A TASTE OF AFRICA
We visit chef Fathi “Coco” Reinarhz’s latest restaurant, Épicure, in Sandton
Situated in the richest square mile in Africa, Épicure is a unique showcase of this bustling continent’s diverse range of culinary offerings. Conceptualised by chefpatron Fathi “Coco” Reinarhz, this opulent eatery is the pinnacle of his life’s work
Imet Coco when he opened his first restaurant, Ma Passion, in Greenside 16 years ago. As I was to learn over time, Coco might be gracious and deeply charming, but he is also a man with courage, conviction and a strong vision. After three more ventures – Sel et Poivre at the Quatermain Hotel in Johannesburg, Le Petit Sel in Morningside and
Sel @ the Cradle in the Cradle of Humankind – he has opened Épicure in the heart of Sandton.
As I arrive, Coco awaits me at the door and greets me with his customary opening line: “How are you, Grande Dame?”. We reminisce about meeting at Ma Passion, when his eldest daughter, Timorie, could hardly see over a kitchen counter. “Now she’s had her first child; I’m officially a grandfather!” Coco exclaims proudly.
I remember Coco’s story about his mother and how she was pregnant with him while working at her eatery, Pili Pili, in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I spent my pre-born life in the kitchen. In effect, the banging of pots and the calls of chefs are comforting sounds to me,” he grins. On her due date, Coco’s mother was still hard at work. “And two days after giving birth to me, she was back in the kitchen!” he chuckles. Coco’s Belgian grandfather was another great influence. “He wouldcall me into the kitchen and haveme taste something. He wouldsay, ‘This is simplebut, within its simplicity, there’s a depth of taste you can’t replicate if you don’t have a passion for food’,” Coco remembers. “To me, it’s genetic,” he says. “All my memories are imbuedwith food
– I simply cannot imagine doing anything else.”
In 2006, I published the cookbook To the Banqueting House: African Cuisine – an Epic Journey, which was a collaboration between Coco and acclaimed culinary anthropologist Anna Trapido. In the acknowledgements, they wrote: “Gwynne Conlyn believed in us long before we believed in ourselves. She has taken a huge chance backing us…” I don’t believe I took a chance; I worked with two gifted people. As if to prove this point, the cookbook went on to receive the noteworthy international award of being voted the Best Culinary History Book at the 2006 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Another acknowledgement penned in the introduction of the publication – “This book is an unashamed culinary love letter dedicated to the fine flavours of Africa and the African diaspora...” – reminds me of how Coco is still writing love letters to this wonderful continent through his offerings.
In between closing his previous restaurant and opening Épicure, Coco travelled Africa to taste the foods of different countries. “My quest was, and still is, to find what’s exceptional and beautiful in Africa,” he says. “It’s high time the diversity of the continent’s native ingredients and dishes are celebrated.” In pursuit of this, Coco opened Épicure in March this year. “While travelling I asked myself, how can I create an African dish that looks chic on a plate? Here, we are situated in the richest square mile in Africa, where we host the wealthiest and most noteworthy African business people. Yet, before Épicure we didn’t have a place where we could proudly offer high-end African cuisine. That’s why I decided that I wanted to showcase that which is 100% African. After all, what’s the point of, say, an important African banker visiting Johannesburg and then being taken, for instance, to an Italian restaurant?” Coco elaborates.
Staying true to his vision, Coco’s interpretation of African fare is a fusion of both sight and taste. “I wanted the presentation to be different from the traditional version,” he says.
I’ve visited Zanzibar a few times and, when I taste his Zanzibar-style vitumbua (rice-flour-and-coconutmilk crumpets) with date-and-ginger compote and chai ice cream, I am instantly taken back to the island’s coastal trading community of Stone Town. “I call it the Stone Town Sunrise. Although it is inspired by Zanzibar, this dish is also popular in other Swahili-speaking East African contingents,” Coco adds. At Épicure, it’s served as a breakfast dish.
Next up, Coco serves what he calls a “deconstructed duck tagine”. On the plate is a riot of bright colours and textures: duck croquette, apricot purée, spiced jus, couscous and roasted baby vegetables. All impeccably plated and
I FOCUS ON WHAT IS BEAUTIFUL IN AFRICA, WHAT WORKS, WHAT MAKES US GREAT AND WHAT MAKES US PROUD. I BELIEVE THAT ÉPICURE IS A SHOWCASE FOR THAT.
delicious, but it’s not what I expected. “When the plate arrives the guests are always taken aback by the fact that it’s not your traditional tagine,” Coco agrees. “I love that reaction! It makes me think I’ve succeeded in my quest to show the different ways in which we can interpret African dishes while keeping the taste and flavours. Once I’ve explained this, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the look on the diner’s face when they take their first bite,” Coco beams.
On that note, the next dish arrives. Coco explains, “This dish, lamb suya from Nigeria, is West African street food, really. It is mostly served as a shish kebab [roasted skewered meat]. But once it’s plated attractively, it is presented as if on an artist’s palette and the taste is celebrated.”
Capping off my visit, Coco serves a dessert of deep-fried plantain fritters with caramelised plantain and some hibiscus-flavoured sorbet. As I tuck in, he tells me about the inspiration behind the dish. “How does an Ivorian mother treat her kids to something sweet?” he asks. “She will fry some alloco [plantains] and serve it with a sweet drink, like bissap [a drink made from the species of hibiscus flower known as the roselle].
“In my rendition, I mash the plantain and, then instead of simply making a glass of hibiscus juice, we make sorbet. There’s nothing more African. You taste the different flavours and passion; you taste the sophistication,” Coco enthuses. When eating the dessert, I find myself – much like tasting wine – exhaling lightly through my nose to sample the flavours. The dish practically begs to be enjoyed this way.
This is not fashionable food but a celebration of a continent’s worth of food culture and memories throughout Africa. “What I do is show what Africa looks like on a plate,” Coco muses.
In the restaurant, Coco describes the decor as “subtle sophistication”. “I’ve created the entire space around my philosophy,” he says. “A beautiful dining area, top-notch wine cellar and a bar where one can enjoy rums from all around the globe.”
On that note, sommelier Mike Buthelezi loves to suggest wines to complement the dishes. “Mike is very knowledgeable about wine,”
Coco says. “And the thing that makes him exceptional is that he really knows about food, too.”
As we talk, I ask Coco if he has learned any hard lessons in his career. “So many,” he laughs ruefully.
“This business is about hard work. Success doesn’t happen overnight. I surround myself with people who share my vision and passion for what we’re doing. You have to find people who come as close as possible to what you aspire to be,” Coco adds. “I focus on what is beautiful in Africa, what works, what makes us great and what makes us proud. I believe that Épicure is a showcase for that.” CENTRAL SQUARE, 3 – 5 LOWER ROAD, MORNINGSIDE, SANDTON; 010-594-5336; EPICURERESTAURANT.CO.ZA
STONE TOWN SUNRISE
Serves 4 EASY 1 hr 15 mins + 5 hrs, to freeze
WHAT YOU NEED
CHAI ICE CREAM 1L full-cream milk
4 star anise
4 whole cardamom pods, slightly crushed
12g (2 tbsp) ground ginger 3g (1 tsp) ground allspice 4 cinnamon quills
7 large egg yolks
270g white sugar
150g (1 cup) finely ground rice flour (find at faithful-to-nature.co.za)
40g (4 tbsp) wholewheat flour
80g coconut milk powder (find at faithful-to-nature.co.za)
110g (½ cup) white sugar
4g (1 tsp) dried yeast 2g (1 tsp) ground cardamom seeds 125ml (½ cup) warm water
1 large egg white oil, to cook
DATE-AND-GINGER COMPOTE 7g ginger, peeled and grated
130g white sugar 300g dates, pitted 150ml orange juice
SPICED SUGAR SYRUP
150g white sugar 150ml water 2 cinnamon quills 2 star anise 2 cloves zest of 1 orange
HOW TO DO IT
1 For the chai ice cream, place the milk, 4 star anise, 4 crushed cardamom pods, 12g (2 tbsp) ground ginger, ground allspice and 4 cinnamon quills in a large saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat.
2 While the milk is simmering, use a free-standing mixer or an electric hand-held beater to whisk the egg yolks and 270g sugar together until it reaches ribbon stage. Pour the warm milk into the mixture, whisking until incorporated. Return the mixture to the still-warm saucepan and cook over low heat until it coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and remove the cinnamon quills. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.
3 Place the mixture in the fridge to chill, about 1 hour, before churning in an ice-cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to a freezerproof container and freeze to firm up, about 4 hours. If you do not have an ice-cream maker, place the mixture in a freezerproof bowl and freeze, about 2 – 3 hours. Just before frozen (it will be thick, almost liquid), beat with an electric hand-held beater until smooth and fluffy. Return to the freezer until completely frozen.
4 For the vitumbua, mix the rice flour, wholewheat flour, coconut milk powder, 110g (½ cup) white sugar, dried yeast and 2g (1 tsp) ground cardamom seeds together in a large bowl. Add the 125ml (½ cup) warm water and egg white. Stir until a thick dough forms.
5 Cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm, draught-free space until the dough has doubled in size and bubbles start to form on the surface, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir the batter and set aside.
6 Heat an appam pan/egg poaching pan over medium heat. Place a drop of the oil in each poaching cup and spoon 15ml (1 tsp) of the batter into each cup. Cook until browned, about 2 – 3 minutes. Flip the vitumbua and
STONE TOWN SUNRISE
DECONSTRUCTED DUCK TAGINE
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: SOMMELIER, MIKE BUTHELEZI; CHEF-PATRON, FATHI “COCO” REINARHZ; AND AUTHOR GWYNNE CONLYN
ALLOCO AND BISSAP-INSPIRED SORBET WITH CARAMELISED PLANTAIN AND PLANTAINFRITTERSFOODANDHOME.CO.ZA
NIGERIAN LAMB SUYA WITH CASSAVA CHIPS