10 Questions: Geoffrey Murray

Geoffrey Murray of Zachary's at Knysna's Pezula Resort Hotel and Spa. Picture: Supplied

Geoffrey Murray is the executive chef at multi-award-winning Zachary’s Restaurant at the exclusive Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa on the outskirts of Knysna. This native New Yorker, who has lived and worked all over the world, is especially known for his “Modern Ethnic” style of cooking. He believes in strictly maintaining the integrity of all ingredients used, while also styling each individual dish with international flair. Geoffrey puts a premium on local and organic produce. Ahead of next week’s Knysna Oyster Festival, which runs from July 3 to 12, he’s also sharing one of his top oyster recipes with The Global Table today.

1. What opportunities does an event like the Knysna Oyster Festival create for innovation and what are some of the oyster-themed creations you’ve come up with this year, and in the past?

Personally I prefer to have my oysters NAKED, but we have also come up with a few alternatives. Now for winter we serve Mossel Bay wild oysters, poached in bubbly, with a warm buttermilk potato cream, leek compote and salmon caviar. It’s nice to have an option of something warm with oysters in winter. In the past we dressed fresh oysters with a pinch of sumac, rose’ bubbly granita and white pepper – a great mouth explosion of textures and flavours. But we always give the option of just having them NAKED!

2. You are especially known for your commitment to using organic ingredients, wherever possible. Why is this so important to you?

Using organic products is not just about the health benefits of clean food, it’s about how we treat the environment, and what we can do to save it. The devastation to our environment from bad farming is huge. If we keep destroying it, where will the food come from? We’ll all starve.

3. How difficult is it to source such produce on the Garden Route, or has the move towards organic and sustainable produce gained significant momentum there?

It’s becoming much easier to source good products. It’s the simple law of supply and demand. The more we as consumers demand a certain type of product, the more likely that it becomes available. But we need to be persistent.

4. What is your mantra when it comes to cooking and how is this expressed in the style of food you serve at Zachary’s?

“Local products, globally influenced.” I’ve been fortunate to have travelled quite a bit over the years – it’s my next biggest passion after cooking, so my head is full of flavours, textures, smells and ideas. And, as an avid supporter of the Slow Food movement for many years now, I strongly believe in using products that are local, regional and whatever is in season as much as possible. If you were to read through one of Zachary’s menus you can see how clearly that translates in what our style is.

5. Do you still offer your Chef’s Experience set menu and what does this entail?

Yes, we still have a Chef’s Experience menu available Sunday through Thursday nights. It’s basically a starter, main and dessert chosen from the menu in a combination that we feel works well together. Of course, as with all of our menus, there are the little extras from the kitchen, such as an amuse bouche, a pre dessert and petit fours after dinner. On Friday and Saturday nights we do a Menu Gourmand, four courses, with all the extras and an optional wine pairing with each course. This menu I come up with differs each week based on what I find in the markets, and wherever my food mood might take me. Then Werner, the F&B director, Morti, the chief sommelier, and I discuss which interesting wines to pair with each course.

6. What would you single out as your own personal favourites from the current menu?

We’re just in the middle of changing everything, and with every season we really change everything! From the new winter menu I’m not sure about any favourites yet. I’m really excited about everything we are cooking right now – it’s all so new!

7. You are extremely enthusiastic about making things from scratch, from your own preserves and pickles, to meat products like sausage. Where does your artisan streak come from and why is it important to you to keep such traditions alive?

If we make it, we know what’s in it – exactly what’s in it. When I first stared working in restaurants at the age of 13, my first chef, Giorgio, an Old Italian guy, instilled this way of thinking in me, and it just made sense. It all goes back to slow food; cooking as an art form that must carry on. Imagine if everyone stopped painting because technology showed that computer graphics were more efficient. Imagine what we would lose.

8. Have you cooked for any famous names and do you have some recollections to share about meeting them?

Lots, but I never like to talk about it; it’s like kissing and telling.

9. What are the five ingredients you can’t run your kitchen without?

A good flaked sea salt; extra virgin olive, preferably local and organic; garlic; white pepper; but most importantly, a team of passionate cooks that is integral in making it all happen.

10. What sort of food do you enjoy cooking at home?

It’s pretty boring, actually. The only meal I have time to cook at home is breakfast for myself, which usually is right after coming from the gym and before going to work. It’s usually something like an egg-white omelette, organic eggs of course, some free-range chicken breast and a few vegetables, whatever’s in season, thrown in. That and a cappuccino made with Guatemalan La Perla coffee beans from Origin Coffee Roasters in Cape Town.

Recipe: Sesame Oyster Fritters with pickled oyster mushrooms and herbs

Picture: Supplied

Picture: Supplied

Serves 6

Ingredients for the pickled oyster mushrooms and herbs

200g oyster mushrooms, pulled apart 1cm wide; 3 scallion greens, slivered with bias cut; 200ml olive oil; 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced; 3 tbsp dry-toasted coriander seeds, tied in a muslin bag; 150ml white wine; 150ml rice-wine vinegar; dash of soy sauce; 6 sprigs fresh coriander; 1 small stick lemongrass, bruised; 8 lime leaves; 2 tbsp sea salt, or as needed.

Method

In a medium heatproof bowl, combine mushrooms and scallion greens and set aside.
Saute the garlic in a saucepan over medium-low heat till golden, set aside. Add toasted coriander seeds, wine, vinegar, soy sauce, coriander, lemon grass and lime leaves. Add sea salt; taste and add more as needed, taking care not to under-salt.
Increase heat and bring mixture just to a boil. Pour hot liquid over mushrooms and scallion greens. Allow to stand uncovered for one hour, strain, set aside and reserve the liquid for a salad dressing or later pickling.

Ingredients for the sesame oyster fritters

18 Knysna oysters – shucked, liquor reserved, shells rinsed and dried; 1 tbsp white sesame seeds; 1 tbsp black sesame seeds; ¾ cup panko Japanese breadcrumbs; 1 egg, lightly beaten; 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley; 2 tbsp coriander leaves; 2 tbsp bias-cut chives; 2 tbsp chervil leaves.

To garnish
2 spring onions, thinly-julienned lengthways and left to refresh in ice water; coarse sea salt.

Method

Preheat cooking oil to 180C.
Combine sesame seeds and breadcrumbs in a bowl. Dip the shucked oysters in the beaten egg, shake off excess and roll to coat in the sesame and breadcrumb mixture.
Combine the pickled mushrooms with the reserved oyster liquor and herbs.
Spoon coarse salt into the centre of six plates, rest three oyster shells on the salt of each plate and fill each shell with the pickled mushroom and herb mixture.
Quickly flash-fry the oysters until golden brown, remove and drain on absorbent paper.
Place one oyster in each shell and garnish with a few slivers of the spring onion julienne. Serve immediately with a glass of South African Cap Classique!

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