Story of a Plate: Driftwood Canapés at The Chefs’ Table

(Photographs courtesy of Sebastian Nico)

On the menu: Served as an amuse bouche, this is not listed on any current menus, but Executive Head Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn agreed that Jean-Pierre’s description of “Driftwood Canapés” has a nice ring to it.

Even if you didn’t have an official name for it, clearly a lot of thought went into both the ingredients and presentation of this elegant plate. 

Kayla: Yes! The story behind it is that although we live on the coast, we’ve ironically always battled with getting fresh seafood (especially shellfish), both in KwaZulu Natal and in the country as a whole. But after working with (and pushing) local suppliers, we started getting a little bit of fresh seafood here and there, and suddenly we had this major influx of local seafood (which even the Cape doesn’t have), all sustainably caught, and from within a 20km radius of our waters.

Then I started thinking about how to put that together as a course, but I didn’t want to have five or six seafood elements on a plate and call it a dish, because that would just look messy, with too much going on. So we decided to use it as an amuse, and when I started thinking about what to serve it on, driftwood came up as a fun option. I contacted a couple of guys who do woodwork, and they said they would love to work on driftwood because they don’t often get to do it, and about a week later we had about 6 or 7 of these driftwood platters. So the thought process was really about finding a way to showcase all this great local seafood. 

And what are the different elements?

Kayla: First you have mackerel on toast. Mackerel are my favourite fish: they’re small, they come in fresh, and they’re cheap (the fishermen use them as bait, so they were quite surprised when I started asking for them). We fillet them and cook them really simply – crisped up, skin-side down. That’s served on “toast” – actually on lavash – with some mint yoghurt, and sumac, which is citrusy and zingy. In Turkey, wherever you go, they sell sandwiches with mackerel, sumac, and yoghurt, so it’s a bit of a play on that.

The second one is a samoosa – basically a samoosa pastry deep-fried around a metal pipe so it’s round. Inside is a butter bean purée with curry spices (except curry powder, so it’s not hot), lots of coriander, crab meat with just some fresh herbs and salt, and a bit of crab stock from the shells (meaning we’re using everything). The little black seeds are called amaranth – an indigenous grass seed which a local farmer harvests for me (he literally sits and harvests it off these grass leaves – it’s quite cool!). We boil the amaranth, and then dehydrate it, which gives it a nice crunchy “pop”.

The third one is a sago chip. We cook sago with cumin, and then we also dehydrate that and later deep-fry it, making it puff up like a rice chip. We serve that with a fish roe paté. Many of us in this area grew up eating fish roe, from the Indian tradition of steaming roe from bigger fish, adding curry powder and then frying it till it’s crisp. So this is a paté with curry powder in it, served with a tomato and a bit of curry mayo. Simple. Slightly salty, crispy and delicious.

Finally, the “sand” is made from white bread crumbs blended with seaweed.

It’s a lovely way to showcase local flavours! What other sorts of seafood are you working with?

Kayla: We’re getting local langoustines – they are beautiful – and local pink prawns, which are the main products they’re catching for us. But then we also get cuttlefish and crab as part of the by-catch, and sometimes octopus (not often, but when you get it you fight for it!). These aren’t big trawlers pulling in sharks and things – the sustainability element is critical for us.

How long can diners still expect to (not) find it on the menu?

Kayla: This was launched with the new tasting menu two months ago. It’s the third tasting menu that we’ve introduced, and the one that I’ve liked the most so far. Basically this is going to stay on, but change with the seasons and what’s available. At some point the fish roe isn’t going to be as great, so then we’ll use a pink prawn, or whatever the best available option is.

Great concept – you can stick with the name, and just replace elements as required. 

Kayla: Exactly. I really like that it’s so easy to change and that the driftwood is local too.

That ties it all together so well – and just 200m from the beach!

Where to find it: The Chefs’ Table, 23 & 24 First Floor, Protea Mall, Chartwell Drive, Umhlanga Rocks, Durban. (031) 001 0200.

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