent. Impressive perhaps. Amusing maybe. But not authentic. And what this world needs is authenticity. It needs authenticity much more than it needs good grammar.

I fell into food writing by chance. I’ve always though of myself as an editor, first and foremost, as that’s what I’ve been for most of the past 12 years. I’ve worked with some great South African writers, which means that I’m always extra critical of myself, because I know and recognize good writing and because I wanted to see my words in print for so long, that to be careless with them would be disrespectful to myself and to those who read what I write. When I left full-time employ to travel the world five years ago with my seafaring husband, Sumien Brink, editor of one of the foremost South African food magazines, Taste, gave me the most glorious of all gifts, she asked me to write a column about my travels and food. And so Confessions of a Hungry Woman became my way of writing about our adventures abroad, the people we met and the food we ate. It also became a tribute to those I love, because food is intrinsically linked with those we love. Once I started, it seemed natural to write about food. I’ve never professed to be a great cook, in fact, if I had to define myself, it would be to say I’m a comfortable cook. But I do love food and the happy-sad-mystery of life and, somehow, for me the two have always been intertwined.

And eventually the monthly column also morphed into a blog by the same name. It’s a diary I visit occasionally. I really should do so more often. We all should because blogging reaches people, it is personal and immediate and something that appeals to all voyeurs. And who amongst us are not voyeurs? I like looking into people’s houses when I walk past, like to imagine their lives inside. With blogging you don’t need to imagine. Blogging also works on the Karma principal. Act like an arsehole, and you’ll attract arseholes. But if you write and publish with good intent you

will experience the beautiful kindness of strangers. Here endeth the lesson….

The Hungry Woman’s Literary Hot List

In Gael Greene’s Insatiable – Tales from a Life of Excess, she writes about what happened to her after a sexual encounter with Elvis Presley.

‘As I picked up my purse, wondering if a good-bye kiss would be appropriate, Elvis opened his eyes, blinked, as if he wasn’t sure for a moment what I was doing there. He twitched a shoulder toward the phone. “Would you mind calling room service and ordering me a fried egg sandwich?” The fried egg sandwich – that part I remember. I can’t remember how big it was, how long the sex lasted, or even who was on top (probably me). But I have never forgotten the fried egg sandwich.’

AA Gill writing about eating a pomegranates for the first time when he was a young boy in boarding school in Table Talk.

‘The flavor of pomegranate is ineffably sad. It’s the taste of mourning, of grief mixed with happy memory. I couldn’t have picked a better metaphor for how I felt about being away from home, about the girl who kissed me, about my life and body changing from boy to young man. I’d like to say that I understood all this, that I realized that the fruit was a symbolic catharsis, an allegory, but I didn’t. I did, however, learn that nice things given when you’re unhappy can make you sadder, and that the flavor of sweetness counterpoints bitter-salt sourness.’

Isabel Allende’s opening sentence in Aphrodite – the love of food & the food of love – is one my favourite sentences of all time.

‘I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue.’

Nigel Slater in Toast – the story of a boy’s hunger – writes heartbreaking stuff.

‘My mother is buttering bread for England. The vigour with which she slathers soft yellow fat on to thinly sliced white pap is as near as she gets to the pleasure that is cooking for someone you love.’

Ruth Reichl throws down the gauntlet in Garlic and Sapphires – the secret life of a critic in disguise – with the following:

“ ‘You gonna eat that?’

The woman is eyeing the tray the flight attendant has just set before me. I can’t tell if she wants reassurance that I find it as repellent as she does or if she is simply hungry and hopeful that I will hand my food over. I loosen my seatbelt, swivel in my narrow seat, and see that her face holds a challenge. Is she daring me to eat the food?”

Anthony Bourdain being surprisingly gentle in Medium Raw – a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook - writes about the pains raisins of a small Parisianboulangerie

‘The baguettes are ready – piping-hot from the brick oven, fabulously, deliberately ugly and uneven in shape, slashed crudely across the top. They’re too hot to eat but you grab one anyway, tearing it open gingerly, then dropping two fingers full of butter inside. It instantly melts into liquid – running into the grooves and inner spaces of white interior. You grab it like a sandwich and bite, teeth making a cracking sound as you crunch through the crust. The reaction is violent. It hurts. Butter floods your head and you think for a second you’re going to black out.’

Monday, 7 November 2011

Leader of the Oven-Garde Richard Carstens

Another divine desert, this time coconut panna cotta, coriander ice-cream and cucumber sorbet. Almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. But not quite!

(This photograph was taken by the lovely Charl Edwards of Elle Deco and is so much nice than the unflattering one he took of me sitting next to the glorious Raphaella Frame of House & Leisure. But he is such a nice guy, and admittedly I had chewed off all my lipstick by the time he took the photo, so I'll forgive him. And in any case, he only took the photo and I am responsible for my own double chin...)

I love birthday parties. And I rather liked the one I was invited to a couple of weeks ago. Tokara was celebrating the first year of Richard Carstens in the kitchen. As always it was lovely seeing Richard, as well as Holy Trinity that is Wilhelm Kuhn, Johan Terblanche and Jaap-Henk Koelewijn who are responsible, as they modestly put it, for the management and running of the restaurant. This fact was refuted by GT Ferreira, who in a lovely speech, referred to them as the true owners and that he himself was merely the lessor. Hmm, he can afford to be generous. Specially when it's his William Kentridge hanging in the restaurant. There was such a happy atmosphere and the affection and respect that all parties involved with the restaurant feel for one another was obvious. The wine was excellent, the company great, and the food, as always, was sublime.

The article below was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Cape etc.

Chef Richard Carstens is on top of things. Literally and figuratively. Perched high on the Helshoogte Pass, the new chef of Tokara appears to like the view.

On a slightly overcast morning on the terrace of Tokara over coffee (mine) and cigarettes (his) while chatting about the tasting menu he had served us the previous night, a weird thought popped up in my head: that I had never, in all the years, and quite a few interviews, ever seen multiple award-winning chef Richard Carstens eat anything. The thought was disconcerting because he has probably watched me eating and studied my response to food with more intensity than any other dining companion ever has. It’s unsettling at first, knowing that you are being studied in such a manner. Knowing that the creator of the food you are about to eat will be watching your every response to the plates and tastes he has placed before you. But your initial discomfort soon gives way to something altogether more pleasant. Wonder. The food Richard Carstens creates fills me with wonder.

Over the years I have enjoyed Gorgonzola ice-cream served with poached pear in a red wine and honey sauce (Le Provencal, Franschhoek 2000). I have been swept off my feet by seven courses of foie gras - a study in tastes and textures, where the highlights were ‘semi-liquid’ foie gras with nuts, nougat and almond milk froth; a sweet foie gras churros served with a coffee and hazelnut praline and milk skin; foie gras served with roast beetroot, yoghurt, lemon and tiny pieces of magenta-coloured beetroot ‘styrofoam’ and a meaty foie gras ice-cream in a sweet caramel casing served with Japanese curried vegetables (Lynton Hall, Pennington, KZN 2005). And I fell completely in love with a creamy panna cotta landscape dotted with colourful drops of a variety of intense fruit coulis, which was almost too beautiful to eat, but which, when I did, tasted sublime. (Nova, Cape Town 2009). More recently a fossilized (yes, really) parsnip, served with mushroom soil, honeycomb, pear and truffle and which is meant to be eaten by hand was rivaled only a meat-textured –coloured-looking watermelon carpaccio that played havoc with my mind. In a good way But is was the Rose Geranium sorbet that claimed my heart (Tokara, Stellenbosch 2011).

So it’s not exactly steak and chips. But don’t be put off. Because to be put off, means to deny yourself the absolute joy of looking and tasting food in a completely new way. Because Carstens will forever change the way you feel about food, will challenge what you’ve always believed about food and flavours.

As a chef, he had pretty inauspicious beginnings, cooking for the first time when he was conscripted into the army and decided that wielding a spatula was infinitely preferable to wielding a gun. And so he spent his military training in the kitchen at the Castle in Cape Town. Cooking for the troops, making pies and stews for 300 and more soldiers, and baking Hertzoggies and milk tarts for various functions, could hardly be described as inspiring. But it was beginning. And he went on to train under Ralph Pletzen at his eponymous restaurant Ralph’s in Stellenbosch in the early 90s. He then moved to the Franschhoek region where he worked at the likes of Chamonix, Monneaux, Le Provencal and Bijoux, ensuring that the both Le Provencal and Bijoux made the Eat Out Top 10. In 1997 and 1998 he went to Melbourne Australia where he worked at Le Japon increasing his knowledge and indulging his fascination Japanese cuisine. He came back to South Africa brimming with ideas and went to Lynton Hall in Kwazulu Natal, where he made the Eat Out Top 10 for four consecutive years, and was awarded Chef of the Year in 2005. In 2007 he moved back to Cape Town, bringing with him all his painstakingly detailed journals, noting recipes, combinations, inspirations, timings, and who ate what where. Ok, he brought them all, bar the few that he left on a plane one weekend such was his haste to see his then girlfriend, now wife, Tracy. He feels that loss acutely, but slowly and surely those who worked with him are filling in the blanks. In 2009 he created a stir amongst foodies when he headed up the kitchen at Nova in Cape Town, but while his success was not short-lived the restaurant was, closing unexpectedly and leaving a trail of disappointed fans who liked to eat the style of food that Richard was so incredibly good at. Fans who can now happily eat at Tokara.

While some may insist on definitions in order to make sense of this culinary magic, Richard balks at the terms ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ or ‘Deconstruction Cuisine’. The one he is most comfortable with is Avant-garde cuisine, but to him, his style of cooking is simply a way of focusing on the essence of flavours. Richard Carstens is both dead serious about and enormously playful with food. What he does requires a vivid imagination, extensive scientific research and endless experimentation. He takes ingredients so far away from their original form or ‘setting’, yet the essence of those flavours aren’t altered. As he so beautifully puts it, ‘I want the ingredient to speak for itself, but in many different languages.’ His favourite kitchen utensils are a thermometer and a clock, because so much of what he does is based on temperatures and timing. He questions those who say that they cook only with their heart, with what feels right, because Richard believes in precision as well as passion. But while he is extremely comfortable with science, he is also at heart an artist, drawing inspiration from the likes of Joan Miro, Mark Rothko and Richard Prince. The dishes he plates are transient works of art. As appealing as they are, you won’t want to tuck in immediately, there will be a slight hesitation, a moment of regret at having to spoil the image, before taking the first bite. It’s a respectful thing, this waiting. You’ll do it too. Because once you’ve appreciated the dots of colour, the linear patterns, the perfect placements, you will understand that one eats not only with the mouth but with the eyes as well. Richard also believes in fun. And so will you, if you eat and taste and experience with an open mind. But even if you are unadventurous, you will not find the food at Tokara, where he has now taken up residency, strange or alienating. This is after all a man, who owns and uses a copy of that South African classic with the outdated and appallingly-styled photos, Kook en Geniet. But, having said that, The Kook en Geniet stands alongside volumes of books such Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras, who according to Richard is the real father of Avant-garde Cuisine. ‘He has a huge following among the young chefs in Spain, ‘Richard enthuses, ‘even Ferran Adria pays homage to him in one of his books, because he’s the ‘high priest and genius of deconstruction cuisine.’ Clorofillia by Andoni Luis Adulriz of Mugaritz fame has also been a great source of inspiration for many years. ‘His study of herbs is phenomenal and the aesthetics of his plates are very Zen. Aduriz is the Picasso of cooking.’ asserts Richard. And of course there are the tomes of Ferran Adria, for whom Richard once had the privilege of cooking, fulfilling a long-held dream in 2009, when Ferran Adria visited South Africa to be a keynote speaker at the Design Indaba. Topsi Venter, seventy-something doyenne of South African cuisine had been asked to cook for Adria, his hosts and guests at a private function. She asked Richard, who considers her his spiritual mother and mentor, to help plan the menu and cook alongside her. Having spent a whole night speed reading the cookery books of Dr C Louis Leipoldt (1880—1947) the famous South African poet, writers and cookery buff, Richard told Topsi that they should cook the flavours from their heart. According to Topsi ‘Richard was insistent that we cook the way I always do. He said that Adria was coming here to see what we do. To taste our food. So nothing should look or taste like anything Adria had ever done.’ And so they presented the greatest chef in the world with the likes of pickled fish, dried banana chips and coconut; biltong pate, apricot leather and rocket leaves on vetkoek; crayfish and indigenous khoi plants; yellow peaches soaked in brandy syrup; koeksusters; soetkoekies and traditional milktart.

There is the wide-held misconception that Richard trained under Ferran Adria, but it’s not true. What is true is that he is probably the very first South African chef to take note of what was being done at El Bulli, in a small town just outside Barcelona many years ago. Because like Adria, Richard Carstens is a chef that has always been ahead of his time. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in, and he has on occasion been misunderstood, but those few detractors are now eating their words as well as his food, because the rest of the South African chefs have caught up, and what was once thought of as strange is now simply regarded as fine dining.

So at Tokara, the elegantly austere restaurant owned by businessman and art collector (take note of the enormous William Kentridge in the restaurant) GT Ferreira and operated by Wilhelm Kuhn, Johan Terblanche and Jaap-Henk Koelewijn, Richard is free to create. Free to make the food is so extraordinarily good at. The tasting menu is where his creativity is shown to its best advantage, while the selection on the a la carte menu is proof of that Richard can make ostensibly ordinary dishes, truly spectacular. Because he respects ingredients. So a beautifully peppered Springbok fillet will be served with a parsnip puree, beetroot croquettes and hibiscus jus. He can’t resist the hibiscus jus – a little unexpected something to enhance a dish.

And what is a meal without dessert? And Richard is the master of desserts, despite his own affection for Diary Milk Fruit and Nut, and having once admitted to liking shop-bought chocolate eclairs. But here his obsession truly pays off, where his creativity finds the perfect platform. A dessert of lemon mascarpone mousse, white chocolate sorbet, meringue and almond financier is a study of pale whites tinged with hints of lemon, and while the dessert is light, the flavours evoke a warm lemon pudding, comforting despite its delicacy. He has created sorbets which are silky smooth and bursting with pure flavor, the not-so-secret method, something he gladly shares with other chefs. Because Richard is generous that way. For him, it doesn’t appear to be all about the accolades, it’s about an exchange of ideas.

And his intensity is contagious; you can’t help but be caught up in his obvious excitement. And he is not precious about what he does. There is not a hint of arrogance, only an excitement for his chosen profession, a willingness to share his obsession. He believes in training young chefs well. He wants to see them challenged. He wants them obsessed. Inspired. And he is succeeding, because high on the Helshoogte Pass, overlooking the Stellenbosch valley, there is magic in the air. And on the plates.


Tokara Winery

Hellshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch


Telephone 021 885 2550