Three lessons from SA’s top chef

I tasted summer the other night. It was delicious – a sort of sweet-sharp berry affair dotted with meringues so light their edges were fuzzy, softened with cream, pooled in a garnet-red hibiscus syrup. The menu called it "Summer’s coming", and never was a dessert so aptly named.

It was the last flourish of a conversation-stopping tasting menu put together by one of South Africa's best chefs, Luke Dale-Roberts, who's in charge at La Colombe in Constantia, Cape Town. (A tasting menu is just that: lots of tastes - a journey, via many mini-courses, through some of the edgier, more exploratory ideas a restaurant is working with.)
Now, a seven-course meal might seem to be everything that health isn't, but bear with me for a few moments.

1. Automatic eating is one of the prime causes of the odd mix of malnutrition and obesity that's creeping over society. When you treat food as simply something to fill the hole in your stomach, grubbed down in front of the TV, you eat more, and you eat badly. Before my seven courses even started, the kitchen sent out a witty little nest of twigs bearing a truffled egg that was so delicious it brought tears to my eyes. Once your mouth engages with something like that, it turns away forever from the saturated fat-fest con of, for instance, KFC.

The message: set the table, sit down, breathe before you tuck in. And then concentrate on the flavours, textures and all-round deliciousness of what you're eating. Your body will receive the food better, you'll enjoy it more, and you'll eat less.

2. Small servings of interesting food satisfy you sooner. In that one meal, the meats I got through included rabbit, scallop, quail, ox tongue and springbok, yet in volume terms I ate less than I would in the average night out at a local Italian.

The message:it might be easier to make one-pot meals, but if you also make a salad and side-dishes, maybe even a starter, everything gets a whole lot more interesting – and if you're also eating mindfully, you'll eat less.

3. Look again at the list of the meats: every one is low-fat, high-quality protein. But it never felt like a protein-fest because the meat quotient was low: the scallop was served on a smoked cannellini bean puree spiked with a pea and lemon salsa; the quail came with a warm and crunchy baby corn salad and a little salad dressed with smoked olive oil; the tongue with tiny pickled mushrooms.

The message: treat animal protein as a part of your meal, not as the main act: the textures and flavours wake up the meat, and you reap a myriad health benefits from the vegetable parts.

I could go on, but I won't because I'm making myself hungry. Luke Dale-Roberts is a genius at posh food, but he's also hugely inspiring. He is a freshness fascist (and fresh is when food is at its tastiest and most nutritious), and he believes food should talk to all the senses. Both of those are lessons I'm going to try to live in every meal I eat, down to what I do to my breakfast bran flakes: a sprinkle of strawberry or banana slices, or a dollop of yoghurt sprinkled with sesame... so much more value, so much more enjoyment.

Yum to you. 
(Heather Parker, Health24, September 2009)

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