The plant kingdom on a plate – 15 questions for the Chef and a recipe
Veg-Table offers vegetarian food that even non-vegetarians would savour … not the ubiquitous spinach and feta quiche, but gourmet, four-course meals. Nestled in a forest on the Rheenendal Road out the outskirts of Knysna is a quaint and unique restaurant run by Chef Brett Garvie. Interest in Brett Garvie’s restaurant is spreading rapidly and not only are food critics flying into the Knysna area to sample its wares, but it has also featured in 2012 Eat Out which hailed it as one of the healthiest restaurants in SA. It is also reviewed in the June 2013 Food and Home Entertaining magazine. According to the South African Chefs’ Association, it is one of the top 20 culinary destinations on the Garden Route.
Brett draws on his years of experience in the fine dining industry as well as his extensive experience in organic farming. “I came to cooking through the garden,” he says. “When I was 14 and living in Johannesburg, I met a guy who lived on a smallholding in Fourways who held regular dinner parties on his stoep serving food from his garden. It was here that I encountered many ingredients for the first time: Jerusalem artichoke, morogo, marjoram and thyme. I remember him letting me grate parmesan. At the time it was so foreign to me to have 3-4 courses and lots of wine. This sparked an interest that led me to years of waitering and experimenting with food. I worked with different chefs and since fine dining requires a waiter to be knowledgeable about the dish, I started watching over the chef’s shoulder.” Nowadays, his routine provides for a balanced life that gives him time to grow veggies, spend time with his daughter and experiment with new dishes.
After reading for a degree in Botany, which exposed him to the importance of heritage seeds, holistic natural health, he worked and lived in the organic gardens of the Marion Hill Monastery outside Durban. “Organic is a given for me. In 1995 my journey in permaculture started. There I came to appreciate the enhanced flavour offered by eating ripe fruit straight off the tree; this awakened me to new fruits and vegetables because I had never tasted them in full ripeness. I still have seeds from those days that I plant and distribute to this day, such as, ‘7-year’ Beans. Celebrating plants is what gives me pleasure, and in every way I use first grade organic produce, often at a higher costs, all sourced from local gardeners and dairies. It’s very important for me to know the identity and integrity of the farmer.”
1. How do you distinguish your style? Contemporary South African vegetarian classic. I use more and more local ingredients and I do a lot of foraging but I have to be classic since I am using a set menu. Italian is a strong love as I make a lot of home-made gnocchi and ravioli. I love the way they use a lot of fresh produce.
2. What did you find most challenging as a young cook learning your trade? Using a knife properly, vegetarian food requires chopping, chopping all the way. There are lots of things they don’t tell you in recipe books, little techniques it is assumed you should know as a chef but which are not explicit and one day I would like to write a book laying bare the secret tricks and unravel the mystique around high cooking,
3. If a friend is coming for lunch, what are your other gourmet specialities that you might prepare besides vegetarian fare? most probably they would get fancy restaurant leftovers, or i often prepare homemade pasta, since i love it so much myself
4. Do you have any childhood food recollections that are typically South African? Boiled bagels from Rosebank, collecting field mushrooms with my Father, my mother’s special Briyani and caramelised apple sponge pudding – total comfort food that I still prepare at home.
5. A ‘nutritherapist’ is a European term describing people that use food and food only as a healing medium. Are there similarities in your approach to food? You are what you eat, but my motivation is more towards comfort, indulgent food, using truly fresh and responsibly farmed or foraged ingredients. I mean healthy indulgence without additives and using good oils. This is honest, good food.
6. Any advice for food enthusiasts to help them understand the importance of making good choices when planning daily meals? How can they get out of their cooking ruts? Balance and diversity are essential and for this seasonality can guide you with inspiration. Things are ready to eat when they smell good.
7. You operate solo, without the help of servants, waiters or cleaners. Besides suggesting an honest days’ work, does this add some other value to what you do? Absolutely, I can maintain my high standards of service. Besides, I also like the diversity of jobs that take up running a restaurant and enjoy setting the tables as much cooking. But when I’m very busy I get an assistant chef. On a busy night I must prepare 64 plates of food from scratch.
8. Who’s your favourite chef, international and local? Locally I am a fan of Andrea Burgener and internationally I like Nigel Slater (for his simplicity) and Yotam Ottolenghi (for his complexity).
9. What are your favourite cookbooks that you would recommend every home cook own and why? Nigel Slater’s “Tender” comes in two volumes – Volume 1 is about ‘vegetables’ and Volume 2 is about ‘fruit’
10. Any plans for a book of your own? Yes, already in the writing.
11. Tell us some of the best compliments you have received. My gnocchi is a great source of pride; even Italians compliment it.
12. You are unlicensed despite the fact that you are a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, qualified as a sommelier – which wines are suitable for accompanying your dishes? It is difficult to prescribe a particular wine, considering it’s always a four-course menu with different tastes. I recommend bringing a light fruity red or a heavily wooded strong full white wine, but that’s very generally speaking. Some people phone me on the day to find out about the menu and to get a wine recommendation, since I only know on that day what I will cook. I’m happy to do that.
13. Can you share any secrets about which ingredients work best together, for the novice cook? Plants that work well together in the garden work well in the pot – companion planting has been the guide for my pot. In Nigel Slater’s Tender, there’s a section on companion foods with charts. And you can’t go wrong with cheese and tomato.
14. What are your other interests and hobbies? Stones, Crystals and Lapidiary (polishing gems), astrology, gardening, plants and foraging.
15. Is there a recipe to share with the readers? My house classic is Aubergine Involtini with Lemon Pesto, Mozzarella and smoked nuts. Even hardened Aubergine dislikers are converted by it!!!
Serves 4 persons as a starter, or 2 as a main course:
2 Aubergines (longish shapes work better)
1 ball of fresh Mozzarella (fiore di latte)
80g smoked nuts (any will do…I smoke Almonds in a camping smoker box on the stove), crushed
Half cup Olive oil
Zest & juice of one large juicy lemon
2Tblsp Lemon Thyme leaflets (Lemon Basil or Sweet Basil are also good)
2 or 3 cloves of fresh Garlic
2Tblsp Pumpkin seeds (lightly pan-popped)
6Tblsp Grana Padano (parmesan) or Pecorina, freshly grated
Start by slicing the Aubergines lengthways, in slices 5 or 6mm thick (at least 3 slices per person for a starter). Salt the slices liberally, and allow them to stand and drain in a colander for about 40mins.
Mix Lemon juice and zest, herbs, Garlic, Pumpkin seeds and cheese, add a third of a cup of olive oil, and blend (I use a hand blender), coarse or smooth, depending on your preference. Season to taste with Salt and Pepper. Cover and set aside. Slice the Mozzarella into very thin shavings and set aside.
Heat a char grill or griddle-pan until smoking hot. Rinse the Aubergine slices, and pat dry. Coat lightly with olive oil, and grill, on both sides in the pan, until char lines appear, and you can smell the Aubergine caramelizing. Remove from heat.
Preheat oven to 200º Celsius. Place Aubergine slices on a tray, with the best char lines facing down. Sprinkle crushed smoked nuts over Aubergine slices, then a teaspoon per slice of the Lemon pesto, and the shavings of Mozzarella (making sure you distribute fillings evenly). Roll the Aubergine slices up into neat cylinders (“Involtini”). Sprinkle extra Grana over the Involtini, and roast for 15 minutes, until bubbling and golden. Serve hot, garnished with extra Lemon Pesto.
The Involtini are even better the next day, and make AWESOME burger ‘patties’.