TGIFOOD

LE BRAAI MAESTRO

Kobus Botha, South Africa’s braaimaster à la française

In Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s words: ‘Genial, bearded and barbecue-savvy, there is no mistaking the immense presence of this inimitable chef who has succeeded in introducing the French to the humble art of the braai’. Photo: Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Braai marinades and sauces are overrated – especially pesto, says Kobus Botha. All you need is salt, pepper, maybe some butter, and technique. These ingredients are all Kobus Botha took with him to France. He now braais for French government occasions, weddings and festivals. He’s back to South Africa to judge a braai TV series and chat about his new braai book.

The announcement had been made. The 2024 Olympics would be held in Paris. So, Kobus Botha wheels his braai down the winding cobbled streets of Paris. He ducks into the gardens of Musée de Montmartre and finds the Olympic committee clinking glasses with the French Minister of Sport and the Mayor of Paris.

They hush as Botha welcomes them to the next home of the Olympics. He welcomes them with endless helpings of smoked, grilled and baked South African fare on a braai that never goes out – an Olympic flame, of sorts.

Botha has been braaing in France for more than a decade. From state functions to weddings and festivals, he’s done them all. He has spoken on French radio to a million listeners and fed a single table of 700 people in one go. He is fully booked until October 2020. He has three cookbooks in French and has just translated his latest one to Le Braai: Braai with a bit of je ne sais quoi. In 2019, he is a judge and presenter on the South African TV series Kom Ons Braai – Kampioene (think Come Dine with Me SA, but with braaing).

Despite all his time in the capital of dips, drizzles and dollops he remains true to the simple principles of the braai. But, he says the rest of South Africa has gone astray in the buzz of gourmet braaibroodjies and pesto. He’s here to remind South Africa, and not just the French, what a braai is all about.

Botha admits he didn’t discover braaing in “the right way”. The model method is how he got to know coffee.

First, I drank Ricoffy, then Koffiehuis, then Nescafé. Then I tasted filter coffee and only later had espresso at university. Then I went to Italy and realised I’d been drinking piss my entire life and this is what coffee should taste like.

I started the exact opposite with the braai. I would go with my father from Oudtshoorn where I grew up, to Herold’s Bay and then walk to Dollieskraal to fish. We would always come back with something and braai it. My favourite meal in the world is still a fresh fish on the braai. That was my introduction to braai and that was my best memory and meal,” Botha recounts.

Botha started going to France because of his work as a film producer. Once his son was born, it was decided he would leave showbiz behind to spend more time at home. He opened a summer restaurant, Karoo, in the south of France in 2009. He cooked for 150 people under the stars. He had wanted open fires there, but the authorities crushed that dream because they thought he would burn down all of Provence. He told them it was much drier where he came from, but they weren’t convinced.

Two years before, he had been a judge at the World Barbecue Championships in Hungary. He contacted Swiss and Italian friends he had met there and got them to build braais which he designed. He based it on the closed braais of the American south but tweaked them to allow him to grill or bake at a temperature he wanted. The biggest in his collection is over 12m long and can feed 2,000 people.

 

Botha designed his own fleet of braais and had them made. They range in size and function. Photo: Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.

This meant he could braai outside with a relatively open fire, but not alarm his neighbours. Every winter from 2011, he moved the braais to another location on the ski slopes. However, he fell back into the intense work schedule he had tried to leave before. To see more of his son, he packed up shop and left for Paris.

The food followed. He opened a restaurant, My Food, in Montreuil in 2012 which served classic South African dishes downed with ginger beer and Crème Soda. But, his braais gathered dust in Paris and by 2014 it was soon time to light them up again, put them on wheels and hit the road. By 2016, he closed the restaurants to focus on the mobile braais. But how to convince the French to ditch frogs’ legs and canapés for boerie and braaibroodjies in the culinary capital of the world?

Botha explains that it was a combination of elevating braai “to another level” and the curious taste buds of the French which meet him half way.

Braai in France is seen as a popular cuisine like in South Africa. I have taken it to a level where I cook South African food by my design for people who are used to extremely good food and know what it is,” he says.

Botha’s dishes focus on presenting every ingredient as they are without overshadowing one another. This one is Lamb Shoulder with Figs. Photo: Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

He emphasises that he is not a caterer. “They cook food during the week and cool it down to come and warm it up at the wedding and make it look nice on the plate. It can never be very good. The best compliment I ever had was when a well-known wedding DJ came to me and said that he had been doing weddings every weekend for the past 10 years and this was the best food he ever had. That was such a nice compliment,” he says with a shy smile.

As South Africans know, a braai is not just what is on the grill but what happens around it. Botha pays attention to the atmosphere he creates. He insists that the braais be in the centre of the venue where everyone can watch, anticipate and drool and that there is always an open flame somewhere. The food is never plated so that guests have to come up to the braai and pick and choose for themselves.

He chats to everyone as they dish. “I tell them to try a piece of everything and if they like it, they can come back and get more. That also surprises them a lot because they are not used to that. I try to bring that South African generosity to the table.”

All his efforts would go to waste if the French were not as open to him as they are. “What I like about the French is they are totally open to food. They won’t say they won’t eat something. It is so nice to cook for people who love food, enjoy food and know what good food is. I like that they will tell you if you put kak food in front of them and when you put good food there,” he chuckles.

However, some things do take them by surprise like combining meat and sugar. Despite this being sacrilege to them, they apparently adore bobotie.

They imagine us sitting around a table eating a big grilled beast, so they are very surprised that we have many vegetables on our plates – like I was very surprised that they only have one vegetable on theirs. They are also surprised that we serve things together on one plate like a bit of pork, beef and even some fish,” he says.

Although the French adore him, he takes comfort in his friend and Michelin-starred South African chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen who is also based in France. Botha says he brings the wood, iron and fire and Van der Westhuizen brings the finesse and creativity. Botha says that he is the “culinary ambassador of South African food in France”, while Van der Westhuizen is a superstar in South Africa.

Van der Westhuizen says that meeting Botha was “… like running into a childhood friend – a laaitie who also understood the innate love of the smell of a wood-burning fire and meat juices sizzling onto the coals.”

However, his skills are in demand in South Africa. As the judge on Kom Ons Braai – Kampioene, he had the task of judging the braaing skills of contestants.

Kobus has a very strong presence and has strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to braaing. The teams really gave it their all to impress him,” says Amor Engelbrecht, the producer and main director of the show.

He still keeps an eye on the South African braai scene, even if from afar. He decided to bring his latest cookbook to South Africa after noticing that there were no cookbooks by professional braaiers like himself on South African shelves.

He has also noticed the change in South African braai culture over the last decade. People are more adventurous, but sometimes lose sight of what a braai is really all about.

I wish South Africans would stop excessively putting rich stuff on a dish. If you take a potato and put butter on it, then cream on top of that and then you put pesto on – which everyone puts on everything these days, I fucking hate pesto – and then Mozzarella and then Cheddar and then you melt it all together then it’s fucking disgusting. Don’t do that. Then you have three dishes like that on a plate and it’s awful,” he laments.

What he says is often truly lacking from braai dishes is technique, yet this is the cornerstone of a good braai. He dedicates a good portion of his book to how to prepare the fire, choosing ingredients and the cooking methods, explaining braai equipment and giving tips on how to take care of your braai. He begrudges the sauces and marinades he had to put in the book- all that is needed is just a bit of salt, pepper and maybe butter if he had it his way.

A case in point is the braaibroodjie.

It’s like doing a lamb chop. Everyone can do one, but very few people can do it perfectly. A braaibroodjie does not become better the more shit you put into it. It only improves as your technique does,” he explains. Even the French, with access to every cheese imaginable, still love a braaibroodjie with a good Cheddar on it.

Often, all you need is a bit of salt, pepper and butter. This is how he cooked the yellowtail he caught off the coast of Agulhas during his recent time in South Africa. He took it home, braaied it and ate from it for a week at their family holiday house. As his father had taught him: do it fresh, simply and skilfully. Even the French agree. DM

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