Crafty cooks

2013-06-20 00:00

PAUL Eaton used to run a successful restaurant in Pietermaritzburg and most recently he worked at an exclusive game reserve, cooking cordon bleu meals for foreign visitors, but today he has adapted his cooking skills to his lifestyle.

Together with his wife Samantha and young son Oliver, they have settled in Hilton, and are offering group cooking lessons and intimate dining experiences at their demonstration kitchen and dining room. For Eaton, this concept has combined his love of food and his passion for sharing cooking tips.

“I love to show people how to cook great food with fresh ingredients and to make them feel adventurous about food. So many people get into a rut with cooking and it becomes a chore. When they learn a new technique or discover a new flavour, it opens the door to a new cooking adventure,” says Eaton.

He says the Midlands is full of great food suppliers who produce good-quality ingredients.

Educating people about food can also make them enthusiastic about what they are eating. “Some people want to change the way they eat for health reasons, but nobody wants to eat a flavourless meal just because it is good for them.”

In his cooking demonstrations, he tries to introduce recipes that might pose a challenge to the average cook. He often teaches people how to cook venison, because most people steer clear of exotic meats as they feel intimidated. But Eaton teaches them how to use a cut of venison and to prepare it in three different ways: as a steak, a canapé and in boerewors.

“I give the clients easy recipes that won’t take a long time and that are not fussy. It is about helping people think differently, so that after a few lessons they can go home and think about what they have got in the fridge and know what they can mix and match to make a great meal.

“As a chef, we are taught all kinds of little tips to make things look special and we also know the flavours that will give certain dishes an extra zing. If I can pass that knowledge along, then I can encourage people to try new flavours. We all have that moment when we look in the fridge and see a bottle of fig jam and some cheese and leftover ham and think: ‘We have nothing to eat’. Well that is just not true!”

Eaton has taught children as young as five, and his oldest group was made up of pensioners who are still keen to tantalise their taste buds. He says that he started cooking when he was a young boy and his entire family loves cooking.

Eaton has also started making his own branded sauces, which he sells from home and selected outlets. These are tried and tested flavours that are made without preservatives and add a bang to any dish. He has given instructions to the wanna-be chef on the side of the bottle.

He has also given cooking demos to corporate groups who have loved the opportunity to let their hair down and get their hands dirty. He says that this alternative team build is great, as people learn new skills in a congenial environment and they then get to eat the fruit of their labour.

MARGIE Harel from the Fat Aubergine was always keen on cooking and there was no doubt that after school she was going to work in the kitchen. A bursary at Prue Leith’s cooking school in London after her diploma took her to the bright lights, where she honed her skills. She says that the experience of working abroad in restaurants and hotels made her realise that good food is about more than taste; it is about professionalism.

When she returned from abroad, she met her husband Den, who makes kitchens. She and a friend decided to set up a school in Pietermaritzburg to teach fine cooking. Their classes were popular and they decided to do some catering as a sideline.

But in recent years, the demand for the cooking classes has dwindled, and Harel also found herself finding it more of a chore. The catering side of the business has picked up and now her name is synonymous with weddings and events.

She is usually booked months in advance and news of the service she offers is spread by word of mouth. Beautiful flavours, exquisite presentation and personal service are what she is all about. Harel also runs a small coffee shop next to her kitchen in Peter Kerchhoff Street and the menu is compact and seasonal.

Harel has a great team in the kitchen and she says this is the secret to running a good business. “I know I can trust my team to do their job and stick to the rules. We never take short-cuts and things are done as they should be. I insist we use the best and freshest ingredients.

“That is why we have a small menu, because I know there is no waste and the food is always fresh and available.” Harel usually works with three venues, but has catered for people all over the Midlands. She says that for her, the best part is meeting a bride and getting a feel for her personality.

“I want to know what they want, what their vision is for the wedding, and I want to make it happen. I don’t do standard menus because I would get bored. I have often catered for a wedding and then been asked to do a sister or a bridesmaid’s wedding, which is such a pleasure for me. It’s about creating memories.”

Harel says one of her most challenging and rewarding days was doing the catering for an American-Japanese bride and her Zulu husband-to-be from the Cape. The couple had guests from 78 countries. Harel persuaded them to avoid the usual functional buffet and created a menu that reflected both cultures.

“I don’t do fancy food that leaves you hungry. I serve honest, simple food made with delicious ingredients.”

This week she pencilled in her daughter’s birthday party on her busy calendar and the guests will be treated to red-velvet cupcakes which she describes as pure “deliciousness”.

GRAEME Taute makes his dough the traditional way — in the oven. This psychologist-turned-artisan baker says his decision to swop one profession for the other came gradually. He had always had an interest in traditional bread-making and read a lot about how bread was made.

“All I knew was that making bread fulfilled me in some very fundamental ways. I embarked on a journey that led me to where I am. The breads I make are all sour-dough breads, made from wild yeast. The first fermentation begins on a Wednesday night, followed by two further “builds” on Thursday, with the mixing of the final dough on Friday morning.

“They have a unique taste and they are among the healthiest of all the breads. The long fermentation makes them all low GI. The process ensures that the breaking down of carbohydrates into sugars is complete. The major problem with commercial breads, apart from the additives and excessive use of yeast, is that they are made too quickly.

“I find that together with the taste of the breads and their long shelf-life, people appreciate the added health benefits. Many people who previously had side-effects and/or allergic responses to bread are able to eat the sour-dough breads without any of the usual problems. The primary reason for this is the extended fermentation of the dough, resulting in properly “pre-digested” low-GI breads.”

Taute was still practising as a psychologist when his bread-making hobby took off and he began to sell a few loaves at the Karkloof Farmers’ Market in Howick. “The demand grew and I was doing a juggling act. I wanted to make time to write. It occurred to me that I could survive by making bread full-time.

“I found that baking bread in bulk was even more satisfying than baking a single loaf at a time. I thrived on it all. By this time, people had already asked if I would teach bread-making, and enjoying teaching very much, I jumped at the opportunity.

“To survive on the income my bread-making and teaching bring in, it was necessary to reduce my expenses to the absolute minimum. I made the difficult decision to close my practice, sell my home, and move into a small rented cottage in the Midlands. And that is what I did.

“Since then, I have found a very different rhythm to my life, the biggest discovery being how much I enjoy a much simpler, slower lifestyle. And this simpler approach to everything makes it very possible to live comfortably. I have four days of the week in which to work on my writing. I bake on Fridays for the weekend farmers’ markets, and sell the breads at the Karkloof Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning, and once a month I run a bread-making course.”

Taute makes sure he keeps his overhead costs as low as possible and he lives as simply as possible. He produces between 80 to 150 loaves, depending on the time of year, and he has a small range of breads, all sour-dough, which include French country loaves, olive breads, baguettes and light rye breads.


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