Gypsey cook who spreads his passion

2013-07-24 00:00

HE travels the country with pots, cooker, herbs and spices. His popular vegetarian cooking classes, often held in private homes, are jolly affairs, full of laughter and good food, but his intention is serious: to spread the word about staying healthy by eating well.

Daniel Jardim is a born performer and perfectly positioned to find a niche in the food-as-entertainment industry. Or, in his case, edu-tainment (to use that awful modern word), since part of his package is his vast knowledge of food acquired through studies in nutritional therapy with the British School of Yoga.

Another essential part of his classes is humour, wry and impish. His engagement with his audience is total and he has a turn of phrase that can evoke a roomful of chuckles while imparting useful information on such seemingly mundane topics as how to store dhania or eat well in cold weather.

“Food must engage the senses,” he told a class in Hilton recently. “And winter is the season of the ear. Think of the sounds of winter cooking.” The audience of 20, who had gathered to learn about cooking with spices in the small dining room of a Hilton home, leaned forward as he lifted the lid of a large pot of simmering curry and listened to the bubbling.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Jardim (37) grew up in a Portuguese family. “It was a very foodie household, everybody cooked,” he recalls. “My mom ran a cookery school, and still does. She cooked traditional Portuguese, while my dad, who also cooked a lot, made meaty dishes, peri-peri chicken and so on.”

He and his siblings grew up helping in the kitchen and one of his earliest memories was picking herbs for his mother. Although he has no formal cooking training, his learning really began in earnest when on his 13th birthday he announced to his family that he was a vegetarian. “I was asserting my independence, but there were also ethical and moral considerations.

“I needed to learn how to make my own food, and had a scrapbook of recipes cut out of magazines.”

In 1996, he moved to the UK where he did his studies. Seeking sunshine, he returned 11 years later and took up a position in the office of the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) in Ixopo. Although he only stayed at the BRC for 18 months because it was “too cold and wet”, he found his way to cooking in the centre’s kitchen once people got wind of his culinary talents.

“I wasn’t really expecting a response but people got excited. It was good fun,” he says.

He headed back home to Johannesburg but not before leading several cooking retreats which had helped fuel his growing reputation. A central role in the BRC’s third cookbook, The Cake the Buddha Ate, now in its fifth print run, helped cement this, although he confesses to a few scary moments when he doubted the wisdom of his move back to Johannesburg and first started the classes which are now his bread and butter.

“I hadn’t enjoyed having a [nutrition] practice, but I still had a passion about it, although I didn’t know how to convey the message,” he says, explaining how it came about. “Then I had an aha moment — why not combine my nutritional knowledge with food?”

His business grew steadily and he began travelling to other places. He now regularly teaches at several venues in KwaZulu-Natal, including Hilton, Greytown, Ixopo and soon Underberg, as well as in the Western Cape and Gauteng. He lives a gypsy life, travelling constantly, but is happy. “I lived in the UK for so long where you are so confined, and only learnt to drive when I came back. It just excites me to drive. And I love being in nature, so it all suits me just fine. I have my own kit that I take with me, which includes pots and pans and a gas cooker. This means that I will travel pretty much anywhere to teach. The preparation will usually start well in advance to make sure that we have everything that is needed during the demonstration.”

His classes are surprisingly affordable. “I want to spread the word and make nutrition more accessible,” he says. “What happens so often with health and nutrition is that it becomes elitist.”

“I’m not a militant vegetarian,” he insists. “Although I teach about and cook only with vegetables, I get lots of meat eaters on retreats who want to learn how to work with fresh vegetables.

Vegetarianism itself has come a long way and is finally shaking off the brown-rice-and-lentils image it had a few decades ago. “Choices we had were often limited. There used to be panic about getting protein without thinking about flavour. [But] as we learn more about the body and our nutritional needs we can also focus more on flavour.

“If it doesn’t taste good it’s a waste of time. There shouldn’t be a sense of deprivation.” He is determinedly down to earth about what he eats, explaining that he uses white pepper because he likes it and it has only been overshadowed by its black relative because “in the seventies we fell in love with everything Mediterranean”. He’s equally scathing about the notion of “super foods”, and “food is super” is one of his favourite refrains. Especially if it’s fresh, unprocessed, unsprayed and eaten in season.

“People are tired of following fads with food. I’m interested in coming back to something more fundamental, and living in harmony with nature and the seasons. Different foods and cooking techniques are more appropriate at different times of the year.”

Despite his association with various Buddhist centres around the country, he doesn’t call himself one. “I’m more influenced by Taoism, which is close to Buddhism. I have a great passion for all Eastern traditions and base a lot of what I teach on Buddhism and Taoism.” This passion also finds its way into his cooking. “We often think our spiritual practice is different from our everyday life. Food is a way of incorporating our practice into how we do it.” He plans to begin holding retreats at Dharmagiri, a Buddhist centre near Underberg, where retreatants will cook together as well as learn about nutrition and do Chi Kung, a form of Chinese exercises aligned to breathing and meditation.

He’s also working on a new cookery book, which is due out in 2014. He describes it as being about “using the kitchen as a sanctuary and handing over to the joy of cooking”.

“We need to look at how we can take back food and food preparation into our lives,” he says. Judging by the satisfied sounds as the Hilton class tucked into the spread he’d cooked up, it’s a revolution that will happen one plate at a time.

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