Meet TV cook Justin Bonello

By admin
25 March 2011

1.    You are a well-known TV cook and star. Briefly give us info on where it all started.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the great outdoors and many weekends away were spent on the banks of the Breede River and school holidays in the Transkei.

As a kid I went out and scratched mussels and other molluscs off the rocks or caught fish and the one thing that stood out is if I caught or harvested or killed it I had to cook it.

For me that’s where my food journey started: out of the necessity of needing to know what to do with the ocean’s bounty.

The second part, which you may or may not know, is that my late Dutch grandmother [Elizabeth] gave me my first pan when I was seven years old (I still have this pan!).

And it was an amazing experience because what my grandmother did was teach me how to make pancakes. If you have kids you’ll understand that if you teach them how to make something sweet and easy early on you kind of hook them for life.

2.    Though you don’t want to be referred to as a chef, after your cooking experiences in some of SA’s best  restaurants can we now start referring to you as SA’s Best Naked Chef/Cook à la Jamie Oliver?

You know, as much as I’ve worked in these professional kitchens and restaurants with some of South Africa’s best cooks and chefs I don’t think of myself as a chef.

What I did gain in that experience is the most incredible respect for the men and women who are the backbone of the industry – who slave away behind closed doors and give you your amazing plate of food.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be that person. I have no aspirations to own my own restaurant or to end up in that space. For me food is and will always be about the kuier and spending time with friends or family and enjoying their company around food.

With regards to ‘naked chef à la Jamie Oliver’ . . . I don’t think you want to see me naked! Come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to see Jamie Oliver naked either!

3.    What were the best cooking lessons/tricks you learned in those kitchens?

There are two. The first thing is get your prep out of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a professional kitchen or in your home space cooking for your friends.

The trick is to get the prep out of the way so that instead of slaving away over the stove while your friends are enjoying themselves you can actually join them.

The second and probably more important thing is that without great ingredients you’re never going to be able to cook a great plate of food, plain and simple. You don’t make great wine from second-hand grapes . . . the same applies to food.

4.    You’ve mentioned in interviews your first experience in the kitchen was with your grandma learning how to do pancakes. Can you please give us more background on your childhood? What were your best memories and where did you start practising your cookery skills?

My mom was the most atrocious cook . . . except for one dish. She made a great Dutch smoked sausage pea soup.

When I grew up there were no video machines and television had just come out (suppose I’m giving away my age here!).

I remember on Sundays we used to hire those old 35 mm film projectors and everyone would come around to our house, we’d put a big sheet on the wall and we’d have a flick for the kids (you know, one of those Laurel and Hardy or Daffy Duck vibes) and then later the ‘grown-up’ movie would come on.

And all the old people (when you’re a kid, all grown-ups are OLD) would get together and eat my mom’s soup, dunking chunks of bread into it, savouring the smoked sausage. It was great.

Other than that it goes back to my childhood in the outdoors. I remember cooking rabbit on the banks of the Breede River in the days when you still had real butchers.

There was a Swiss butcher in Gardens (where I grew up) who we would frequent to get rabbit and on Sunday afternoons at the river there would be this rabbit being spitted and eaten with stale rolls (bought on Friday . . . eaten on Sunday). Wow. I can’t even remember . . . we’re going back hundreds of years!

6.    What’s your best kitchen tool?

Funnily enough it’s the spoon. Most guys will tell you it’s their whisks and their knives and all the rest of it. The most important should be the spoon because you’ve got to taste your food all the time.

Other than that I also have a soft spot for old kitchen tools. I’ve got all sorts of slicers and dicers and things from the 50s and 60s. One of my favourites is an enamel ice-cream scoop . . . when my ice cream gets really hard in the freezer and I can’t scoop it out easily I use this hard-core ice-cream scoop from the 50s which is really killer!

7.    Who does the cooking at home – you or your wife?

You know it’s strange and my wife will disagree on this point. For me cooking sometimes now turns into work so when I get home I don’t feel like cooking.

My wife will tell you I’m no cook at work either! But most of the time it’s my wife. I’m working 18 hour days at the moment and my wife’s pregnant so our diet’s changed and I love her for taking that pressure off me.

8.    Are you also teaching your son your best cooking secrets?

Hundred per cent. Just like my grandmother taught me how to make pancakes I taught my son the same thing. Then I added jaffels into it and then spaghetti meatballs and bolognaise.

I think kids are very susceptible to learning when they’re young so when you teach them things they’re interested in (things like pancakes, waffles, jaffels and flapjacks) you get them interested in food.

I’m beginning to think we all live these hectic ‘go to work in the dark come home in the dark’ lives so we’re forgetting to teach our children these skills. We’re increasingly relying on those microwave meals and the roast chicken in a bag.

I believe it’s very important to teach our kids about food, about where it comes from and how to cook it.

9.    Tell us more about the Good Food Journey/Living Free series. Did it change your view in terms of what you eat and the way you look at food and where it comes from?

Yes. I did this trip through Southern Africa to find out where our food comes from. I realised that if I knew nothing about where my food comes from what were the chances that the rest of South Africa knew?

It did two things to me. The one is I respect my food more. We’re far too wasteful and more often than not you’ll buy four tomatoes, eat three and one will go off and end up in the waste bin.

The second thing is it taught me to respect the people who produce our food especially because of the risks they take to produce it. Farmers are the most important people in our lives yet we don’t pay them the respect they deserve. There are a hundred middlemen between us and them yet farmers are the guys who take all the risks. Without them we’d literally be up sh** creek.

And obviously going out into abattoirs and chicken farms and all the rest of it taught me to respect my food more.

When you think about a chicken burger you don’t think about a live, breathing animal, you kind of think of it as dead meat but it’s so much more than that. If you wind back the clock the generations before us didn’t eat meat every day. Meat was more expensive and part of special celebrations and traditions.

Today it has become commonplace because we’ve invented faster ways to produce animals. There’s something very wrong with that.

10.    How was it working with Aussie Bill Granger on this project?

I met Bill Granger, his wife and their three daughters. They’re all fantastic. In many respects I’ve been operating in a vacuum for so many years, so to finally meet someone who’s been out there for so much longer than I have was brilliant.

I could ask him for advice, how he got to be where he is today, where he’s going . . . it was great to be able to bounce off someone with so much more experience than me.

It also made me realise something was inherently wrong with my life: When we did the shoot we’d get up before sunrise and then get back home after dark. I would then stay up till all hours of the morning to work on my new book while Bill was enjoying his family and his wife. He taught me my life needed to change.

11.    Did you experience real South African hospitality when visiting farms all over South Africa? What was your most memorable experience?

When we started shooting the first season of Cooked we travelled with a huge group of friends and family. And in many respects because we were self-contained we didn’t get to meet many South Africans – our experience was limited to the people travelling with us.

By the time we were filming season 5 (Living Free) we were travelling with a very small group of people and that meant we could really engage with the people we met along the way.

And this was across the board, from JP in the Karoo, the Pool family in Namaqualand and Flip Nel in Limpopo – I’ve never met more fantastic people in my life.

When we’re shooting a show there’s about nine of us in the group and every single person we met on our journey opened their hearts and homes to us, offered us a place to sleep, let us use their kitchen and shared their meals with us. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience.

To try to narrow down the most memorable experience is impossible . . . they were all incredible.

12.    What recipes do you love most in Out of the Frying Pan and why?

It’s obviously going to be my own . . . one that really makes me happy is the Seafood Carpetbagger. I often get those light-bulb moments in life where I think “That’s amazing . . . I’m going to try that and hope like hell it works!”

I don’t know of anyone who’s come up with a similar idea of deboning a fish, wrapping it around pan-fried oysters, mussels and salsa verde and braaing it on the fire . . . it was lip smacking.

Then Michael Broughton taught me how to make gnocchi and I gave it my own touch, adding it into an Italian tomato lamb-neck potjie. When I get to blend the best of the chef world with my own flavour I’m at my happiest.

13.    Tell us more about your other cookbook, Weekends Away?

Cooked Weekends Away was such a clever idea. Cooked in Africa and Cooked Out of the Frying Pan are both big books and I’d like to think everyone is going to chuck them in their bag and take them along on a weekend or a holiday but the little book, Weekends Away, does exactly that.

It’s one of those books you can throw in your backpack, go and do the Otter Trail and have lekker chow. It’s another way of making food accessible to people . . . a little reminder of what you can do in the great outdoors.

That said I’ve also met people who’ve changed my recipes and scribbled in Cooked in Africa and who take their dog-eared copies with them when they go on holiday. That makes me even happier.

14.    Can you give us more background info on your next expedition, Around Iceland on Inspiration?

You know it’s funny, most people think of me as a cook with a couple of TV shows on air, but the truth is I own a little production company in the Mother City and we’ve been pumping out great content.

Over the past eight years we’ve produced a number of different shows (Cooked is obviously one of them) but there are others, including Exploring the Vine, which is about three young winemakers (shown on National Geographic), Getaway to Africa where we travelled through eight Southern African countries (shown on Discovery Channel) and last year we shot The Ride with Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson who retraced the historical horseback ride of Dick King. (a 950 km, 10-day dash!)

We’re also shooting a show at Charly’s Bakery at the moment. (Those of you who live in Cape Town will know Charly’s is THE bakery to go to.)

And finally, Around Iceland on Inspiration and how I got involved is a funny story: I was having lunch with my dad at Magica Roma and unbeknownst to me Jonathan Ball and Riaan Manserwere sitting at the table behind me.

We got talking and he introduced me to Riaan. I’d had this idea sitting on the back burner for a while for an adventure show in Africa, so when I got back to the office after lunch I phoned Jonathan, told him my idea and a couple of days later we met with Riaan.

I told him I want to do a show with him in 2012 and he said ‘sure’ but in typical Riaan fashion he said he’s first going to Iceland in March and wants me to be his partner.

So here we are on our way to Iceland to film an epic adventure with Riaan Manser and Dan Skinstad as they kayak around Iceland! It makes me really proud because it’s about breaking our boundaries and going further than we think we can.

I haven’t even mentioned all the other shows in the pipeline for this year! We’re producing 120 hours of television across a whole variety of genres. There will be something to everyone’s taste!

Don't miss the article in YOU, 31 March 2011.

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