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Cook uncovered: Suzi Holtzhausen

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It’s not every day you get to cook a meal on the beach with one of your favourite chefs, but I was lucky enough to experience exactly that after a recent art holiday in Paternoster. The chef du jour was none other than Suzi Holtzhausen from Gaaitjie Restaurant. And what better way to end off a week of R-and-R-and-Art than by spending a day foraging and cooking with a personal food hero?

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I love the food at Gaaitjie and have described it before as ‘highly skilled love on a plate‘. There are no pretenses, which I find particularly refreshing – flavours combine with reason, textures serve a purpose and it’s all put together with a delicate touch. Still, I was intimidated at the thought of meeting the chef.

I’d witnessed her in action on previous visits to the restaurant. From her tiny kitchen, she barks out orders while simultaneously chopping, searing and plating her way through service in a blur of steam and clatter – she’s larger than life, hands on and hard core. I’d also done some online stalking (guilty) and the consensus seemed to be that she wasn’t exactly a people person and hated smokers. I am both these things – in abundance – and worse than her not liking me, what if I didn’t like her? If I couldn’t reconcile the person with the food, would I still be such a Gaaitjie fan?

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The day started off clouded in mist, our group tentatively gathered outside the restaurant drinking steaming cups of coffee. Before long, Suzi appeared, booming out a friendly welcome and giving us a quick rundown of the day’s action. The chef had a plan, and within minutes we were abandoning our brews and racing to catch up as she strode off down the beach to teach us the merits of cooking with algae.

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In no time we were knee-deep in the incoming tide, hunter-gatherering seaweed for our sustainable repast. Having harvested just enough for our needs, we walked up to the local Kabeljou (Cob) farm on the edge of town for a box of their finest, which we duly deposited at the restaurant before descending on the village to plunder the local gardens.

Suzi clambered over walls and swung through gates in search of edible flora with disclaimers of “it’s fine, they’re away for the day” or “na, he won’t mind”. A local security firm did mind when she triggered an alarm with her fence hopping, but arrests were averted when the guard realised he couldn’t fit all nine of us, plus our loot, into his car, and we were let off with some finger wagging and a smile.

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With a full basket of ingredients, we headed back to Gaaitjie along the beach, watching holidaymakers in the surf, casting their lines behind the waves. ‘You can see they aren’t locals,’ muttered Suzi matter-of-factly, ‘no one here fishes from the beach – it’s too shallow!’

Despite a full house for lunch, our bedraggled group of foragers and half the staff traipsed in and out of the restaurant carting a never-ending stream of wood, water, utensils, fish, spices, grids and bowls past intrigued patrons and out to the rocks.

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Once set up, our first instructions came quickly and we were assigned our respective duties. With knives glinting in the sunlight and mock yells of ‘yes chef’, we were off. Ingredients were chopped, squeezed, kneaded, ground and stuffed, with Suzi supervising as she stoked the fire, scraping hot coals and dropping pearls of culinary wisdom .

There was something surreal about watching the diners in her restaurant across the beach enjoying their food in blissful ignorance, as we sat on the rocks, elbows deep in ingredients that the chef herself would soon help us transform into gastronomic perfection. And all this for our own, personal delight – I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Nor could I believe the spread that transpired. In true Gaaitjie menu-style (clockwise from top):

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Warm goats cheese in herbs | Cider pot bread | Hot fig jam

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Pop smoked oysters | Tomato, basil, chilli and tamarind salsa | Grilled corn soaked in seawater

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Farmed kabeljou wrapped in seaweed and bay leaves | Salad greens | Mushroom and wild garlic pootjie | Suurvy butter glaze

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We cooked, ate and drank the late summer afternoon away. And at the end of a long, hot, and incredible day, Suzi came across and asked me for a fag – I could have kissed her. And as my new smoking buddy and I puffed away on the rocks, staring into the setting sun, I told her why I’d been reluctant to spend time with her. “So whadda you think, huh?’ she asked me. ‘What’s the verdict?”

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I think she can cook up a feast on the sand as well as she does in her kitchen, she’s funny and generous, and she cares about the environment. And like her food, she’s fearless, unpretentious and from the heart – Suzi Hotzhausen is the real deal.

With my culinary crush secure and my gut instincts intact, here’s what I learnt from Suzi:

  1. Don’t cook with black pepper, use white instead. Black pepper can make food bitter, white is milder.
  2. When cooking crayfish, start them off in about an inch of cold water and bring to the boil. Cook for about 7 minutes or until the colour is right, then stand them upright, head down and let them drain. If you break off the two main feelers at the front the liquid will drain out quickly and the tail meat will stay sweet.
  3. When making a butter sauce, heat the liquids then remove from heat and drop in the cold butter. It will melt into creamy goodness as you stir it into the hot liquid and won’t split.
  4. Don’t use lemon on fish. It’s too harsh and softens the flesh. Lemon was originally served with battered fish-n-chips to break the fattiness of the deep fried meal. Rather use grapefruit or naartjie (dried naartjie peel works well) in butter sauces for a citrus twist.
  5. Suurvye (sour figs – a traditional Malay dried fruit) soaked in water overnight and their juices extracted the next day give a perfect twist to a butter sauce.
  6. Leave the scales on the fish if cooking over coals. They keep the fish moist and they’re easy to remove with the skin once cooked.
  7. Leave something on the vegetable to show its original state, like the twirly bits on a green bean, or baby carrots with tops.
  8. Dress salads with things that represent the contents – like wild garlic flowers if there’s garlic in the dressing.
  9. Old boats make the best herb and veg gardens.

… and most importantly:

  1. Truly good food rarely belies the integrity of the chef.
  2. Don’t believe everything you read online.

Gaaitjie Restaurant
off Sampson Street, Paternoster
www.saltcoast.co.za

Telephone
+27 (0)22 752 2242

Hours
Open Thursday – Monday for lunch & dinner

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2 Comments

  1. Ajay

    Hey Gillian – you such a good listener, I am amazed. And talented writer. And brilliant photographer. Whoa!!
    Can I link?
    Your Joburg buddy

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