Margaret Giustizieri’s favourite dish is pasta pomodoro. Growing up her family harvested tomatoes from their garden and would preserve them for the year. When she talks about making pasta with her grandmother, I can tell that food means much more to her than fuel for her body. It is part of her identity and part of her history. As one of the founders of cremalat, it is also the main focus of her day.

When I arrived at the Cremalat restaurant and deli, I was surprised by the location of the restaurant. It’s in an industrial park. Despite this, there were several people having breakfast on a Tuesday morning. The restaurant is there because loyal deli customers asked for it. Margaret and her now late husband, Claudio started Cremalat selling imported Italian meat on Saturdays at the Michael Mount organic market in Bryanston. Demand was great, people wanted the access to the produce all week and restaurants were placing orders when the market was not open. And so Cremalat began it’s growth, responding to customers’ demands and requests. Customers asked for cheeses and other quality deli produce and so Cremalat increased the range of foods that they imported and even purchased a local dairy farm in the Freestate.

Tinned beans and tomatoes at Cremalat

I did not visit the farm but I did buy some of their award-winning gorgonzola. A small portion of cheese on some crackers is a really indulgent snack. When it comes to moderating your intake of rich cheeses such as gorgonzola, remember that you can choose to buy a really small portion when you are at a deli. Do not buy a big portion if you’re worried you’ll eat it all!

Margaret’s favourite restaurant is in Italy is called Antichi Sapori. She says that most of the food served at the restaurant is sourced exclusively from the farms immediately surrounding the restaurant meaning that vegetables are often the stars of a dish. I must admit that this is the one part of Italian dining that we may completely miss when walking through and Italian deli in South Africa. You will find lots of fine meats, cheeses, pastas and canned or bottled delicacies, but you won’t find the balance of seasonal, fresh and local vegetables that should form an intricate part of every meal. A deli provides the specialty ingredients but there should still be a balance with fresh and local produce.

Patsa-lined shelves at Cremalat

Another important concept that has been “lost in translation” bringing Italian food to our continent is the portions of pasta and risotto that are traditionally served as part of a meal.  While Margaret was talking she held up a single cupped hand to indicate the traditional serving size: “pugno” or handful. It is something that Paul from Pronto <link to article> also mentioned when I interviewed him. Pasta can and should be enjoyed in small portions.

So what did Margaret say about cooking? Firstly, she said that she’s not a chef. She’s a person that is incredibly passionate about foods. One of her bugbears in the kitchen is when people order a dish she has carefully curated but change half of the ingredients. She has carefully considered all the flavours and textures to create a particular experience. Changing ingredients is like changing an artwork.

Apart from salads as the traditional healthy choice, Margaret recommends carpaccio as a light and delicious option. Her own key to health lies responding to what her body wants. She believes in eating small portions of food and that food should be kept simple but beautiful. Regular exercise is also very much part of her health routine.

Tinned beans and tomatoes at Cremalat

One of Margaret’s favourite underrated vegetables in fennel. She loves dipping raw strips of fennel into a traditional olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper dressing. Fresh shaved or sliced fennel has a subtle licorice or aniseed flavour that is a wonderful addition to salads. If crafting a vegetarian dish that even a meat eater would enjoy, Margaret immediately mentions porcini mushrooms. She then ordered me a small portion of their porcini fettucini.

I enjoyed a taste while still there (not lunch time) and finished it at home. Thanks, for a delicious lunch! The Mushroom Association of South Africa is very much on the same page as Margaret when it comes to getting people to eat more vegetables and less meat. They did an interesting little study where they replaced some meat in meals with mushrooms. Read more about it and on their website (which includes mushroom-centric recipes too!) Botanically, mushrooms are not a vegetable but a fungus. From a dietitian’s perspective, we lump them in with the vegetable group (to keep it simple).

It is clear when Margaret talks about food that her upbringing shaped her love of food and this love has turned into a passion for supplying great quality ingredients. Pop into the Cremalat store(which has had a recent expansion!) to find yourself some Italian inspiration for your kitchen.

The new extension of the Cremalat restaurant
Image credit: Cremalat

Kitchen inspiration from Margaret

  • Keep food fast and simple, there is no need to complicate your life
  • Eat fresh and seasonal foods
  • Enjoy simple but beautiful foods in small portions

Paul Maciel is the owner and Chef of Pronto Italian Restaurant and Bar in Craighall. He’s a busy man, moonlighting as the Secret Jozi Chef and managing the brand new cooking school underneath Pronto called The Cookery. Pronto is the restaurant that my husband and I chose for our first date, making it a special place for me and making Paul a person I was keen to interview!

Laughing Paul Maciel in the CookeryPaul talks about food in the same way a sommelier describes a wine. He likes to know the story of where food was grown and the path it took to get to his kitchen. His love of food is obvious and it is clear that he doesn’t think of food as mere combinations of ingredients. Paul wants to invoke emotions and memories when he creates a dish.

Growing up in a big family with a mixed heritage of one Indian and one Portuguese parent, Paul was raised on a variety of flavours. Weekend breakfasts were a huge affair with several courses starting at 9:00 and lasting until 11:30. He tells a story of fighting with his siblings for his turn to churn custard into ice cream and the awe that this process held for him. Custard went in and like magic, ice cream came out. Paul’s love of food is tied to the memories created while cooking and eating with those he loves.

The Cookery being set up for the dayPaul’s mission in opening the Cookery is to break the misconception that we were sold in the 1980s that you don’t need to cook. There is sound research around children’s eating habits that confirms this: children that are involved in food preparation or simply eat with their parents are likely to eat a wider variety of foods and weigh less than children that do not eat with the rest of their family. Eating together provides an opportunity for a family to share their day but is also a space where parents can model healthy food behaviours.

So, what’s happening in Paul’s kitchen? Pronto originally started out as a deli but people wanted food to eat there and then. In time, Paul realized that a restaurant was what people wanted. That was 12 years ago! Paul’s own health story – I’m a dietitian and I believe everyone has a health story – had him starting a delicatessen, not eating much food in the day then eating the left-over muffins when he left work. His weight ballooned up to 140kg. Eventually he realized things had to change and started eating more regular meals. Paul’s recipe like many people’s is small regular meals and exercise. He eats good quality bread and pasta and prefers less refined foods. Diet food is a no-no for Paul, he believes food should have calories.

Fresh ingredients at the cookeryOriginally Paul did not think he and I were on the same page in terms of being interviewed. He thought I wanted a healthy eating spin when all I wanted to do was explore vegetable preparation. A go to dish at home for him is a simple broccoli dish: lightly steamed broccoli tossed with olive oil, lemon, garlic and pine nuts. The dish is great hot or cold. We both agree that people get into a vegetable rut which is part of the reason they get bored of eating vegetables. He uses a long list of salads that he rotates in his house to keep his vegetable intake varied.

Paul’s favourite kitchen gadget is his appetite (I did not see that one coming). Rather than being about the equipment, his kitchen adventures are driven by a need to mix things up and try new things. His appetite is his inspiration.

Knife selection used during classes at the Cookery - run by Paul MacielWhile chatting, Paul rattled off several dishes that involve either polenta or a risotto as a base with mostly vegetarian toppings such as polenta with sage butter, porcini risotto and butternut and feta risotto. Much of the flavour of these dishes comes from cooking food in stages to really bring out their flavour, for example first roasting butternut before adding it to a dish. These are the type of dishes he’ll rustle up quickly at home during the week. His go-to dish at the restaurant has been the same for years: the penne Salsiccia, their signature dish of fennel infused pork sausages cooked with plum tomatoes, chilli, red wine and herbs. I personally love the sauce with their polenta. If watching your waist, share the pasta and a green salad with a friend. As a general rule, remember to check the menu outside of the salad section as great dishes such as the ricotta, rocket and pine nut salad may have been listed elsewhere. In this case it’s under the antipasti section.

Paul Maciel loves food that is simple and honest. When we start with good produce, we don’t need long ingredient lists to make flavourful and delicious food. I think many people get stuck in a food rut, making the same dishes day after day. I love the idea of a vegetable recipe list that can be rotated in a household, especially as new vegetables come into season. Not everyone has the same inspiring palate as Paul but we can certainly steal some of his ideas and add them to dinner inspiration list to use when shopping.

Paul Maciel - Secret Jozi Chef standing in the Cookery in CraighallKitchen inspiration from Paul

  • Enjoy being in the kitchen.
  • Trust yourself more – celebrity chefs make things look harder than they really are
  • If in doubt, olive oil and lemon are great classic flavours to use with vegetables.

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.

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.

The hardest part of a journey is often the first step and that’s a little how I felt about asking a chef if they’d be interviewed for a blog that hadn’t gone live yet…

Lucky for me, I chose my chef wisely as Sasha Sonnenberg was happy to test run the process.

I approached Sasha after I had been to a product launch and tasted her food. Sasha runs a catering company called Prep’ed by Sasha. She focuses on producing fresh, high quality foods that are mostly locally sourced.

I asked Sasha about her food philosophy: “Be true to yourself and eat things you like eating” was her answer. She does not believe in force feeding people food they do not enjoy and encourages her clients to eat food they want to eat. Sasha says she personally imparts a lot of what she enjoys into her food. She uses an abundance of fresh herbs as well as onions and garlic as a base. In terms of flavours, she does not use a lot of salt but enjoys slightly sweet, Asian flavours. One of her current flavours favourites is a good Moroccan rub – she says you do not need a sauce when you’ve used a great rub.

Sasha does not believe the saying “Never trust a skinny chef”. Part of the reason that some chefs successfully stay thin is because they do not want to eat when surrounded by food all day. This is their work, after all. In her kitchen, food is prepared with very little oil and salt, meaning that when they do have staff meals together, their food is healthy and always balanced with a good portion of vegetables.

I must interject here and say that Sasha has a great approach to food and loves healthy eating – if you are new on your journey to health, it takes time to “reprogram” your palate away from super processed foods to start really noticing the real flavours of fresh and healthy foods. You can use some of her kitchen inspiration listed at the end to get your palate on the right track.

When asked what foods to steer clear of simply because she knows the amount of salt, sugar or fat in the recipe, Sasha recommends steering clear of many Indian dishes. While they are not full of unhealthy ingredients, there just tends to be a lot of fat. One of the current food trends crossing South Africa is American foods – this food is really high in sugars, salt and added fats. Even though it’s delicious, Sasha does not think it’s the healthiest phase we’re going through. Sasha tries to steer her food in a healthy direction by making sure that there is always a good balance between vegetables, protein-rich foods, carbohydrates and healthy fats.

I was curious what Sasha’s favourite work is and she says she loves wedding catering. The food is an important part of the celebration and often central to the day.

Catering by Prepd by Sasha

Work that she has found challenging over time was adapting to fads. At a point, she really found banting to be a serious thorn in her side. She would make a special meal to accommodate banters only for them to eat the normal food. Sasha also finds some of the requests that she gets sometimes stretch her creativity when people refuse to eat a variety of foods. As a dietitian, I know that variety is important to get the vitamins and minerals. I imagine that limiting the foods Sasha can cook with is a bit like telling a painter they can only paint with 15 of their 20 paints colours.

In terms of vegetables Sasha’s fallen in love with aubergines, a vegetable she never used to like. She’s been trying to incorporate it in a lot of dishes. Her go-to recipe involves cutting the aubergine in half, scoring it, using some olive oil and a flavour, wrapping it up and then cooking it on a braai or in the oven. She says it’s incredibly moreish…I think I feel some recipe inspiration coming along.

Sasha Sonneberg

Sasha loves salad. She loves a meal with a crunch element and salad is so crunchy, it really makes her smile. She makes salad exciting by creating layers so that it’s easy to pick a mix of flavours and textures as the salad is eaten.

Her current favourite dressing for vegetables sounds amazing: she roasts vine or cherry tomatoes in the oven. The tomatoes explode and she uses the roasted, salty juice as the base of salad dressing.  Sasha did not train as a chef, she says food found her. When I hear about the things she’s doing with vegetables, I am so glad food found her so she can share her creativity and showcase delicious healthy foods!

Sasha has reduced the amount of salt she uses in dishes by making flavoured salts such as lime salt or truffle salt. Adding flavours reduces the total amount of salt used in the seasoning.

Sasha has recently reduced the amount of added sugar she was using. She says that cutting out sugar was a great health journey for her. She used to crave a lot of food and over eat more but since cutting out sugar she’s found that she feels is much better and doesn’t struggle with cravings any more.

Kitchen inspiration from Sasha

  • A great Moroccan rub is an easy way to impart flavour without having to add sauces or excessive salt.
  • Use yoghurt in place of creams to make dishes lighter.
  • To make fruit pop with flavour: grill it! Cooking anything on a high heat and getting a little char onto it is delicious. Try pineapple or nectarines.
  • Cooking for Sasha is something where you have to follow your gut. You just have to look at the food and watch what it is doing and trust yourself. There are basics that you can follow to get food to its best but she thinks people need to play and experiment.

Contact us:

Nathalie Mat RD(SA)

011 442 7277

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