Tue 30 Jun 2015, 08:42
Foodie chef Lesego Semenya introduces himself.
Last year sometime I was approached by a certain production company to have a meeting to discuss a possible venture. At the time I was still working at a lodge in the middle of nowhere (a very beautiful and peaceful nowhere, mind you). I would work 6 weeks at the lodge and then take a break for 2 weeks. Such is the life of a lodge employee. On your 2 week breaks you do the 5 hour trek back to civilisation and hope to actually rest but all one would do is try to catch up with as many friends as possible; spend all your money on going out and shopping - before heading back to the bush to start it all over again. Working as a chef in the bush is something else. But I digress...
As I was saying, I would have a break every 6 weeks and whilst on one of my 2 week breaks I went for a meeting in Sandton. Little did I know the meeting was all about me and how the production company saw me as a possible new face of a cooking show they had in mind. I was shocked, amazed and horrified all at the same time. Why anyone would want to see me on TV I just did not understand. After subsequent meetings and chats I eventually gave in and I was let into the world of TV productions.
I often get asked by people who meet me when am I getting a TV show or why do I not film what I do and start a YouTube channel. Well, simply because I've seen the amount of work that goes into food TV production and it takes a really special type of person to pull it off. The chef has to be brilliant at what they do but they also need to be able to relay it to viewers in such a way that they make the viewer believe that they can do it at home too. After managing to pull that off the chef then has to also connect and show genuine emotion with whichever guest is in studio at that time and also remember where cameras are, how to look into them (and when) and to keep their dialogue to a certain flow in order to fit as much detail as the director wants but without being overly verbose. It is a study in multitasking and magic. What happens before a TV show is aired on your screen is amazing to see. I now watch cooking shows with more respect and awe.
I was asked to do a screen test in order to work out if I would fit the mould the producers were looking for. Said screen test was done and lights, cameras and a myriad of utensils and equipment eventually produced a video of myself. Having to sit and analyse how I talk, how I look at the camera, how I touch the food and how I explain things was very sobering. I often watch how Gordon Ramsay has a little bounce when he speaks to the camera and has a habit of pulling on his chef jacket, Nigella has her own little mannerisms too and so do quite a few chefs. Often we forget to acknowledge the chef and presenters human-ness and over the years I've been guilty of judging many a TV chef and cook. I don't anymore.
Whilst I was still in my fledgling years as a chef I would look down on TV chefs. There seems to be a common and agreed to disdain in the industry for chefs who actually become a social success in terms of media and the spotlight. Ask a working chef who their favourite TV chef is and many will reply with a bit of scorn and a few choice words about TV chefs. I think it's more out of envy than anything else. To leave the world of working 12 hour shifts and get paid to make pretty dishes and work for a quarter of the time and get paid more is every chef’s dream.
What food shows do for the culinary industry is beyond amazing. The amount of people who approach me with questions about something they saw on TV is phenomenal. The education and depth of information that is now out there helps keep restaurants and retail stores on their toes and with an educated customer base it means more and more people demand quality. I kid you now but a few years ago very few people knew you could make your own ice cream at home. Shows like Come Dine With Me have forced people to actually question things and how they host dinners and cook certain foods. The constant jibes of “did you make this from scratch?” has made many go onto Google to find out how it's made from scratch. It's why I was so excited when I became a DStv Foodies ambassador, to be part of this awesome community of people who are passionate about food (and eating good food) is a privilege. I honestly believe South Africa and Africa as a whole is the last frontier in terms of the next level for awesome food. African cuisine restaurants will be the next big thing worldwide and I can't wait for the South African food scene to get to the level where we start pushing African style fine dining to the forefront. We're a people who don't like to fiddle with tradition too much but with new food scene is slowly starting to break that wall down and I can't wait to start seeing Michelin Star level Afro fusion food on our TV screens too.
So where did the TV show I was meant to be on go? Unfortunately it didn't go anyway but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless. Someday maybe I'll gather the nerves and get on telly. Right now I'm more than happy sharing what I do with you via functions, social media and writing. Next time you meet a TV chef, understand just how much work they actually do! As cushy as it seems, its hard work!
Qualifying as a chef
Every now and then I get an email from someone who has felt inspired by what I do and the journey I've embarked on. Going from a corporate job to becoming a chef seems to be a fascinating tale and I've been asked on numerous occasions to speak about it and what it has been like. I try to always be as honest as possible about it. The culinary world isn't all glitz, glamour and caviar. A lot of young people study (and qualify) but eventually quit the industry once they discover it isn't as pretty as it's often made out to be in hotel catalogues and TV shows.
The reason Gordon Ramsay has been successful for so long is because he doesn't sugar coat the realities of the industry. On his shows, Hell's Kitchen (26 August at 23:00 on BBC Entertainment, channel 120) and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (27 August at 22:00 on BBC Lifestyle, channel 174), he is as brutal and as frank as they come. My first experience in a working commercial kitchen was a shock to the system. The shiny, pretty, well lit kitchen I had grown accustomed to at Chef academy was heaven compared to what one finds in the real world. Commercial kitchens are small, often humid and very crowded places. The screaming and shouting is there for a purpose and a reason, without constant communication and reminders the whole system would collapse. In my first experience in a commercial kitchen, I was still a chef student and the chef brigade had about 30 chefs. You can imagine how crazy it all was but I appreciate the time I had there, it made me and prepared me for the culinary world and all its insanity.
A top class chef school in South Africa will set you back about R180 000 for about a year and a half. You come out with international diplomas and qualifications and can literally work anywhere in the world. A lot of qualified chefs first attempt to work here, at home and add to the growing culinary industry that's slowly changing and growing. As soon as they get into industry they're hit by reality. In order for it to be viable for you as a qualified chef, you need to earn a salary that's on par with what you'd get overseas. Granted our cost of living is low in South Africa so the salary won't be as high but because our restaurant food prices are so low, owners can't afford to pay competitive salaries and end up using untrained labour, which tends to be cheaper. So the qualified chef either leaves the country or leaves the industry. It’s a catch-22 and it's why I love being part of this DStv Foodies campaign - seeing all the new and awesome culinary initiatives taking place around the South Africa. It's creating more space for chefs to remain in SA and to help grow our food knowledge. South African chefs are some of the best in the world and with time, more TV shows will start showing this.
One TV show to look forward to, which shows you just how complex the process of going to chef school is, is Food Network’s Freshman Class (Thursday, 3 September at 20:00, channel 175). The show follows a group of people as they chase their dream of becoming qualified chefs. There was an article in an American newspaper earlier in the week chronicling the struggle that American restaurants and hotels are having at the moment in finding qualified chefs to employ. It seems many chefs are now leaving the restaurant and hotels world to pursue their own businesses and it's leaving a gap behind. So the need will always be there, the average lifespan for a chef in the industry is about 10 years before they venture out on their own. I always encourage people to be become chefs not just because they enjoy cooking but rather because they have a unique food concept or business goal on mind. It will keep them focused while they go through the crazy hours and stress of working in commercial kitchens.
There are many awesome shows on DStv right now that show all sides of the culinary world and how diverse it is. If you're passionate about it, stay tuned, take notes and get some ideas. Who knows, you could very well be the next big thing on our TV screens!
Game on for the long weekend!
It's one month before winter is over and spring is upon us. The days are getting slightly warmer, the eyes are starting to glance at the shorts again and the gym is packed with people trying to get rid of that winter belly. August, that wonderful and windy month. For us chefs and foodies, August is significant as it's the beginning of the arrival of seasonal fruits and veggies. Kiwis, guava, paw paw, Cape gooseberries, mulberries, melons, avocados, naartjies, beetroot, brocolli, leeks, spinach, squash, baby marrow and a whole array of fresh green herbs like parsley and basil will start to arrive over the next few weeks. I know that most of these fresh products are available year round now but as chefs and DStv Foodies, we always use seasonal fruit and vegetables. Plus they're cheaper when they're in season.
Another significant thing about August is that it's Women's Month in South Africa. It is a very important month honouring what the women of our awesome country have done and are still doing for the upliftment of it. By some luck (or awesome planning), August is also one of the busiest sporting months on the calendar. Maybe it's meant to keep the men indoors by the telly so the ladies can also force them to do some chores for a change! Ok, let me stop with the chauvinism. I've learned over the years that ladies love sport just as much as us guys and it's a perfect reason to cook good food, call friends over and shout at the TV screen in one voice (unless one of your mates has sold out and supports the opposition then I recommend they be assigned “braai captain” duties and ordered to go stand outside by the braai).
What's your jam?
With this upcoming long weekend - Monday being Women's Day - it means we have more time to spend making the things that everyone says take too much time. The chill of August is perfect for getting jams and preserves going. Early strawberries are on shelves already so get a few punnets and make some jam! There is nothing more awesome than preservative free jam, which you know exactly what you've put into it. It's better to make preserves in winter as there is less chance of them going off due to heat.
Another awesome staple (especially with the sport on) is home-made biltong. Large retailers now sell biltong makers so get yourself one. It's definitely worth it and it gives you something to boast about over beers during the half time break - you can ALSO make those yourself. At the Taste festivals, which happen all around the country, you'll find craft beer makers. I've spoken to a few of them and they told me just how simple it is to start making your own beer. With the world at our fingertips, all you have to do is order a beer kit online. Most of them come with your yeast and hops but you can order those separately. Then get brewing. Do you see where I'm going with this? Being indoors is an awesome excuse to make your own products and have fun in the kitchen.
While you're at it, tune into the opening games of the English Premier League, the ABSA Premier League, some awesome golf from the Golf Championships and the last games of the Rugby Championship. Those are what I'll be tuning into while checking on The Ashes in-between. I love going to the cricket. Our series against New Zealand begins next week and hopefully I'll manage to get to the stadium. What is awesome about the cricket is that you're allowed to bring in your own picnic food. Be creative and fill your basket with some cheeses, preserves, nuts, cold meats, lettuce, mustard and other things and have a “build a sandwich”.
If you'll be bumming it at home instead, while the telly is on in the background, get your fire for your braai going but please use firewood and not charcoal or braai briquettes. Wood is so much better for braaiing; it infuses your meat with more smokey nuances and it just makes it all so much better. The way to get a wood fire going is to place firelighters in the middle of your braai and build a four-sided structure around it. So place two logs on either side of the fire lighters then two logs across the first two, then two more on top of that (similar to playing Jenga but with wood). Light the firelighters in the middle. This way of stacking the wood allows ventilation, gets the wood properly burnt and as the fire grows the bottom logs collapse and eventually you have an awesome fire going. Remember steaks should be grilled while your fire is at its hottest. I know everyone is a braai genius and I always get into debates with friends about how to braai, so I won't preach about it too much, just please don't salt your red meat before placing it on the fire! Salt draws out moisture and this will make your steak very dry. Rather grill it plain first and once it's sealed by the flames baste or season it. Thank me later.
Other awesome things to make in your kitchen instead of buying are crisps. If you're handy with a knife, do it like a chef, cut thin slices and deep fry them. Season with anything you like; my obsession right now is smoked Spanish paprika. If knives scare you, then get yourself a mandolin with a safety holder. You can make butternut, beetroot and sweet potato crisps too. The only catch with those is that they go soggy when deep fried, so to get them crispy after slicing, place them into a pan or bowl filled with corn flour. Make sure they're properly coated and then deep fry. I love beetroot crisps drizzled in balsamic vinegar.
Sushi is another thing you can get into while watching sport this weekend. Instead of buying it, go grab a sushi mat, some nori, sushi rice and whatever else you'd like in your sushi. Make the sushi rice the night before and let it chill in the fridge overnight. Get your ingredients sorted and onto clean platters, have a large bowl of water next to you and line your coffee table with cling wrap. I normally have sushi classes but YouTube is as good a teacher as you'll get. Learn the basics and, while watching the sports with your buddies, have a sushi making competition. It tastes awesome and is super fun. Plus you learn a skill you'll love and use for life. There are some awesome sushi kits and sushi recipe books and websites out there. Be creative.
One thing that people also complain to me about is the time it takes to make a proper beef stock. Well, if you'll be at home all weekend, this is the perfect opportunity to make your stock. A proper beef stock takes about 24 hours of constant simmering to get right. It's the base of every sauce and stew so it will definitely be worth it. I have the step-by-step tutorial on how to make your own stock (and the jams and breads I've mentioned above) on my recipe blog. Once your stock is done, scoop it into sandwich bags and freeze them individually. When you need stock next time just grab a packet from your freezer!
Before I get kicked under the table, let me also mention there is also some awesome tennis, swimming and martial arts this weekend and a small matter of the Welsh Rugby team taking on the Irish team. More reason to get some drinks and some friends over and let us do what Robbie Williams won’t, let DStv entertain you. I love sports (sometimes even more than I love food) and will be tweeting passionately about all the sport in between tweeting about food, feel free to ask me any food related questions on @LesDaChef.
Wine. I love going out with friends and acquaintances. Besides it being an opportunity to sample new foods and try new restaurants, it's also fascinating to watch how people behave when out and about. As I'm usually mostly behind the scenes, stuck behind a stainless steel wall surrounded by stoves, pots and funny looking utensils (and the occasional swear word here and there if course), I love being a guest. I try to avoid telling any new acquaintances what it is that I do for a living. Being a “normal” dinner guest is something most chefs cherish and wish for.
Going to really fancy restaurants where the waiter knows the menu off by heart and can rattle it off at a drop of a dirty napkin is the best. It makes me realise just how airy fairy some languages in menus are - and that we chefs really don't consider the poor waiters when we add our funny French terms for simple things. Listening to a waiter stumble through “pommes puree served with a Cabernet Sauvignon jus with mange tout” instead of simply saying mash, gravy and beans is entertainment all on its own!
My favourite part though, and the theme of this entry, is when the wine list arrives. As part of my qualifications, I had to do a wine course. So I'm certified in understanding wine but please don't ask me to remember what I did while on that wine course! I'm a firm believer in the “swallow, don't spit” brigade when it comes to tasting wine. How I managed to pass the course, only heaven knows. I digress. When the wine list arrives and everyone has that silent moment as they peruse its contents, trying to look like they know what they're reading when we all honestly know we're looking at the prices of it all and going “geez like!” in our heads.
Then the waiter comes to the table to take the drinks order and we all look blankly up at them like she just asked us to re-do that trigonometry exam from back in matric. Wine is lovely and awesome and so confusing! People seem scared to ask others for help though. Unlike beer where one openly speaks their mind about what they like and dislike, for some reason when it comes to wine, people choose to suffer in silence rather than simply say they don't like it or don't understand why it's served the way it is.
Let me simplify it all for you. If you're out in a restaurant, etiquette dictates that the waiter bring you a sample glass. It's usually smaller than a normal wine glass. Your sample glass should be sparklingly clean. No residues or any sign of any other liquids in it. Why? Any added foreign things will taint the taste of what you're about to taste. The waiter should then present the label to you and ask if you'd like to read the back of the bottle too. If you agree with what the bottle says (usually all fancy big poetic words) you signal to the waiter to go ahead and pour you a taster. The waiter will then proceed to open the bottle for you in front of you (note, this is all done for the head of the table, not everyone. The head of the table chooses the wines for the table). When pouring a wine, the bottle should never ever touch the lip of the glass and etiquette dictates that the water never lifts your glass from the table unless he is pouring you champagne (or MCC...which is soooo much better than that expensive French stuff in my opinion).
Ok, now comes the snooty airy fairy stuff that always makes me giggle. You'll see people doing the strangest of things when tasting a wine. Rubbing the glass between funny bits of their body, sticking appendages into the glass, sniffing and snorting and basically making a hilarious exhibition of themselves. Wine is all about the person who is drinking it. It's unique to each individual, don't stress if what the label describes as “notes of leather shoes and hints of lavender” aren't what you taste. Those notes on the back of wine bottles come from one person’s thought. Don't stress about it. Once your wine is in your glass let it settle, leave the glass on the table and look down into the glass.
Wine shouldn't be cloudy, with practice you'll be able to even tell what type of grape varietal (the types of wine you get are named after grape varietals, eg. Cabernet Sauvignon is the name of the grape the wine is made from). If you're happy with the clarity of the wine lift the glass up to your nose and give it a sniff. You're looking for overly sharp smells that will giveaway whether the wine is off or not. If it smells fruity and inviting now swirl the glass, along the sides of the glass the wine will be in sliding down. The streams of wine are called “legs”, the more alcohol in a wine the slower the legs. (yes, I kid you not. Next time you drink a whisky, do the same thing, you'll see the difference). Now take a sip, not too much. You're swirl it around and swallow and take a deep breath, this allows the nuances in the wine to come through. If you're happy with it all, down the bottle! It sounds like a whole lot of hogwash but there are reasons for it all. All that tells you the age, the grape, the quality, the taste and other things. I'm explaining this because people are too shy to ask.
We have some awesome wines in South Africa, some of the best in the world. The price of wine is set by the producer of the wine and not the retailer. Price is NOT a sign of good tasting wine. So don't be that person who acts like a snob simply because you paid crazy amounts for your wine. Wine is all about the person drinking it, if they are enjoying it then so be it.
Only ever cook with wine that's good enough to drink. Bad wine means your sauce or whatever you're cooking will taste bad too. Only ever add wine to a really hot pot or pan, never throw it into a cold pot, it will make whatever you're trying to make bitter. Cook off the bitter alcohol taste via a super hot heat sauce. Also note alcohol is only truly cooked out of food after seven hours of constant cooking. This is what scientists have found. If your final product is still too bitter add a little sugar to offset it.
Which wines go with which foods? This is a whole other topic altogether, which is best explained in person with a proper food and wine pairing but, contrary to popular belief, cheese actually goes better with beer and not wine. The cheese is too strong in flavour and spoils the tastes in a good wine. There is so much more to wine and I could go on and on but I'm sure the folks at DStv would appreciate a verbose chef filling up the website!
Super proud of your wine collection? Don't keep it on display. Red wine is spoiled by bright lights (hence it being bottled in dark bottles) and wine doesn't keep well, spirits get better with time and age, Wine doesn't. It's not a rule of thumb but don't keep wines for longer than eight years unless it's for sentimental reasons. Tests have shown that after eight years it's all downhill (unless you have a dark temperature controlled cellar).
Lastly, don't be shy to ask questions! As silly as they may be, all these awesome food festivals always have awesome South African wine producers with their stalls and staff, they are there to answer questions. Quiz them!
Taste of Durban
Durban. That word is basically a synonym for good weather, warmth and good times. So when I heard we were going to go to Taste of Durban to see what the food scene in Durban had to offer, I was so excited. I'd only ever been to the Johannesburg leg of Taste (the others are in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth). In total there are 25 Taste festivals worldwide; a coming together of restaurants, night life and artisanal food makers.
So we landed in Durban and instead of its signature heat and beach-going weather, we were met by rain, dark clouds, crazy wind and the weatherman said it would be like that until the end of the festival. No worries, we're #DStvFoodies, nothing gets us down (besides bad food) - so we decided to sample a bit of the Durban food scene before heading to the festival itself.
Our hotel and the venue for the Taste of Durban was Tsogo Sun's Suncoast Hotel and Casino. Unlike the Joburg one, the festival was held outdoors so we decided to sample some of Durban’s famous curries. Reza Mahammad has been in the country a lot over the past few months (he has an awesome new cooking show with Jenny Morris coming up soon entitled Jenny and Reza’s Fabulous Food Acadamy. Check it out on Food Network on DStv). He didn't hold back and gave our South African curries a thumbs down as he reckons they lack depth of flavour and are not anything to write home about. The gasp that came out of the depth of my soul when I heard him say that! Gotta love us chefs and our honesty! So after picking my jaw up from the ground I told myself I would open my mind up and actually analyse Durban curries from a chef's point of view. I took my patriotic South African hat off and put on my tall chef hat.
We tasted curries at the hotel’s curry restaurant, it’s called Jeera and specialises in Indian cuisine. The array of curries was impressive, so were the range of sambals, condiments and side dishes. I was with my fellow #DStvFoodie ambassador, Tiron Eloff from MasterChef SA and we couldn't move a few steps without someone noticing him. The staff eventually worked out that we were chefs, but as it was a buffet, they couldn't change what we tasted. So was Reza right? Are our Durban curries not as awesome as the variety he has grown accustomed to in London? I'll keep my opinion to myself on that but I must say I understand what he meant, when it comes to curry, the flavour isn't in the heat, it’s in the deep undertones and fragrances in the actual curry itself. You can't rush a curry and you need to find that balance between the spices. In a later blog post, I'll break that down into my detail and share tips on how you can make your curries awesome.
So we braved the weather, put on a million layers of clothing, donned our signature plastic bags (okay, they were branded with DStv logos and everyone else at the festival wanted one) and went exploring the various stalls and stands. What I noticed was just how many booze stalls there were. Durban loves its alcohol and wine! The food stalls were definitely fewer than the drinks tents but what impressed me was just how busy the food stalls were. The busiest one was the Wagyu beef stand.
In South Africa we aren't allowed to call our Wagyu beef “kobe”, but we can call it “Kobe-style” beef. It comes from Wagyu cattle, which have been bred in Japan for years to create extra marbling and fat pockets in their meat. The juiciest steaks are ones that are well-marbled with visible fat between the protein. Kobe cows are spoilt from birth, they eat barley and drink beer, some even get massaged and sleep on mattresses. The Japanese found that a comfortable and content cow made for a more flavourful meat.
The Wagyu stand had sliders and I was more than impressed. The other stall that impressed me and showed me just how much the food scene is growing was the Robertson burger class stall. People could learn how to make a burger from scratch and got to eat it too. Each session was packed. More and more people are looking for experiences where they can actually gain some knowledge and learn from chefs. It's evident in some of the awesome shows that are so popular like Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Home Cooking on Mondays at 20:00 on BBC Lifestyle (174).
The other popular stand was our very own one. The DStv Rova (a world class work of art made from a shipping container that's been adapted into a multimedia stage and exhibit. I was honestly blown away by just how innovative it was and so were the visitors to the festival). Rapper AKA came through and joined us on the Rova and visitors got to interact with the team and see what #DStvFoodies had to offer – as well as see which shows are scheduled for the coming months.
My favourite stall wasn't food though (yes, the irony of ironies) but an alcohol one. I love new innovations and coming across things I've never seen before. With all the sugar cane KwaZulu-Natal produces, I've always wondered why no one has made a local rum. Well, guess what? The very first company to produce a South African rum was at the festival too. Called “Zulu Rum” it's 100% locally produced in KZN and tastes awesome. The maker and producer of the rum told me they have only been making it for 21 months and it's already won awards internationally. A sign that we're starting to finally tap into our resources and be innovative, something that will grow this awesome industry we foodies love so much. South African produce and quality is world class.
We sampled a lot of other food too and chatted with some passionate foodies and entrepreneurs. The food scene in Durban is still growing. It isn't as large as the Cape Town or Johannesburg and the variety isn't as diverse but what got me excited was how enthusiastic people are about food and wine. Even in the rain, there were still long queues and people wanting to get into the festival. This was only the third edition of the Durban leg of Taste and with more and more people talking about it I have no doubt it will have many more years.
Plate like a chef
When I tell people what I do for a living, it's often met with a surprise and the usual "your girlfriend is lucky" and "teach me how to cook" - the standard responses. However, every now and then it will also be met with a question, usually along the lines of: "why are you chefs so stingy on the plate?" I never quite know how to respond but the look in the person's eyes normally lets me know that it's more of a statement than a question!
I'm a fine dining chef. What does that mean? Well, I studied in classic French cuisine - that fancy stuff that looks like art on a plate and you’re never too sure what to eat and what not to eat because of how dainty it all looks.
Fine dining is all about the experience of being out in a fancy restaurant. The service, the decor, the mood, the presentation, the experience – it’s all about being taken away from reality and being placed in a place of opulence and class.
Is it necessary? I think it is. Every industry has a pinnacle, a shining example of what is possible at the top and just like with cars and houses and holidays, the same applies to food. Fine dining is the pinnacle, unattainable to some but something that keeps the industry on its toes and sets an example as to how classy it can be at times.
That brings me to the topic at hand. Over this past weekend I was lucky enough to have enough free time to be a bit of a couch potato and catch up on awesome TV shows on DStv. One of my utmost favourite shows to watch with my girlfriend is Come Dine with Me on BBC Lifestyle (DStv channel 174), Mondays at 19:00. The quirkiness and sheer bravado of some of the contestants is always good for a giggle. I also love the show because of Dave Lamb, the narrator. He says things that we are all thinking while sitting on our couches but are too polite to say out loud.
One of the things I noticed while watching a few episodes this weekend was just how shockingly scary some plating of food is! Another show, this time on Food Network (175), Chopped (Thursday at 18:00) had an episode where the contestants were all single dads. Some of the dishes were actually pretty good in terms of concept but the final product looked like a three-year-old had gone crazy with a set of crayons against the wall! Messy would be an understatement!
Seeing such disasters on my TV screen, I decided to focus my weekly column on plating and the art of placing food on a plate. There is a reason why it's called "Culinary Arts", seeing a plate that's been done up beautifully isn't by chance, there has been some thought put behind it.
Let me break it down into the three sections of a typical working kitchen first so we can explain further why certain dishes are done up a certain way. In a fine dining restaurant, the kitchen will have three distinct sections. The cold kitchen, this is my favourite section of the kitchen, where the most creative plating is done. Your amuse bouche (bite size appetizers, these are typically in the house and literally mean "to amuse the mouth") and starters and palette cleansers are made by cold kitchen.
With starters, there is no hard and fast rule (I'll explain this in more detail when we get to the next section of the kitchen). You can be as creative and as funky as you like so those really elaborate and creative plates you see are normally from cold kitchen.
The next section of the kitchen is the one everyone knows best, the section that Gordon Ramsay specializes in and the one most chefs are known for because of the loudness and the craziness of the section. It's also the section that gets the most "prestige" because it makes the largest portion of your entire meal... and also the most expensive. Hot kitchen. This is where the starches, grill, soups, veggies and everything that isn't a dessert or starter gets made. Unlike cold kitchen, a main course plate is structured. It must have a starch, a protein, a sauce and a vegetable. These are the four standard elements. Yes there are unique changes here and there but your typical main course plate will have those four elements. This means one can be as crazy as they would be when plating starters or desserts. There is also a bit more time pressure on the chef as the food has to go out hot, so there isn't much time to be dainty and finicky with the dish.
The last section of a working kitchen is another one I love, the pastry kitchen. Here you can be as crazily elaborate as you like. This is where science meets madness and eccentricity. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to plating pastry.
So why do chefs plate the food the way they do? First we look at convenience. How will the customer eat what I have just made? Will it collapse? If it collapses, is there enough space on the plate for it to collapse onto? We want contrast. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s plating, now it is all about spaces. We don't present you with a huge white dish with lots of open space because we're too selfish to add more food, we could easily just give you a smaller plate, we do so for aesthetic reasons. You eat with your eyes before you taste something. The contrasting back drop to your food makes your eyes intentionally focus on the food itself. You see it more clearly and it's uncluttered. We do the same with the main courses too. If you Google pictures of food from fancy restaurants in the 1980s, you'll notice a lot of them had plates full of food to the edges. They were also very high and elaborate and any white space was quickly filled with that old fashioned scattering of chopped parsley. An empty space on a plate was frowned upon. We're the opposite now. The focal point is more on flavour and taste and appreciating the ingredients.
How do you plate like a chef? Start with you. Make it your central point on you plate. Your starch is the base of your plate, the foundation. Next place your protein. Today's fashion is to do so on top of the starch. This is to build height and it's also to make the protein the central focal point of the dish. You'll then place your veggies. Depending on the type of veg you can do this falling off the side of the protein and lastly the sauce. A good sauce shouldn't be runny and shouldn't go all over your plate. It should be a rich colour that will make your plate more vibrant and also compliment your food.
Don't just throw everything into a plate. Next time, take your time and "place" each item - you'll see the difference. A boring plate of food can be changed immediately and made to look like a fancy extravagant dish.
Seen some really horrible examples of plating? Tweet us some pictures via #DStvFoodies and also tweet me @LesDaChef.
Do you ever watch cooking shows or see cakes on display (online or in person) and wonder to yourself: "How do these bakers get it right"? I often get asked what tricks I've used to get the baked products I make to turn out so perfectly. Let me let you in on a little secret: it’s all trial and error. Those mistakes people say they always make when baking, well, I used to do them too.
Chef school and a lot of practice helped me understand what it was that I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to fix it. It doesn't take rocket science to perfect the basics of baking and turn you into a baker on the same level as the contestants on that awesome BBC Lifestyle show The Great British Bake Off.
Baking is all about science. There's a reason we chefs don't fiddle too much with baking and dessert recipes. The ratios, ingredients and processes are there because they've been tried and tested. Unlike when I'm cooking hot dishes and can play around with the ingredients and ratios to my heart’s content, when it comes to baking, it's all about the quality of ingredients, technique and following the recipe. Here's a useless fact, in a professional chef team, the pastry chef is one of the highest paid. That's how skilful one needs to be. Patience isn't a virtue we chefs tend to have and it's essential to be a top pastry chef.
What are the fundamentals when it comes to baking cakes?
- If a recipe asks for butter, use butter! It's amazing how many people confuse margarine and baking blocks for butter. Please don't. Butter is made from milk solids and fats; margarine is emulsified vegetable fats. They melt differently and taste different too. Trust me, this has an effect on your final product.
- When a recipe simply says "sugar" always assume it means castor sugar. The various types of sugar melt at different temperatures. Castor sugar is best for baking as it melts at an efficient rate. If a recipe says "granulated sugar" then it's referring to normal white sugar that we use for our everyday needs.
- Try to have all your ingredients at room temperature. This will be difficult if your recipe asks for milk but with regards to butter and eggs, they should always be at room temperature when making a cake (for biscuits and tart pastry this is different). Cold ingredients take longer to react to the heat in the oven, so besides affecting the oven temperature by decreasing it when you put the cold dough in, cold ingredients mean a slower cooking rate for your cakes which increases the likelihood them flopping.
- Sift your flour. Sifting flour removes any lumps and impurities and also adds air so your cake will be fluffier.
- Don't fiddle with the cake while it's baking. I'm forever fascinated by people's need to poke cakes with knifes and folks while the poor cake is still in the oven. The whole goal of a cake is for it to rise and be fluffy; when you stick a knife in it while it's baking you're interfering with this process! Rather use a thin toothpick or a bamboo skewer (those sticks we use to make kebabs).
- Only open the oven door after 20 minutes. When you close the oven door, the steam from the cake and the heat in the oven cause a vacuum to form; a vacuum which you've worked hard to get right by preheating the oven. When you open the oven door you're letting that vacuum collapse and allowing cold air in. The cold air is sucked in and this collapses the cake. After about 20 minutes of baking, this effect isn't as bad. So wait and be patient (unless you're baking a smaller cakes or cupcakes).
- Using incorrect ingredients will affect your final product. Always use unsalted butter when baking. Rather use plain cake flour and not self-raising flour. Close your eyes and buy vanilla extract (it's more expensive but so much better than vanilla essence).
- Want to get super smooth icing like a baker? It's a 1:2 ratio of butter to icing sugar. For example, 500g butter should be mixed with 1kg icing sugar. The trick is to beat the butter and icing sugar senseless. Honestly, just beat the icing sugar for five to 10 minutes in a mixer; it will be super fluffy and smooth, almost like ice cream in appearence. Put it in a piping bag and use it immediately before it begins to harden. This is how we get those smooth surfaces and sharp edges to our icing on cakes.
Baking is easy but people seem to be scared of it. The tools I can't go without are my mixer, my mixing bowl, my measuring jugs, my scales and my measuring spoons. If you have all those then baking is a breeze. You'll then be able to attempt and master all those recipes you see on TV.
If you feel you need a chef’s advice on something or if you're not too sure about a recipe and the TV chef you've got the recipe from won't talk back to you through the TV screen, I'm just a tweet away.
Follow me on Twitter @LesDaChef and I'll try put you back on the right track. Also post any pictures of cakes and recipes you've tried from our many TV shows and use the hashtag #DStvFoodies so we can boast with you!
Good times for #DStvFoodies
A few weeks ago, Joburg came alive when foodies from all over Gauteng converged in the normally quiet suburb of Linksfield. The annual DStv Delicious Food and Music Festival was in town again. Besides the awesome music and vibe, the many well thought-out stalls and food stands got me thinking: have we Joburgers finally woken up to the awesomeness that is artisanal food?
Over the past year or so, the Joburg food scene has begun to change. We're seeing more and more people asking for better cuisine. With franchised eateries having to stick to menus chosen by their head offices, a lot of smaller food producers have been cropping up. Yes, I know this is old news to Capetonians but we Joburgers are a bit slower on the uptake! Small eateries that specialise in certain food and specific dishes are now getting into the mix and jostling with the big restaurants. Head over to Braamfontein, Maboneng, Melville, Greenside or one of the various weekend and night markets around the city and you'll see the lively banter and energy brought by this food scene (you'll also see one or two rather interesting fashion decisions).
With the numerous international and local food shows on DStv, people's knowledge of good food is growing. Five years ago, we South African chefs were quietly plying our trade in the background. We were happy to make awesome food but, unlike international chefs, we didn't know much about about the spotlight and media. Nowadays we have a small crop of local celeb chefs who, in thier own right, can give their international counterparts a run for their money. The SA food scene has grown and it's awesome watching it. Being called a "foodie" used to have snobbish connotations but not anymore. People proudly send me emails proclaiming that they're foodies and wanting me to give them more info on specific, complex dishes.
Once a week on Twitter (@LesDaChef) I try to explain how to make certain food the way a chef does. I give away secrets and candidly talk about my life as a chef. At first I used the platform as a means to educate but with time it's become more of a means to engage and debate. I don't need to explain certain concepts anymore as more and more people are watching food shows and reading chef-written books and blogs. The birth of the South African foodie is here and more power to it.
What I love most about this changing scene is the acknowledgement of the skill and work it takes professionals to make awesome food. When one learns how to make their own food or even just observes the process via shows like Barefoot Contessa on Food Network and Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Home Cooking on BBC Lifestyle, it allows us chefs to be more creative with our ideas. This grows the market which in turn means more people will join it and, in so doing, make it a viable business for everyone. The more foodies the merrier. Other shows also break down just how hectic a working kitchen is and why we chefs are the way we are. Hell's Kitchen USA on BBC Entertainment is one prime example. It's a little over the top but that's more or less how it is in the industry.
When I qualified from chef school, I had the option of going overseas or remaining here in South Africa. I believed back then that by staying in SA I could be part of this wonderful growing food scene and grow with it. Seeing my hometown of Soweto have its own food market and 4-star hotel and restaurant has proven to me that my gamble wasn't a mistake. We #DStvFoodies are the in thing and we're living in fun times. Can't wait to see what happens next!
Meet Chef Lesego Semenya
A few weeks ago, I received an email from DStv. Being a chef and a sceptic of all things corporate and commercial, I gave the email a bit of a side-eye and sniffed my phone a bit too. I stopped short of licking my phone because, well, I know where my phone has been! The reason for my scepticism? A company actually taking up the cause and speaking directly to the growing foodie scene out there.
I've become known on social media as "that chef who doesn't want us eating anything". For some reason, my tweets explaining what the process followed when processed food is made and what MSG really is - or even explaining what exactly goes into polony - have rubbed my fellow South Africans up the wrong way. Oh well. So I told myself years ago I should just accept that no corporate would want my views on things because I tend to not be nice to corporates.
And yet, here we are. Funny how life works out. Being a trendsetter and lover of all things social, DStv approached me to bring the joys and madness of food to you. During the initial meetings I asked the team if they knew what they were getting themselves into and they smiled and nodded. They went so far as to ask me to just be who I am and just post like I normally post!
So who is Lesego? On social media I'm known as "LesDaChef". I was a process engineer and worked in a tie and suit for six years. It was during this six years that I realised something about being a corporate worker... it wasn't for me. I then got hit by "the madness" and spent a year travelling South Africa before enrolling at one of the best chef academies in South Africa.
Bbq rack of lamb? pic.twitter.com/0d1Zxari9y— Lesego Semenya (@LesDaChef) June 30, 2015
I qualified as an international level fine dining chef and have been working the industry ever since for the past six years. Somehow along the line I've been chosen as one of SA's Top 200 Young People by the Mail & Guardian and, in between it all, I've cooked for quite a few well-known and important people. Why am I telling you all this? Well, to let you know I know a thing or two about food but that, just like most DStv Foodies, I too was just an ordinary viewer of food shows and I can relate to people who haven't studied food. I'll always simplify complex food terms and bring the "humanity" back from the fancy French and over the top dishes we have in this industry.
I'll be bringing you a weekly post (maybe more if the Internet guys forget to lock me out the website) with information, recipes, tales of my food trips, ideas to make food simpler for you, awesome new DStv food shows and everything will always be from the heart and sincere. If I start sounding pretentious then pop me a mail and say so.
Although I'm a fine dining chef by profession, I love good, homely and hearty food too. DStv has food shows for every kind of food lover. From the fancy and high-brow stuff like Great British Menu (Thursday, 2 July at 20:00 on BBC Lifestyle, channel 174) to the simple and utterly insane American stuff like Man Fire Food (Wednesday, 8 July at 14:00 on Food Network, channel 175). On Twitter and Insta, follow the hashtag #DStvFoodies, the handle @dstv or my own handle @LesDaChef and the numerous other handles (like Food Network and BBC Food) as we take you on a live journey through food.