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.

This is the first media interview that I’m sharing on the Informed Appetite page. Earlier this year I was interviewed by Tamara LePine-Williams on ClassicFM to talk about starting the year afresh. Many people talk about a detox after over-indulging and Tamara had some great questions about what this actually means from a health perspective.

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While public speaking is considered scary by many people, it is something I really enjoy. Unlike written media, you have to give a full answer there and then and you cannot use your usual resources for help.

If you think I have left out any really important points on overindulgence or detoxing, please feel free to leave a comment at the end of the post.

Ofentse Morake of the Whippet in Linden admitted that one of his favourite, underrated vegetables is the beetroot because it is so versatile. He had an idea for a beetroot carpaccio that really inspired me. In the interests of saving time, I’ve also included a beetroot salad that is quicker to whip up.

I always remember a lecturer at university warning us that beetroot stains terribly and so dietitians should think carefully before including it in recipes (especially if children are involved) and so I’ve shied away from this great vegetable.

Not only does it come in purple (as we commonly see it) but it also comes in a golden colour. Beetroot have an earthy flavour and are naturally sweet.

If you are short on time it is possible to buy peeled, boiled options but please do not use pickled ones. If cooking them yourself, steaming is the fastest method (roughly 25 minutes depending on size to reach the desired tender-firm stage; leave skins intact to stop their colour from going everywhere and peel once cooked – kitchen gloves are advised. If your beetroot came with leaves, don’t throw them away. Beet leaves can be used in the same way you would use spinach.

According to Deborah Madison in her great book Vegetable Literacy, the flavour of beetroot pairs very well with an acidic dressing and so I have created a dressing with a big punch of flavour that mellows the earthiness of this vegetable.

I created two versions of the same salad. The first version, a beetroot carpaccio is great as a starter when entertaining or when you have more time on your hands because, let’s be honest here, who really wants to whip out and then clean a mandolin on a week night…Beetroot carpaccio before dressing The second version, for those that do not have a mandolin or just want to use the dish as a side salad is a hand chopped version with the addition of some radishes, it’s also the version I like more!Beetroot carpaccio with rocket and corriander - topped with a punchy lemon and mustard dressing #Starter

Beetroot salad done two ways
Recipe Type: Salad
Author: Nathalie Mat, RD(SA)
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Beetroot pairs well with big lemon and mustard flavours. Here I’ve presented a recipe for a beetroot carpaccio and a more rustic hand chopped salad.
  • ½ beetroot per person
  • 2-3 small radishes per person (omitted from the carpaccio)
  • Few springs wild rocket and coriander to garnish carpaccio, can use more as a base of the salad if making a side salad
  • For the dressing
  • 2 tsp wholegrain mustard
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 small clove garlic or ½ large clove
  • Black pepper to taste
  1. Steam the beetroot whole with skins on for about 25 minutes or until they are firm, not completely tender. Allow to cool slightly before handling them.
  2. I highly recommend kitchen gloves while handing the beetroot for the next steps! Peel the beetroot using a potato peeler.
  3. If making carpaccio, slice the beetroot about 1-2mm thick using a mandolin and arrange on a starter plate in a circle. If making the salad, dice beetroot roughly.
  4. For the salad, quarter the baby radishes and sprinkle them over the beetroot.
  5. Finish both recipes by topping with rocket and coriander leaves as well as 2 teaspoons of the lemon mustard dressing.
  6. Season with freshly cracked black pepper.
  7. For the dressing: Mix all ingredients together. Left-overs can be stored in the fridge for up to 1 week.


Beetroot and radish salad with punchy lemon dressing - Delicious served with beetroot warmed or cool #Vegan #Salad

Both rocket and radishes form part of the cruciferous vegetable family, making this beetroot salad a great source of the plant chemical called sulphurophane. This compound has been shown to have some antioxidant properties and may help reduce certain cancers. My personal preference is to get these chemicals from their food source rather than supplements.

I served this beetroot salad with ostrich skewers that had been marinated in cumin, mustard and lemon. Keep dressing separate if you’d like to take left-overs for lunch the next day. It was delicious when the beetroot was freshly steamed and cold the next day.

Ofentse is a co-owner and the executive chef and at the Whippet restaurant in Linden. I caught up with him at their brand new industrial kitchen in town (so new that the gas had not yet been connected) getting ready for the opening of their second store in Bank City.

Ofentse originally studied psychology but fortuitously realized that he was not following his passion and changed to culinary school. He cut his teeth in America working at the five-star Ritz Carlton Resort in Naples, Florida. I am guessing this is where his love of big, bold Texan and Cajun flavours originated. He’s now back home in SA to stay. He really loves the quality of the produce we have in this country and thinks we do not realise how lucky we are.

Co-owner and executive chef at the Whippet

I love his food philosophy of simple, rough and clean flavours. Ofentse believes that the best food uses fresh ingredients that are treated simply. He believes people should cook what they love and should not be afraid of experimenting.

For his favourite underrated vegetable, Ofentse listed both cabbage and beetroot. He particularly loves the versatility of beetroot because it can be prepared in so many ways from pickling to steaming and boiling. He described a beetroot carpaccio with honey and wild rocket that has me feeling inspired! His favourite way of dressing vegetables is using an aged balsamic vinegar with olive oil, salt and pepper. He says there is a good reason it’s used all over world – it’s a delicious classic.

He also likes using an embellishment oil – for you and me, he’s referring to the oils that are dotted over our restaurant meals after the dish has been plated. These are basically a base oil like canola oil (I’m happy to see the use of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fat) that has been blended with fresh green herbs like parsley, basil and coriander. The herbs tend to settle on the bottom of the bottle leaving a vibrant oil at the top for dressing salads and plates. As with all oils – use these in moderation.

Flat bread from the Whippet - Photo by Ofentse Morake
Photo courtesy of Ofentse Morake

Between tasting potential new menu items and tasting dishes as they are being cooked, staying healthy can be a challenge when surrounded by food all day. Ofenste says he makes sure his meals are healthy to balance out everything else he tastes in a day. If trying to stay slim, he says the Mac and Cheese at the Whippet should definitely be avoided. There are many healthy salads and breakfast dishes that fit the healthy bill. One of his pet hate is when people “remix” his menu and create their own dishes – he says a lot of thought goes into creating a menu and he wishes more people would eat the item as it was created. That said, he has no issue excluding items that people are allergic to from a dish.

At home, meals are simple and often ready in ten minutes. After gym he’ll rustle up a quick grilled chicken breast and steamed vegetables. Ofentse’s favourite people to cook for are his friends and girlfriend. He is a true South African in that he has a mad love of meat and steak in particular. His favourite restaurant (after the Whippet, of course) is the Local Grill in Parktown North. He just loves the quality of the meat there. When he gets a food craving though, he craves the traditional African fare that he grew up eating.

Food from the Whippet - Photo by Ofentse Morake
Photo courtesy of Ofentse Morake

I asked Ofentse about his favourite kitchen gadget and without skipping a beat, he said it’s his 8 inch global chef’s knife. He spoke with some reverence about the ancient process in which these knives are made and I can tell he has a great appreciation for a beautifully crafted and well-balanced knife.

His top kitchen tips are to keep it easy and use the freshest ingredients you have. He thinks that preparation is the key to success in the kitchen and says that a dish is much easier to assemble when everything is already chopped and prepared to go into the dish. In cooking terms, this is called “mise en place” and basically means that you get everything ready for cooking before you start the cooking itself. This is really helpful for dishes with short cooking times like a stir-fry. Ofentse also believes that people should cook what you enjoy eating. I agree, so long as there are lots of vegetables and we’re talking about mostly healthy food 😉

Check out the Whippet online here or go taste the magic that Ofentse and his team are cooking up in Linden at 34 7th street, Randburg.

Kitchen inspiration from Ofentse

  • Treat your food with respect – you will get a lot of flavour from the cooking methods. Do not be afraid to experiment
  • A good knife can make kitchen preparation much faster and easier. If you’re buying only one item for your kitchen, consider a good quality chef’s knife.
  • Use fresh ingredients and keep cooking easy/simple.

In our interview, Sasha Sonnenberg mentioned that she’s really enjoying using a Moroccan Spice rub to add flavour to food without having to use sauces.

Moroccan Spice Rub - Easy 8-ingredient mix that is delicious for adding exotic flavours #Vegan #SpiceYou can always buy your own Moroccan mix or you can make your own salt-free version like the one I have put together for you below. Leaving salt out of the blend reduces total salt intake which is useful for those with high blood pressure. If you do not have high blood pressure, you can add a small amount of salt as desired.

I have included turmeric in the blend which is known to have anti-inflammatory actions through the component called curcumin. The bioavailability (or absorption into the body so it can act as an anti-inflammatory molecule) is improved when the turmeric is cooked with some oils. Do not be afraid to use a small amount of oil in the preparation of your dishes.

Quick Moroccan Spice Rub - 8-ingredient mix that is delicious for adding exotic flavours #Vegan #Spice


Easy Moroccan Spice Mix
Recipe Type: Condiment
Cuisine: Moroccan
Author: Nathalie Mat
Prep time:
Total time:
Serves: 1.5 Tablespoons
Versatile Moroccan spice mix that can be used to add delicious flavour to many dishes
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne (can omit for children if desired)
  1. Mix all ingredients together; makes 1 ½ tablespoons. Store in any left-over blend in an airtight container in a cool dark place.

I halved aubergines, scored them, brushed them with some olive oil, sprinkled with the spice blend and then roasted them in the oven for about an hour at 180°C. Delicious with cumin spiced lentils and tahini. How have you used the blend?


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Nathalie Mat RD(SA)

011 442 7277

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