Chef Interview: Ariel Cohen of Free Food* - Nathalie Mat

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Ariel Cohen says that he has always loved food. His earliest food memory, aged three, is of him singing a Hebrew song that translated goes “Cake, cake, cake!”. Food was accessible and a comfort and he became an overweight child.

Ariel has been vegetarian since 1986 after watching a documentary on how animals are farmed. He was young at the time and his eating was not consistently healthy. In 2000, Ariel became ill, and looked to his diet as a way of healing his body. All the food he’d prepare moving forward, would be gluten free, wheat free, sugar free, dairy free and vegan… and in 2007 Free Food* was born.

Ariel Cohen - Chef and owner of Free Food*

Looking at him today, he has left all remnants of that overweight child behind. He is the creator/owner of all that is ‘Free’ at Free Food* Diner & Take Away just off Corlett Drive in Melrose North. It’s walking distance from my office and I sometimes pop down to buy some of his ready-made frozen meals knowing I’m getting nothing but vegetable goodness.

Ariel describes Free Food* as a celebration of vegetables and whole food. So much so that he asked if there was such a thing as an underrated vegetable. Vegetables are the stars in this restaurant. If you’re bored of salads, Ariel recommends adding cooked components to your salad. Your bowl can be a mix of raw and cool as well as warm, cooked ingredients. Ariel recommends you try their Rapido! It includes butter lettuce leaves with roasted vegetables like butternut, sweet potato, butter beans, house dressing, nuts and seeds, hummus, tofu mayo, date chutney, basil pesto and more. The house dressing is a mix of sweet (dates) and sour (lemon), Kalahari salt and fresh herbs and garlic elements that sound delicious. You can buy a many of these ingredients fresh from the deli fridge.

Dates are a staple in the kitchen, being used as the main sweetener in place of sugar. I love the idea of sweetening foods using fruit. Last year the World Health Organization made a recommendation that sugar (specifically sugar added to foods/drinks) should not make up more than 5-10% of total energy of the diet. That’s only 4-6 teaspoons a day (for 5%) and many South Africans consume in excess of this amount. Whole pieces of fruit do not fall in the sugar category as they are more slowly digested and contain beneficial nutrients including fibre. As a side note: juice was considered a high-sugar item, so it should be limited!

Wooden rabbits decorate the store, this one is guarding some chocolate diceWooden rabbits are part of the decor at Free Food To make a meat-free meal that a meat eater would enjoy, Ariel recommends using a food that people are familiar with. He’d recommend trying something like their chickpea burger.One of the things that Ariel says again and again is how appreciative his clientele is of his food. People trust Ariel to play in his “Kitchen of Infinite Possibilities” and produce something delicious. He does not use recipe books or get inspiration externally. He also hardly eats out. Food is Ariel’s creative outlet. Flavours are chosen to complement and enhance the natural flavours of vegetables.

Half way through our interview, Colin, a regular at Free Food*, arrived and told me that I was making a terrible error not eating in the restaurant more often as the fresh food is apparently great. I took some photos of Colin’s tofu scramble wrap being made, you can also see what comes out of the kitchen on their Instagram account. Anyone that eats at free food* can peer into the kitchen but I will tell you from being behind the scenes: there is no microwave, there are not pots of ready-made things, there is no deep fat fryer. All the ingredients in the kitchen are what Ariel calls “whole” which effectively means that it’s a fresh food that needs to be peeled and chopped.

Tofu scramble cooking in the pan at Free Food*Tofu scramble wrap being assembled at Free Food*Tofu scramble wrap at Free Food*

Kitchen inspiration from Ariel

  • Wash your hands, smile and leave your ego outside the kitchen. Side note: Ariel, I completely agree, leave germs and your ego out of the kitchen, it’s a place to relax and experiment. Cooking at home does not need to feel like a Masterchef showdown.
  • Love animals – don’t eat them.

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