Fire in the belly

2011-09-21 00:00

WHEN Evan Coosner did a ­job-shadow at the age of sixteen as part of his school’s work experience, he couldn’t have guessed that watching a specialist chef in the kitchen of the Victoria Junction Hotel would change his life.

“Their head chef had just come off the boats where he’d cooked for many years,” Coosner explains, “and watching him work, I saw a man who had such expertise that just by touching a piece of steak on the outside, he knew what temperature it was inside, and whether it was rare or well-done. That was such an eye-opener for me, to find that level of knowledge in a kitchen. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

Born a dyslexic, Coosner always knew he’d have to go into a trade to make his mark on the world. But when he saw this chef’s expertise, he realised that he could do more than just follow a trade: he could follow his passion.

He trained at the Elsa van der Nest Academy in Cape Town, and then served time in restaurants around the city, including the Cape Grace, Arabella’s, Spier Wine Estate and the famous Vanilla. He also worked at ­Fitzpatrick’s in Ireland, and Dieter Muller’s kitchen in Germany.

Just a few months ago, Coosner received an offer he couldn’t refuse from the proprietors of Granny Mouse’s Country House, Gill and Mark Bowmaker. With only one proviso, that he could bring his sous chef, Ryan Brand, with him, he made the move to the midlands. Coosner has since been making his mark on fine dining in the province, cooking for Eaves Restaurant, as well as creating delicious yet simple fare for The Bistro at this establishment.

“The move to the midlands has allowed me to settle down to a more secure life,” Coosner explains, “as cooking as part of a hotel gives me freedom to create my own signature dishes. I’m able to explore new things, and take my cues from the responses of customers. So far, there has been a really positive response. Sales have already gone up since I’ve arrived.”

I was lucky enough to sample a few of Coosner’s most popular specialist dishes at The Bistro. One of his best sellers on the menu, mushroom gnocchi with parmesan spuma, lived up to its reputation. My meal continued with a delicious butternut lasagne, and finished off with a chocolate cup, ganache-and-mousse combo: my idea of heaven.

“There’s been quite a big upturn in vegetarian cooking,” says Coosner of his favourite bistro items. “People are becoming more conscious of what they eat. Many are turning to vegetarianism to be more ecologically responsible.”

Does this mean that steaks are off the menu? “Not at all,” says this chef, who caters enthusiastically for the big meat eaters of the midlands. “One of my best sellers is still the fillet steak. Even though this may sound boring, I serve it with a savoury bread-and-butter pudding, which is made with cheese and tomato. This is served with an onion purée and caramelised pearl onions. If you look at it one way, you could say it is a very fancy beef sandwich.”

Coosner believes in taking people’s childhood memories and giving them a twist. “It’s great to give people something they love, but you have to give them a surprise with it too. Life is built on expectations,” he explains. “If you tell someone they’re going to get “A”, you surprise them by giving them “B”, “C” and “D” too. For example, I have a banoffee pie on the menu. Now, instead of the usual bananas, toffee and cream, my pie has caramel panna cotta on top of a bavoir base, followed by banana mousse, shortbread, caramelised banana with banana praline, and salted drags on the plate. It’s banoffee pie, but sophisticated and full of surprises. When people go out to a restaurant, they don’t want to eat what they could cook for themselves at home.”

Coosner views fine dining as a completely sensory experience. Eating, to him, is more than just filling a stomach with food. “You have to engage all their senses,” he says, “starting with the visual, by providing something beautiful on the plate. Then there is the sense of smell. Good food smells delicious. Then there are the textures, and of course, it is all nothing without the taste. Even the way a person is treated by the waitress adds to the complete dining experience.”

Cooking occupies all his thoughts. “I wake up in the middle of the night and write things down,” he laughs. “My last dream was about whisking egg whites, caramelising them, then rolling them up and frying them. I haven’t quite got that one right yet, but I’ll keep working on it.”

Coosner talks about the way chefs like Heston Blumenthal approach fine dining. Blumenthal often takes the sensual experiences of childhood, and puts modern twists into them. Coosner thinks long and hard about doing the same thing with his food. “I work on my own memories,” he says. “For example, I remember licking a granadilla ice lolly on a Camps Bay beach. I’ve tried to recreate that taste and the sensation. All I can say is good luck to anyone who tries. It’s not an easy thing.”

He is often asked why he cooks something a certain way. His answer is that he wanted to cook it that way. “We chefs see ourselves as artists, but at the end of the day, the customer pays my salary,” he says. “But I can still be innovative without losing my commerciality. However, when it comes to people swopping ingredients around a number of my specialist dishes, I have to tell them that each ingredient has been chosen to complement another. You don’t get someone cutting one piece out of a Picasso painting to paste on to another. That’s the same as trying to mix and match my creations.”

I asked Coosner why he thought cooking programmes have become so popular in recent years. His answer is immediate. “Cooking programmes such as Jamie Oliver’s have given ­people confidence. They see someone like him, and he’s just an “oke” like they are. So they think to themselves that they can do it too. I think it’s a great thing. People are far more ­interested in food than they’ve ever been before. Watching something like Masterchef Australia encourages ­ordinary people to make ­extraordinary food. What could be better?”

• For more information, phone Granny Mouse at 033 234 4071 or go to www.grannymouse.co.za

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