Full On Flavour

By Nikki Werner

Photography C&D Heierli

Ask Michael Broughton, chef at Terroir restaurant, a question—any question—about food, and it is like hitting a natural spring. The ideas and advice just keep bubbling forth. I can’t write fast enough to keep up. And it’s worth taking notes. We’re talking about cooking—or rather, how to avoid it—in summer. “In summer it’s about being clever, it’s about putting things together,” says Michael. “Your friend is the way you think.”

Planning ahead and good organisation, the hallmarks of a good chef, also make for a stress-free home cook. So the Broughton freezer is stocked with home-made passata, to use in aubergine melanzane, on pizza bases, for Michael’s ‘best-ever’ bolognaise sauce for the kids, and in a roast-chicken gravy that will dance a jig on your tongue. And home-made chicken stock, reduced right down to a syrupy concentrate for easy storage and brought back up to five litres by adding water on heating.

“It’s also about choosing ingredients that have big, bold flavours,” advises Michael. This puts constructing flavour from scratch into fast-forward. Homemade confit garlic and confit tomatoes (concentrated by slow cooking at a low heat) are a constant in his fridge, as is good Parmesan. Quality boerewors sourced on trips to the Karoo and biodynamic chickens from the Boland are kept at hand for casual braais. And so are fresh herbs and sharp limes for his bright, zingy marinade.

‘Clean, crisp flavours’ are what attracted Michael to Gordon Ramsay’s food, years before he (or Michael) became a household name. And when Ramsay singled out Michael to cook him brunch when passing through Johannesburg in 2000, Michael was in the kitchen at 5am, baking Danishes and pain au chocolat. “I did everything short of milking the cow!” he says, and it paid off. There was the possibility of getting to London to chat further about entering Gordon’s kitchen, but luckily for SA diners, Michael’s life path took him to Terroir restaurant on Kleine Zalze estate instead. The reason the duck, porcinis and Madeira sauce at Ramsay’s Hospital Road restaurant remains his “best ever” is because “the whole dish was in perfect balance”. At that point of perfection, he explains, “The flavour profile peaks, the colour peaks, and when you close your eyes, you know exactly what you’re eating.” That elusive balance relies on the art of building flavour. Michael illustrates with a simple example: peas. “Some vegetables actually need a pinch of sugar,” he says, so his seasoning formula for nudging peas to their peak is: salt, white pepper, mint and sugar.

His courgettes take basil and garlic, a combination often used for filling baby tomatoes with baked breadcrumb tops. And for orange sweet potato (currently accompanying slightly-smoked loin of venison): honey, cream, cloves, cinnamon and white pepper. Once flavour commands full attention, Michael pushes colour levels with the finesse of an image retouch artist, using purely natural means like ‘harvesting’ chlorophyll from chives, watercress, parsley, and baby spinach.

The mentor who had the greatest influence on Michael from a distance, on chlorophyll and other matters, is Nico Ladenis. “I still remember,” says Michael, “I bought his book Nico at 6pm, went home, and started reading it. All these light bulbs started going off, and by 7 the next morning I had finished it. It was so honest. And I thought, here is someone who thinks the same as I do.”

Specifically, it was what this Michelin great said about cooking a humble green bean that resonated with Michael’s first-hand experience. Never steam a green bean. The gradual build up of heat will turn it grey. Rather apply fast, fierce heat—what Thomas Keller calls “big pot blanching”—and then shock in ice water.
Like Nico, Michael is completely self-taught. He cooked every recipe in Nico’s book, and when it didn’t turn out quite right, he would research, analyse and practise again. Hard to comprehend if you’ve had the good fortune to behold Michael’s tarte fine—wafer-thin, precisely arranged slivers of caramelised apple—with rum-and-raisin ice cream. Or tasted his oxtail risotto, texturally seductive and the most shining example of this meaty braise your palate will see for some time. “I have patience,” answers Michael simply.
When we convene in his home kitchen, Michael cooks green beans to appear alongside roast chicken. He refreshes the beans in 50 per cent water and 50 per cent ice—“the golden rule when shocking any vegetable”—and tosses them with butter and chopped fresh parsley from his garden. When available, he uses chervil.

Michael’s bright, herby marinade is simple: just layer ingredients and blend

For roasting, Michael chooses a chicken that’s a maximum 1,3kg because it feeds four and cooks in one hour—which means juicier white meat than a bigger bird that cooks for longer. He offers an invaluable household tip for reusing tinfoil: fold in the edges to prevent tearing. And as an aside, he shows me his secret-weapon, summer marinade.

In a tall glass jug Michael layers “an uncooked potjie” of 40g herbs (equal quantities of coriander, basil and mint), 3 cloves of garlic, sliced, the zest and juice of 4 limes, a good pinch of salt, a level teaspoon of sugar (for caramelisation), and no black pepper (it makes green herbs go black).

“A stick blender is a magic tool for emulsifying anything,” says Michael before adding 50ml each of sunflower and extra-virgin olive oil and blitzing the lot. This is slathered onto one jointed chicken that’s left for four to six hours and then braaied. “It’s also great for dipping raw veggies, like carrots,” adds Michael’s wife, Jane, “or spooning over hot baked potatoes topped with crème fraîche.”

Lunch is almost ready, and Michael’s children return home from school to find him in the kitchen, setting the same example as his own father. “If anyone has some responsibility for my ending up in the kitchen, it would be my late dad,” says Michael. “He would come home, take off his jacket—leaving his tie on for some reason—and, from five to six, cook dinner for his boys.”

Gravy is the finishing touch, and Michael is known to put his hand up for the job, even as a dinner guest, if he sees good roasting juices going to waste. In goes marjoram, his “favourite herb of all time” and chicken-stock powder for flavour without increasing the liquid, and because “you can’t be poncy at home”. Garlic roasted with the chicken acts as a natural emulsifier, and he grates in raw garlic using a microplane.
At Terroir, Michael uses the zesty smack of raw garlic in an aubergine and tahini foam, which I first savoured as a purée accompanying honey-and-cumin caramelised tuna and, funnily enough, confit garlic and tomatoes. It comes full circle. Restaurant or home, Michael presents flavours so vibrant it’s as if they leap off the plate and grab you by the lapels. At work he streamlines the cooking process to achieve a more refined result. At home, he spends more time with the people he loves.

Try these recipes at home:

Slow-roasted Pork Belly
Confit Tomatoes
Confit Garlic
Tomato Sauce (Napolitana) 
Roast Chicken and Gravy