THIS week’s featured chef on The Global Table started his food career in the meat industry, but nowadays is equally known for his prowess with fish and seafood.
“Cook from the heart and the hands will follow” – that’s popular Port Elizabeth chef John Burger’s advice to all aspiring cooks and chefs.
His style of cooking is driven by “love, passion and a bit of aggression every now and then”, quipped John, who confessed “the pleasure I get from seeing someone enjoy a meal is wonderful”.
Now 38, he started out in the meat industry “as a youngster” and trained as a blockman, working in Bay supermarkets and butcheries. “I only decided much later to give cooking a go as a profession, even though I’d always had a passion for it,” he said. John refined his culinary skills at guesthouses, conference venues and restaurants around town, “all of which were incredible learning and life experiences”. His private catering also earned him a loyal following.
“I’m a firm believer in taking knowledge and lessons from every situation I find myself in,” he said. “The more you experience, the more you learn. You never have to be afraid to take chances.”
This talented chef shares some of his favourite kitchen tips and ingredients in our Q&A section – so scroll down for it, and John’s delicious recipe for what he calls his “Nuts about Cheese” pork fillet.
In a nutshell (if you’ll pardon the pun), he marinades the fillet overnight in olive oil, pineapple and apricot juice, as well as fresh ginger, cinnamon and saffron, then pan fries it to perfection. The fillet is sliced into medallions and coated with roasted sesame seeds and a reduction of the sauce, then served on tagliatelle.
Finally, it is topped with a cheese sauce and an irresistible sprinkle which John makes from crushed nuts and parmesan.
* Calling all chefs! Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be considered for inclusion on The Global Table blog, which is updated every Saturday.
Q&A with John Burger
1. When and how did your love of cooking start?
My mother was always baking around us and we were actively involved from a young age. It’s a bit of a cliche, but our family braais and everyone’s involvement in that also spurred on a love for food.
2. How would you describe your style of cooking?
My style is simple, hands on, unconventional and experimental.
3. Are there any celebrity chefs that you admire?
I love Anthony Bourdain, of Kitchen Confidential fame. He represents the true essence of what we as chefs do, with no pretence or any of the airs and fancies.
4. What would you want for our last meal on earth?
My father’s Chinese chicken soup, or warm, home-made custard in a bowl.
5. What has been the most interesting or unusual function you’ve cooked for?
I cooked for Archbishop Desmond Tutu about two and a half years ago, while working at the NMMU Conference Centre. It was probably my proudest moment. I also catered for a 1970s party once – what the hell were the foodies of the time thinking?
6. Give an example of a three-course winter menu you would prepare for guests.
Creamy parmesan, butternut and feta soup with fresh coriander to start with; then a rustic Osso Bucco made the peasant way and served with rosemary beer bread for mains, and dark chocolate and Van Der Hum coffee pots for dessert.
7. What are a few of your favourite kitchen hints or tips?
Never become complacent with your knives – always respect them. Smell everything. Taste everything.
8. What are your favourite ingredients at the moment?
Honey (the real farm stuff); vanilla pods (I recently got some from Zanzibar – wow!); lemon thyme; mint; orange pepper; good quality butter.
9. Which kitchen tool or gadget can you not live without?
My sharpening steel. No steel, no sharp knives, no easy slicing, chopping and dicing. It causes frustration, which causes bad energy, which causes bad food!
10. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
If you in any way doubt your love and passion for food, even in its rawest form, don’t follow this path. Make love to your food with all your heart and never stop thinking of new ways to cook and experiment.
11. What’s your first stop for fresh ingredients?
Woolworths is still my favourite place for fresh ingredients.
12. When not cooking for yourself, what are your favourite restaurants and why do you like them?
Fushin in Richmond Hill, Port Elizabeth, because you simply cannot get better sushi; and Ile de Pain at Thesen Island in Knysna – the smell of the place alone makes you fall in love. Once you taste their chelsea buns nothing else matters.
John Burger’s “Nuts about Cheese” Pork Fillet
1 pork fillet, about 550g; 50ml olive oil; 150ml pineapple juice; 250ml apricot juice plus a little extra; 2 tsp fresh ginger; cinnamon (to taste); 4 or 5 strands of saffron; about 40g sesame seeds, roasted; 100g mixed nuts; finely grated parmesan (however much you prefer); ground pepper (to taste); white sauce (John hasn’t specified a quantity but you’ll need flour, butter, milk and a dash of nutmeg to make it; then grated blue cheese and gouda cheese plus some cream and fresh oreganum to add); 500g tagliatelle; dried Turkish apricots and some fresh thyme sprigs for serving
Marinade the pork fillet overnight in olive oil, pineapple juice, apricot juice, fresh ginger, cinnamon and saffron. Pan fry the meat until cooked (don’t overdo it – medium is fine). Reduce the marinade mix with a little extra apricot juice until a thick consistency is achieved. Slice the fillet into medallions and roll it in the sesame seeds. Pour over some of the reduced sauce and set aside (keep warm).
Crush the nuts using a mortar and pestle and add the grated parmesan (the amount of cheese is up to you but the more cheese, the better) and black pepper. Set aside.
For the cheese sauce, make a basic roux from some melted butter and flour. Slowly add milk, whisking it in as you go along, until a smooth consistency is obtained. Add the blue cheese and gouda, then the cream, nutmeg and oreganum. Set aside.
Boil the tagliatelle in water to which you’ve added a pinch of salt and a dribble of olive oil; cook until al dente and drain.
To plate, place a serving of tagliatelle on each plate and coat generously with the cheese sauce. Layer the pork medallions over the pasta and sauce, then pour some of the apricot reduction sauce over the pork.
Sprinkle generously with the nut and parmesan mix.
Garnish with the thyme and apricots.