On the menu: Salt crust baked celeriac, curry brittle, parmesan and passion fruit
Such a beautiful plate, and surprisingly complex for a meat-less dish. How did you come up with such an unusual combination?
Chef Gregory Czarnecki: I wanted to do something with this dish that you can’t do in Europe, where if you follow the seasons, and you respect the origin of the product, celeriac is a winter or spring root vegetable, whereas in South Africa winter almost takes up half of spring (especially now!). So I wanted to showcase something that wouldn’t be possible in Europe, and that also represents this country. People often think of South Africa in terms of landscape, and culture, but it’s also about the weather: so while in the western Cape we’ll have root vegetables now, in Durban, you’ll have passion fruit in the same season, growing at exactly the same time. This just wouldn’t be possible in Europe, so I wanted to come up with something that would promote the two different regions and climates you can have here at the same time, and that would also bring together a really “old school” vegetable and an exotic fruit.
So we start by wrapping the celeriac in wax paper, and then coating it with a salt crust, and the whole thing goes into the oven for about two hours at around 170 C. It’s a good method to cook it to get the best consistency and texture – the crust creates something like a mini oven, which cooks it at a high temperature, but also just lightly steams it, resulting in a very specific texture.
“Salt-baked” is showing up more and more on modern menus – especially salt-baked beetroot – and calls to mind an old Keith Floyd clip in which he tries his hand at salt-baked fish (which he hilariously ruins) with the premise that the salt protects whatever it’s covering?
Gregory: Yes, it’s very old school way of cooking. I’ve actually also tried it with clay, but it turned out that the clay cracked after spending too long in the oven, and because of the shape of this vegetable. I’ve cooked other things in clay, just like the Vikings used to do, but it just didn’t work with that specific shape.
So do the diners see this version of it as it comes out of the oven?
Gregory: Actually yes, diners do get to see it like this. When they sit down and order, the chef who introduces the degustation menu will come out of the kitchen and describe the dish (this is the first out of seven on the tasting menu after four canapés), and show them the baked celeriac, explaining that we’re going to cut it open in the kitchen, and serve it with the curry brittle, the passion fruit emulsion, and so on.
That’s lovely, because it’s a spectacular thing to look at – so perfectly encased in its little shell. So you take it back to the kitchen and crack it open, and then what happens as you assemble the dish?
Gregory: We just cut the celeriac in two, take a spoon, and make little scoops, without having to actually cut slices, because the texture is the same throughout the whole celeriac. We then put it on the plate, with a bit of curry brittle, three little parmesan shavings, and we do a sort of beurre blanc, but with passion fruit in lieu of any other liquid, which when reduced we check for acidity, before emulsifying with butter and seasoning with salt and pepper.
And does the curry brittle also derive from the Durban connection?
Gregory: Yes, exactly.
It’s not often you see parmesan and curry flavours on the same plate…
Gregory: [laughs] Well, I think Parmesan is the perfect umami – it’s got everything: the sweetness, and the acidity that perfectly rounds off a dish.
How long do you expect to keep this dish on the menu?
Gregory: It’s one of those dishes that’s like caviar – either you love it or you hate it. Either you understand why it comes together, or you eat it and think “what the hell was going through the chef’s head?”. But it’s been on our tasting menu for a couple of months. Some dishes are difficult, because people want to see them, like with our very popular Egg 63* dish, which I can’t remove from the menu without people asking for it.
Well, that is also an extremely attractive dish – perfect for Instagram!
Gregory: Haha! Well, at the end of the day, it’s all about making it beautiful for Instagram! [Ed’s note: we don’t believe he’s serious about this] Some dishes stay on for a while, but this will come off soon, because celeriac will soon not be available, with the weather warming up, but diners can still expect to see it for another few weeks. As long as people keep bringing me celeriac, it’ll be there!
Where to get it: Waterkloof, Sir Lowry’s Pass Road,
Somerset West. 021 858 1292
(The Restaurant at Waterkloof was recently named no. 3 in the Top Ten restaurants in the country at the Eat Out Awards for 2017!)
*Egg 63 on the À la Carte menu at Waterkloof features an egg cooked slowly at 63˚C, served with shavings of Tête de Moine cheese and an onion velouté.