Konichee-wa, Richard-san

May 27th, 2011 § 0 comments

Why am I speaking Japanese to Richard Carstens? We first met as students in the great bad old days when – on the cusp of a new order – one could imagine that Stellenbosch’s Rooi Plein alluded to hip lefty undercurrents, rather than the maxed-out credit ratings of the present.


Heady days indeed. Change was pungent in the air. And out popped a new kind of restaurant on Dorp Street called Le Chameleon. With ex law student Richard in the kitchen. I remember how chuffed I was as a teen when my mom made her first ratatouille. It was the start of my aubergine thing. And at Le Chameleon, Richard sealed the deal with a wonderful melanzane parmigiano. It was all I ever ate there. Aubergine, baked to an ooze, with mozzarella slotted into slits across the top, surrounded by a moat of absurdly divine tomato reduction. It’s the stuff of dreams. And enduring memories. I left Stellenbosch and for many years ordered melanzane parmigiano but nothing came close.


Twenty years on and I’m so happy to hear that he’s joined Tokara, just up the road from me. A suitably impressive establishment for one of South Africa’s most committed culinary pioneers. It was high on my to-eat list when Richard and I connected on Twitter. ‘I still haven’t found a better melanzane parmigiana than the one you used to make in Dorp Street,’ was my immediate response. There’s been a lot of food under the bridge for both of us. Richard has distinguished himself as one of South Africa’s edgiest bright sparks, always pushing food boundaries, and I… well, I’ve dealt with a lot of food. Plus I’ve been quite vocal about my position as proud founder and lifetime president of the FF Alliance (second F standing for Foam). I was a tad apprehensive that this food reunion wouldn’t pan out, what with me being too boring and into plain kos. Up for a retro challenge, Richard offered to create a new wave version of the beloved old melanzane. Thrilled, I rocked up for a 10-course chefs menu with the melanzane cheekily positioned at the 6-course mark. This was going to be an exercise in restraint… and endurance.


The Modernist, Richard Carstens


Not to digress but Tokara has breathtaking views of the Stellenbosch valley. The weather permitted a stoep lunch.


Big open dining


Richard was one of the first local chefs to pick up on the Spanish wave that revolutionized fine dining, driven by the brothers Adria and their scientific deconstruction of ingredients, only to reconstruct flavours and textures in surprising combinations. He made his first savoury gorgonzola ice cream in 1999 and with all the sci-fi tricks bagged and at his disposal, has moved on to what he calls modernist cooking, with flavour being the holy grail.


'Sashimi', cob wasabi yoghurt, green tea, rice & seaweed


The first course posed a challenge: identify the origin of the red slivers, pictured bottom right. It was silky and meaty in texture – incredibly so – and after a few seconds in my mouth I thought ‘Egad, I’m eating rabbit carpaccio!’ I so convinced myself it was raw rabbit that I couldn’t finish it. Turned out to be watermelon, cooked whole at a low temperature, overnight, then cut, drained of juice, deseeded, compressed, vacuum-frozen and finally, sliced very finely. I was much relieved to be wrong. And impressed. It really was very… meaty. The rest of the dish was a subtle oceanic flavour-interlude.


Calamari, squid ink brioche, lemon veloute, garlic, parsley and rice crisp


His current food philosophy is tech-emotional: capturing and reworking the influence of memory on food appreciation. South Africans love calamari and his take on this standard is layered with light lemony flavours.


Roasted beetroot, yellow pepper emulsion, fennel, pear, gorgonzola and hazelnut streusel


This was a favourite. Clean earthy notes with punchy gorgonzola. Given his attention to detail and precision-plating, people assume he’s spent time in Japan. Not so. Richard is largely self-taught and driven to expand his own horizons, even if it means translating a Spanish recipe word for word, dictionary in hand.


A Carstens classic - baked alaska of rainbow trout, citrus salsa, cucumber, ginger, soya, mirin and smoked salmon ice cream


At this point I started fretting. Would my appetite stick around for the funked-up 21st century version of the melanzane? I had a tiny taste of the next course.


A very fetching fossilized parsnip, mushroom soil, hazelnut honeycomb with miso and truffle


Fossilized to perfection. By now I was edging my seat, rifling through the taste bud library for that old favourite flavour memory. I crashed the kitchen to see how my melanzane parmigiana – post molecular gastronomy and with the benefit of tech-emo gestalt – was coming on.


Hello stranger! After 20 years she's had a bit of work done... but the bones are still good


Finally, the great reveal.


TADAA! Crumbed aubergine and mozzarella, parmesan veloute, tomato gazpacho, roast cherry tomato sorbet


One hell of a makeover but quite incredibly the little melanzane,  that long-lost object of my affection, tasted EXACTLY as it did twenty years ago. Awesome! What a joyous reunion. The aubergine was melt-in-the-mouth delicious but it’s all about the tomato (I’ll refrain from calling it ‘sauce’). Reduced for hours to release amazing flavour. Thank you Richard for this much appreciated indulgence down memory lane!


Sesame linefish, ginger sake parsnips with citrus emulsion


Given my happy reunion with old missus melanzane, the following didn’t stand a chance. Plus I mistook the citrus emulsion for common old foam and we know how that doesn’t go down.


Peppered springbok, parsnip puree, beetroot, croquettes and hibiscus jus


A yummy dish, especially the Tretchikoffy puddles of jus. My appetite was waning fast but knowing that Richard’s latest passion was dessert, I’d spotted a deconstructed malva pudding on their five-course winter menu and thought… if ten, then why not eleven?


Lemon, mascarpone mousse, white chocolate sorbet, meringue and almond financier


I don’t have much of a sweet tooth (except for Malva pudding and the odd shard of Lindt) but this was so light I pretty much inhaled it. A kind of amuse bouche to clear the way for the deconstructed malva. How utterly wicked!


Precious Malva - Mach 2


A veritable odyssey. My first and possibly last 11 course meal. I usually get food hangovers from tasting menus. Yet, even after 11 courses (I didn’t photograph the sorbet palate cleanser, nor do I recall eating it and that can only be a good thing cause maybe it didn’t happen), I didn’t have that awful over-stuffed, liverish feeling. Although busy with colour and flavour, his food is clean and not loaded with starch and cheap-thrill fats. It’s what fellow blogger and chef Kobus van der Merwe of Oep-ve-Koep in Paternoster calls ‘happy food’. Considering the tremendous focus and intent concentrated in every effort, the end result is surprisingly light. And playful. And cheeky.


Me thinks Richard-san is styling in his ayrie. I just wish some patron of the culinary arts would send this man to Japan for a bit. The inspiration overflow will ripple through the industry. For years to come.


Tokara, for years home to Bonthuys The Saucerer, now hosting the tech-emo Wizard of oz.

This new food memory was enabled by Twitter, cause that’s how mr Carstens and I reconnected after many years. So follow me @kitchenvixenSA and him @richardcarstens and also @Tokara. And you’ll see why I call him the Samurai of Sweet. He’s just rolling them out. OK, enough with the Suzuki-speak now.




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