The Importance of Being Honest

By Nikki Werner • Photography by C&D Heierli

“Everything should be dik easy,” says Bertus Basson from the other side of his kitchen counter as he begins his prep, “it’s not about making your life difficult.” This is his message on home cooking, and he’s promised that today there won’t be a micro-herb in sight.

To the left of the hatch, through which I’m watching him cook, is a sunny breakfast nook —“The Shrine”, as Bertus calls it—thick with medals and certificates. However, in word and deed, Bertus is a chef for the people. He keeps his food simple where he can and by applying what he knows where it will enhance.

For this year’s Taste of Cape Town, Bertus resisted chef-y calling cards and came up with the ‘Overburger’. He seasoned his burger mix with tomato sauce and American mustard to aid caramelisation on the grill, and completed the patties with Deep-fried Onion Rings, Truffled Mayonnaise and Parmesan Fries. Friendly, familiar and beyond yummy, it sold out.

What's on Bertus' Mind? 

Bertus chats easily across varied subjects: politics, his favourite South African author JM Coetzee, the fact that he still calls Garth Stroebel ‘Chef’ (because of his immense respect for the man), and what he might cook himself for dinner. Top of mind is Poule au Pot—chicken and spring vegetables served with the broth they are ever so gently poached in. He might send it in a rustic direction with bread and aïoli (garlicky mayonnaise) or make it more special with petit poussin (very young, small chicken) and baby turnips. Water is a primary ingredient, so often taken for granted in the kitchen. “And,” Bertus reminds me, “it’s a one-pot meal!” Chefs, it seems, don’t like washing up either.

Simple Pasta Secrets

Bertus works miracles with water in the recipes he shares, turning it into everything short of the accompanying wine! First up is tagliatelle tossed with a velvety sauce that arises from a splash of the pasta water. He whips up a small batch of his own pasta, but you could buy it fresh. His cherry-red Kitchenaid whirrs and the dough glows with the addition of each yolk. He pushes the colour further still by soaking a pinch of saffron threads and adding the amber water. It looks just like the pasta I ate in Italy.

“I have a theory about adding oil,” says Bertus, dropping pasta ribbons into salty water at a galloping boil. “It just floats on top and it doesn’t do anything.” He has a firm opinion on mushrooms too: “People don’t cook them properly; they use a small pan with oil and lots of mushrooms. You need a big pan, butter and just a few mushrooms.” The quartered mushrooms sizzle over a fairly high heat until the edges are browned—much like the Maillard-reaction (or the browning reaction) crust on a seared piece of steak. 

The pasta is cooked in an instant, scooped out, and some of the water boiled away until somewhat reduced. To this Bertus adds a nut of butter every now and then, stirring constantly, until it amalgamates with the residual starch. It transforms from blocks of butter plus cloudy cooking water into silkiness, like an ugly duckling into a swan. Some scattered chives add brightness and … voila!

Water Instead of Stock

He explains that if we were using simmering stock, the fat would bind even more easily with the proteins. “Often when a recipe calls for stock you can just use water,” says Bertus moving onto the second emulsion sauce. “Even with this beurre blanc, you could start the reduction with just lemon juice and water, and when you ask for lemon butter in a restaurant, this is usually what you’re served.” 

With a similar method but different liquid, the happy magic that happens when butter is added produces something greater than the sum of its parts. It may be simplistic, but think of beurre blanc as hollandaise sauce without the egg yolks. Substitute red wine and its resulting vinegar, and you’ll have the rosy-hued beurre rouge.

Bertus enthuses, “When I think about beurre blanc, I imagine a French mama carrying a big platter covered with a side of salmon, whole-cooked leeks, and lots of this sauce!”

About the Fish

Fish is a natural fit, and he’s cooking a fillet of hake to go with it, for which he offers sound advice on purchasing. “Don’t ask the fishmonger when the fish came in, but rather when it was caught—you don’t know how long it’s been sitting on the boat.” He adds that fresh hake will keep in the fridge for three to four days on the bone and for one day (stored on a plate lined with folded paper towel) once cleaned and portioned.

Bertus strokes the thicker side of the fillet to feel for pin-bones and plucks them out one by one using a sturdy pair of tweezers. He then heats a slick of vegetable oil in a pan. “Olive oil is too strong,” he says, pre-empting my question. “I blast it at a high temperature to keep the moisture in,” he continues—it also has a lower smoking point. He lays down the fish skin-side first and doesn’t touch it until a section of the flesh has turned white from where it meets the skin. It’s flipped over for another minute or so until done. 

That Extra Touch

Plating-up is a lesson in deconstructing restaurant presentation, a matter of rethinking the order: sauce underneath, fish on top (crisped skin facing up) and vegetables all around rather than in a pile off to one side. These are everyday ingredients, so details make the difference; celery used whole instead of chopped as an aromatic, or a bundle of beans tied with a deep-green length of spring onion, briefly blanched. He also gives us licence to refresh veggies with cold running water. “Iced water is impractical for home use,” he says, swishing a colander under the tap.

Down Memory Lane

While cooking, Bertus wears an old-fashioned golfer’s cap—a hat historically worn without pretension—but just like the mohawk visible only when he adjusts it, there is an unexpected edge. It makes me think of a chocolate plate I enjoyed at Overture; it was paired with Patron XO Tequila Coffee Liqueur. On it were wafer-layered chocolates and toasted house-made marshmallows, a delightful reminder of Kit-Kats shared with Oupa and mallows at Brownie camp, charred and swollen and about to ooze off the stick.

Tapering off complexity is a conscious dessert philosophy for Bertus. “By the third course I’ve already had a glass of champagne to start and two glasses of wine with my meal,” he explains. “I don’t want to have to think, I just want something that tastes good.” Which is why he’s studying koeksusters for his menu along with his mom’s Greek apple pie.

Ever down-to-earth, Bertus is not afraid to admit sometimes no one can cook the way mom can. When I ask what he does when he really can’t be bothered to turn on the stove, he cradles his ‘township’ dog, Patat, and answers, “I phone my mom and say, ‘What are you doing tonight, do you feel like making bobotie with yellow rice and raisins for 16 people?’”

Try Bertus' Recipes:

Hake with Buerre Blanc

Pasta with Its Own Sauce