Cuisine dream built on beans
In food, as in art, the overhyped and self-reverential is giving way to the fresh and the authentic. Forget molecular gastronomy; think farm to table.
Forget showy; think simple.
Above all, forget short cuts and start from scratch.
Admittedly, this could be challenging in a society so accustomed to popping into Woolies for a convenient and reasonably priced just-heat-in-the-microwave meal, however tasty. For when you think about it, Woolworths could very well represent the collective unconscious of South Africa’s one-percenters.
But if you can’t always strive for culinary authenticity at home, you can at least seek it when you dine out. And hope the chef might be willing to share some of his hard-won secrets. Nick Scott, a self-taught chef-turned-restaurateur who opened the Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville towards the end of last year, goes a step further: not only does he spill the beans; he grows them.
Since the end of June, Scott, a British expatriate, has been hosting informal yet entertaining masterclasses in the particular style of Asian vegetarian tapas and ramen cuisine the Great Eastern Food Bar has become known for in less than a year of existence. He is joined by his partner, Uruguayan native Carolina Rasenti, and his culinary partner Carole Greenwood, an American chef with a James Beard award nomination under her toque, fairly new to Johannesburg and much influenced by the Korean-American superstar chef David Chang of Momofuku fame.
You could say that Scott became a chef by osmosis: during his London days, he shared a flat with a Thai roommate who would cook exotic, aromatic Asian food. Scott, being the inquisitive sort, soon learned to distinguish the flavours, subtle and pungent, that characterised Asian cuisine, and eventually mastered the specific techniques involved in blending these ingredients to reveal both the complexity and the simplicity of each dish.
From captive audience, Scott graduated to the director and producer of his own culinary spectacles, and the kitchen became his theatre.
As chef and owner of the Great Eastern Food Bar, Scott is pretty much a purist, one who perseveres until he gets the quality of ingredients he wants, sourcing locally as much as possible, but insisting on standards that most restaurants would probably have skimped on long ago to preserve the bottom line.
So freshness and purity are very much hallmarks of the particular brand of Asian cuisine — much influenced by the principles of Thai and Japanese cooking — that Great Eastern offers, no mean feat in a culinary climate that prefers mealies over konbu, and red meat over tempeh.
But — as Scott’s maiden masterclass demonstrated — if there’s a will, there’s a way, especially when Melville was plunged into darkness on that one memorable winter’s night, and the class — a rag-tag bunch of 25 foodies of all ages and nationalities — was conducted by candlelight.
Scott saw the evening as an opportunity “to show what goes on in our heads, how we think about things and how that translates from being in the kitchen to being on the table, and all the psychoses that come along with that!”
“We’ve been asked what kind of food we cook here,” said Greenwood. “Well, it’s not Japanese, it’s not Chinese and it’s not Asian fusion — that’s such a strange word. It’s about the flavours we like mixed with the flavours we think make a dish successful. Like our prawns with the chimichurri sauce on them, for instance … it’s a creative process we go through.”
Freshness is key, Scott acknowledged, but authenticity takes precedence. Freshness is the starting point, but fermentation and rehydration are also important to intensifying flavours.
He cited the humble edamame bean as an example, which was served sprinkled with sea salt as a pre-meal nibble. “There’s zero taste difference between frozen and fresh. So they’re easy to prep, easy to source, and for me to look at the nutritional value, a bowl of edamame is the same as a steak. You’ve got your vitamin K, you’ve got your protein and, in the kitchen, I have to do nothing to it.”
Edamame plantations have sprouted in South Africa, he said, making the bean more readily available, which has made sourcing the power-packed bean much easier, unlike before, where the one farm cultivating edamame in Midrand was “kind of cultish and happy-clappy, and could not keep up with the demand. Now Food Lovers Market has actually bought six edamame farms in the country and supply pretty much everyone.”
The salmon trout that formed the basis of sashimi tacos, the first dish and a firm favourite with customers, was a different story, however.
“When we started, I only used trout, sourced from a farm three hours out of Jo’burg,” Scott recalled. It was part of understanding the geographical and logistical realities of setting up shop here. “The necessity inherent in Jo’burg is, you’re not going to get fish fresh. It’s just not going to happen.
“So I looked at a lot of the farming systems, from Magaliesberg up to Dullstroom, and figured out how I could get fresh products into the restaurants. I looked into curing and smoking as a preserving agent. So if I knew the fish was going to get farmed in the morning, it could be cold-smoked, then vacuum-sealed and it could be in the restaurant by midday and we’d be serving it by 1pm.”
Ramen is the heart of the restaurant’s menu. “If it were up to me, this would have just been a ramen bar,” he confessed candidly, before segueing into the components that make the perfect ramen, and how he — out of necessity — ended up making his own broth and miso butter. “In the end, ramen is all about the broth and the oil.”
Hearing Scott dishing out behind-the-scenes stories about the other items that make up the menu at Great Eastern — including the shiitake mushroom-hoisin buns, vegetable dumplings, shiro miso ramen with its flavourful, almost buttery, broth, to name a few — is akin to listening to the chronicles of a restaurant’s dogged pursuit of authenticity. But instead of a litany of woes, it becomes a testament to creativity, improvisation and integrity in the kitchen.
So have a hearty slurp of that ramen. Or take a bite of that steaming dumpling. It may not transport you back to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo, but if it zooms you straight into New York and Momofuku territory, that’s a damn good start for a memorable culinary adventure.
The Great Eastern Food Bar, Bamboo Centre, 53 Rustenburg Road, Melville, 011 482 2910