Tokara's Chef Richard Carstens
Tokara's Richard Carstens - more rock star than magician?
15 May 2012 by Christian Eedes
Lunchtime service is finished and Richard Carstens, chef at Tokara in
Stellenbosch, is sucking on a beer. I have come to quiz him on the topic
of food and wine pairing but insights will prove elusive.
With sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn in attendance, I get to try two dishes from the new winter 2012 menu paired with top-end Tokara wines, and our conversation ranges widely including the definition of molecular gastronomy, the underappreciated role of reality TV cooking show MasterChef SA and contemporary music. By the end of the afternoon, I realise once again that if wine appreciation is tricky, then adding food into the equation only compounds matters.
Carstens is probably the local chef most closely associated with "molecular gastronomy" and for all the controversy attached to the term, he’s largely unfazed about being seen as such. He points out that many of the techniques deployed are simply carried over from the commercial food industry and for him using such techniques is about staying at the forefront of his discipline. "It got a bit messy in the hands of a few cowboys but it’s become a lot less outlandish over time," he says. "I originally conceived my Baked Alaska of trout in 2002 while at Lynton Hall [the luxury hospitality establishment in KwaZulu-Natal where Carstens made his name] and it had to be shelved. Now it’s on the Tokara menu and it’s one of our best sellers."
That said, Carstens and colleague Koelewijn report that many South African diners remain stuck in their ways. "There’s huge demand for young Sauvignon Blanc regardless of the dish. Our lunch guests visit for the view as much as anything," says Koelewijn, Tokara sitting 400m above sea level on top of Helshoogte Pass.
As a consequence, Carstens can’t afford to be too fringe in his cooking nor Koelewijn too challenging with his wine recommendations. "I aim to find the middle ground with my dishes but always with a playful twist", says Carstens while Koelewijn accepts that the food is usually "the star of the show" and his job is to show it off to best effect – he therefore aims to compliment rather than contrast flavours, either by serving a wine with more of the same flavour that’s on the plate or providing a supplementary flavour.
From the winter 2012 menu then, smoked snoek ravioli with butternut velouté and deep fried almond creams (also present: lemon marmalade, fresh apple, sautéed brussel sprout leaves and dried apricot), this paired with the Sauvingon Blanc-Semillon blend Director’s Reserve White 2010. A good but not perfect match: the wine working well with the fruit flavours but perhaps a bit angular next to the richness of the velouté and almond creams. "Food and wine is always a gamble", says Koelewijn.
Next dish is beef fillet in a demi-glace with lemon-glazed mushrooms, asparagus, three purees (carrot, garlic and spinach) and potato fondant with Bordeaux-style red blend Director’s Reserve Red 2008. A seemingly traditional dish but Carsten’s sauce is a masterstroke consisting of beef stock, soya, mirin, miso and coffee from Deluxe Coffeeworks, Cape Town). Here food and wine combine brilliantly, each elevating the other.
How will diners react to the new dishes? The smoked snoek ravioli is definitely unusual and might prove divisive. "Levels of food education are unfortunately low and wine even lower in this country", says Koelewijn. "European guests have the advantage of a strong food and wine culture while Americans are working hard at educating themselves".
It’s at this point that Carstens mentions MasterChef. "It’s first season so we should forgive it its shortcomings. I think it’s a really positive development and will only improve public food knowledge".
Carstens, often painted as gnomic, turns out to be very down-to-earth. Returning to the question of whether or not he is South Africa’s greatest exponent of molecular gastronomy, he says he simply wants to be known as "Richard Carstens" rather than by any other label. "I’ve been cooking for 23 years already and I’d like to think I have a style that is constantly evolving".
Talk veers off onto the subject of his other great love which is music and we are soon discussing favourite bands. Radiohead gets special praise on account of having "grown with technology". Noting the similarity between them and Carstens, Koelewijn suggests that Carstens might well be considered "the Thom Yorke of cooking". Carstens like this – he relates that he used to be called "the Harry Potter of cooking" while at Lynton Hall.
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