There's an Italian in My Kitchen

By Leigh Robertson
Photography Danie Nel

“He’s here!” Jane Lello looks almost ashen with nerves. “I can’t believe I never had a chance to prepare my kitchen for a celebrity chef.” Luckily Jane’s husband, Dave, has just the panacea; he pops open a bottle of Lanson Champagne and heads for the CD shuttle to put on something Italian (a little light opera), wholly appropriate considering the arrival of Milan-born chef Giorgio Nava, the owner and executive chef of Cape Town restaurant 95 KEEROM.

“Ciao!” a very charming Giorgio greets the assembled party, which comprises the Lellos, owners of Stellenbosch boutique winery STELLEKAYA, their bubbly winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela, and close friends André and Vanessa Lammers. “They’re our food and wine fundi friends,” beams Jane, “And they are huge fans of Giorgio’s.” Indeed, everyone here has dined several times at the elegant city eatery renowned for its modern Italian cuisine.

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Antipasto: 
Salad of English Spinach Leaves Tossed in Anchovy Dressing with Avocado

Wine: Stellekaya Boschetto 2004
Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Merlot (40%), Shiraz (10%) and Sangiovese (10%); medium-bodied wine with a juicy, soft character. Slight spiciness on the palate to start with and a long savoury finish. Goes well with tomato based Italian dishes whether savoury or sweet.

Primo: 
Penne with a Creamy Leek Sauce

Wine: Stellekaya Hercules 2005.
Blend of Sangiovese (50%), Merlot (27%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (23%); medium-styled wine with a garnet red colour. The nose is typical Italian Sangiovese earthiness; red berry fruits from the Cabernet and Merlot follow through onto a soft yet complex palate. A complement to Mediterranean food or rich wild mushroom risotto or veal with Parmesan shavings and truffle oil.

Secondo: 
Fillet Roasted in Red Wine and Garlic with Rosemary Carrots

Wine: Stellekaya Merlot 2004. 
Elegant nuances of plum, blackcurrant and spice combined with soft full ripe tannins. An amenable character makes it good to match most food.

Dolce: 
Crema Cotta with Fresh Strawberries

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The pressure thus on our chef, he buttons up his pristine white jacket without further ado. He’s brought along his own knife, the sharp edge muzzled in layers of cling wrap. He might not be prepared for what awaits him in the couple’s fridge and grocery cupboard, but at least he won’t have to deal with any blunt knives, sheer horror for a chef. “Thank heavens for that,” sighs Jane.
Our hostess is quick to remind everyone that the couple moved into their new home on De Zalze Estate, between Stellenbosch and Somerset West, a mere two weeks ago. And while Jane may be stressing, so too is Giorgio. He takes one look at the all-white, open-plan kitchen with its spanking new Smeg stove, which naturally takes pride of place, and half-jokes: “It’s too new for me!” 
The pressure, it seems, is on just about everyone. Ntsiki has been tasked with selecting three wines for today’s lunch, and since no one, including the chef, has any idea of what they’ll be eating, chance will play the biggest role in the proceedings. 

Bracing himself, Giorgio heads for the fridge. Jane covers her eyes and says, “I’m terrified of what’s inside!” 
“But it looks just like Woolworths in here,” Giorgio replies with a cheeky smile. And now he moves rapidly, perhaps even more so because all eyes are on him. He appears unfazed, but we can’t be sure.

He stares long and hard, then removes: a dozen eggs, a carton of milk, two tubs of cream, a punnet of leeks, a bag of spinach, baby carrots, fresh garlic, an already-opened slab of Gruyère cheese ... aah, he’s found fillet steak. You can see his mind is ticking. Everyone takes a big sip of their bubbly.

Then Giorgio opens the grocery cupboard. “Wow!” he exclaims. “I wish my own house was so well stocked.” Jane, of course, protests that she hasn’t done a decent grocery shop in ages. But the chef pulls out a half-full bottle of Extra Virgin olive oil, salt and pepper grinders, a packet of penne pasta... 

“Where’s your anchovy paste?” he asks in disbelief. “Everyone has fish paste in their cupboard, if not a jar of anchovies!” He’s found everything he needs, except that he simply must have something anchovy-ish. Ok, so we’ll cheat just a little. A quick trip is made to a nearby supermarket and our chef is placated.

Pots, pans, a cheese grater and more have been located, but Dave can’t find the scale and reports back sorrowfully that, no, they don’t own a salad spinner (all the while taking mental notes—he’s a closet chef, apparently). It’s clearly fascinating for the couple to see their brand new kitchen being put to the test.

Ntsiki, meanwhile, is opening and tasting the three reds she’s brought along. She hails from the KwaZulu-Natal village of Ulundi and has been at Stellekaya since 2004. At the time, she was considered something of an anomaly: a young woman of Zulu descent who never cared much for wine before finding herself an oenology student at Stellenbosch University (she’d planned to study chemical engineering), grappling with Afrikaans lectures and a cultural paradigm shift of the most extreme variety.

Four years later and she’s a star red winemaker, and judging by how she appraises the colour and nose of the wine in her hand, then sips approvingly, quite a fan of it too. She’s brought along Stellekaya’s 2004 Merlot and two red blends, the Stellekaya Boschetto 2004 and Hercules 2005, both of which feature the Italian varietal Sangiovese. “Its lovely juiciness makes it a winner with food,” she says.

The kitchen is a hive of frenetic activity, despite its being a one-man show. The chef multi-tasks impressively between beating eggs, twiddling oven knobs, slicing leeks and chopping garlic. “Any fresh herbs?” he asks, but he’s already found the door leading to the back garden. He emerges with a few stems of rosemary and a sprig or two of thyme. Not bad for a new house.

So what is Giorgio making? Nonchalantly, he describes the four-course menu. Because the dessert, BAKED CUSTARDS, will take the longest to cook, he’s prepared that first. For his antipasto, he’s making a ‘LIGHT SAUCE’ WITH EGG YOLK, OLIVE OIL AND FINELY CHOPPED ANCHOVIES (fish paste would have worked too, he says). Then there’s a PASTA DISH WITH LEEKS AND CREAM, and another course comprising the FILLET, which he rubs WITH GARLIC, ROSEMARY AND OLIVE OIL. 
“I’m keeping it nice and simple,” he says, “so anyone can make it at home.”

“Oh I just love Italians,” Jane giggles. “I think I’ll keep him here for the rest of the week!” By now quite relaxed with the idea of a chef let loose in her kitchen, she sets the long wooden table. She loves her light and airy new home, which is well suited to entertaining. “We often end up with 20 or 30 people coming over,” she says. “Our friends are a big part of our lives, and there’s nothing better than sharing our home with them.”

So what can guests usually expect at Casa Lello? “We tend to go with fillet, chicken or fish, and there’s always a huge salad,” she says. 
Ntsiki explains she’s not much of a cook herself. “But I’m teaching myself how to make a few dishes for when friends come over; my most recent triumph was a lasagne, after three disastrous attempts.” Otherwise, she says, she’s quite content with her favourite dish, stiff pap with smoor (a tomato and onion sauce) and wors. “And it goes very well with both the Boschetto and Hercules,” she smiles.

The by now voraciously hungry guests lap up the almost unbearable aromas emanating from the stove. Luckily, it’s time to eat, with the individual salad plates artfully heaped with dressed spinach sent to the table. Ntsiki pours the BOSCHETTO, and everyone tucks in.
The verdict is excellent, both for the dish and the pairing with the wine. “I think it goes together perfectly,” says André. “The wine is complementary and doesn’t dominate the food, or the other way around.”

“This is the new Caesar salad for me,” says Jane. “Sometimes anchovies can be quite overwhelming, but the flavour is quite understated here.”
“You don’t mind if we copy it?” Vanessa asks Giorgio.
Next up are bowls of perfectly al dente penne tossed in the soft, almost caramelised leeks that have gently simmered with cream and herbs, and sprinkled with grated Gruyère. Ntsiki has chosen the HERCULES, with its dominance of Sangiovese, to accompany it. “The creaminess of the sauce works well with the Sangiovese,” is her conclusion. “The acidity cuts through the richness. I think this dish enhances rather than complements the wine.” 

“This is stunning despite being such a simple dish,” says André. 
“Fantastic!” adds Dave. “Sangiovese tends to bring out the earthy flavours of ingredients like mushrooms and truffles, but seems to work with leeks too.” 
“Leeks are clearly underrated,” adds Jane. “This is absolutely delicious.” 
“And it’s very cheap to make too,” adds Giorgio.

Everyone is equally impressed with Giorgio’s fillet, prepared medium rare. Certainly, he’s a chef who knows all about meat; the meat for his restaurant comes directly from his own farm in the Karoo. (Similarly, his own fishing boat pulls out 95 Keerom’s ‘catch of the day’.)
“The meat is unbelievable,” says Dave. “The flavour is really sealed in, and the sweeter carrots and herby meat flavours create a beautiful juxtaposition with the plummy, rounded MERLOT—it works!”

By the time the desserts are ready, the enthusiastic babble has ebbed to happy sighs and approving murmurs. Giorgio is elated by the response he’s received (and he’s noted the empty plates), while Ntsiki is equally chuffed by how the wines have stood up to the food.
“So, next week same place?” quips Vanessa.
“I’m going to have to work for the rest of my life so I can have Giorgio cooking in my kitchen,” sighs Jane.

Watch the Video of Giorgio in the kitchen 
“Where’s your anchovy paste?” Giorgio asks in disbelief. “Everyone has fish paste in their cupboard, if not a jar of anchovies!”

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Recipes:


95 Keerom Keerom Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel. (021) 422-0765. Stellekaya Winery Bosman’s Crossing, Stellenbosch. Tel. (021) 883-3873 or visitwww.stellekaya.com.