Aaaah, don’t you simply love the warm embrace of summer. To us, it means not having to fuss too much over anything. Cooking being one of them. Get out of the kitchen!! Who the hell feels like shopping, chopping and slaving over the stove? Instead, take pleasure in the idea of doing absolutely nothing whilst enjoying our superb cape wines. But what does one do when the tummy starts going ggrrrrr-ggrrrrrr? Nooooo, don’t send us to the kitchen! And do not open that bag of salt-and-vinegar chips to ruin the good wine. Yuk! Fortunately, we were quite lucky to be shown the ropes of fuss-free summer meals by fellow Capetonian, awesome friend and chef, Abigail Ben-Yehuda, whilst on holiday from Botswana, where she is currently residing and working.
Amongst all the chatting, gossiping and laughing, Abbi effortlessly showed us how to put together a mouthwatering feast. From button mushrooms grilled on an open fire with flame grilled aubergine dip, the ‘perfect’ homemade hummus, olives marinated in olive oil with grated orange rind, rosemary and coriander to mandazi breads with cumin. This is but a few of the delectable tapas and mezes spread that we were spoilt with. Oh man, nothing says happiness better than lip-smacking food in the belly.
Abbi (as she’s known to most) is a funky, potty mouthed, full of attitude homegrown girl with formidable energy from Grassy Park. Her love for cooking and experimenting with food stems from her mom whom has always been a brilliant cook in the household. Growing up in a mixed race family during the struggle, apartheid years, there were no restaurants they could really ever go to.
Thoughts of becoming a chef only dawned upon her very late in her life…no, she isn’t 70 yet (apologies to our geriatric readers looking for a funky old gal – she’s only 39, has a great smile, good teeth,a strong back and a fine rump). The “cheffing” light bulb alighted while she was working as a waitress at Kennedy’s Cigar Bar and Restaurant. She quickly caught on that chefs didn’t have to be polite to customers and it looked like they really enjoyed what they were doing. After that realisation, plans for her bright future, slowly but surely started taking shape (not quite at the rate that Michealangelo painted the Cistine Chapel). And here we are today, celebrating a brilliant Cape Town chef with both local and international experience spanning over 12 years. We bring to you a quick glimpse into the life of a local chef whilst feasting on her favourite holiday food – delicious homemade tapas and mezes.
WHEN DID YOU REALISE THAT YOUR LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN AFTER BECOMING A CHEF? It dawned in 2003 when I had my first taste of chef hours whilst studying through the Institute for Hospitality Education, doing my National Diploma and City and Guilds in Professional Cookery in conjunction with doing an apprenticeship at The Greenhouse at The Cellars-Hohenort under Phil Alcock. My one day off was spent in class, the entire day. It was freakin’ hardcore and I was exhausted. Hard to believe, but it totally changed my personality for the better. It made me tougher The words of legendary French chef, George Auguste Escoffier, have been permanently cemented in my head: “a chef has to work hard, to work even harder” meaning you prep a good 7-8 hours for the pay off at service which lasts about 3 hours, consisting of a pure adrenalin rush.
WHERE DOES THE AWESOME SURNAME AND YOUR FASCINATION WITH MIDDLE-EASTERN FOOD COME FROM? Many years prior to deciding in becoming a chef, I went travelling in search of adventure. I decided Israel – as far North as I could. Like most, I found myself at Kibbutz Y’iron, on the Israeli/ Lebanese border. Like most, I met a gorgeous-looking Israeli, fell in love and (not like most) got married –hence the awesome surname. Besides the Israeli man, I also completely fell in love their different cultures and the diversity of their foods. Different dishes always there for tasting. What I regarded as a fresh whole-food diet. Hmmm…“proper” humus, tahina, olives, beautiful fresh vegetables, to mention but only a few. Oh, and Yemenite chicken soup…yummm.
YOU’VE TRAVELLED QUITE EXTENSIVELY AS A CHEF IN THE PAST. TELL US ABOUT YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE/PLACE. Yes, I have been very lucky to be able to travel being a chef. My most memorable…definitely Italy…It was the bomb! Being in slow food and truffle country, working as a private chef for the late Petro Ferrero (yes, of Ferrero chocolates) and his family. I worked my ass off, but flying regularly to places like St Moritz, Brussels, by private jet and helicopter was out of this world. On my first trip, I was thinking; “It’s me, Abbi, from Grassy Park, flying through the Alps in a freakin’ private helicopter, OMG!!”
MADE ANY UNEXPECTED FOOD DISCOVERIES DURING YOUR TRAVELS? I made two rather pleasant food discoveries when I was working at North Island in Seychelles with my wonderful cousin and brilliant creative chef, Gizelle Kennel, when we had a small company called Two Brown Onions. I’ve never really been a fish person yet I totally devoured the Creole fish soup there. My worst…the green creaminess of avocado…yuck, yuck, yuck!!! That was, until I discovered the avo’s in ‘Chelles …yummy, yummy, yummy.
HAS YOUR EATING CHANGED SINCE LIVING IN BOTSWANA? Well, I have recently found out that I get an allergic reaction to red meat. So, no more Botswana beef for me. And that goes for one of my favourite traditional meat dishes, Seswaa, a heavily salted mashed-up meat usually prepared by men for special occassions. Now, I love salad…everyday…all day. Rather funny, as salad is soooo not a staple in Botswana, it is pap and meat…eish wena, even my expat friends are like WTF!!
WHERE IN BOTSWANA DO YOU WORK AND WHAT IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION THERE? This has been such an amazing opportunity working for Okavango Wilderness Safaris where I am responsible for training and assessing chefs in the camps on cooking techniques. It is quite a challenge as most of the chefs I’ve trained have never actually eaten in a restaurant. I run workshops for the trainee chefs and other chefs, that is consistent with international standards of cuisine. Ensuring that the guests’ food quality is on par with the OWS’s (high) minimum standard and consistency. Admin, used to be the bane of my existence, but I am trying to keep an open mind. Working behind the scenes makes me happy (and because I have a potty mouth…teehee). I work a yearly cycle of 90 consistent working days followed with 28 consistent off days. My work hours can range from a normal 8 hour office day (doing office work), or a 12 to 16 hour work day when I am working in various kitchens in the camps.
WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU LOVE MOST? I love Mother Nature’s gifts – that of beautiful wholesome tasty goodness, that I am blessed to work with. I love experimenting with different dishes (though it is harder now that I am in Botswana). I love tasting. Flames. My knives (my babies). Feeding people. I love the fact that sometimes I can’t get to work because there are wild elephants in front of my tent…hee,hee!! Most importantly – I cook because I love it. For me, food is a celebration of life and my greatest satisfaction comes from sharing the simple pleasure of eating.