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Chef Absalom’s bold plan for Braamfontein venue

TGIFOOD

TRAD. FOOD + MUSIC

Chef Absalom’s bold plan for Braamfontein venue

Chicken feet in orange sauce. ‘See it as the simple art of eating food.’ (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

You can’t serve bad food if you’re happy, says Absalom Kotsokoane, who has an extraordinary vision at his new restaurant. This part of it is called Leano, which means ‘plan’. Tuck into Kotsokoane’s fine take on traditional food, with music.

In the earliest days of the 80s, Turn ’n Tender, a (then new) steakhouse franchise run by four brothers, opened their flagship place at 81 De Korte street in Braamfontein. Since then the address has been known for desirable food and vibes one way or another, and right now there are delightfully cheffy dishes using true South African ingredients.

My music producer and publisher boss would disappear there for the afternoon, particularly on Fridays. It was mostly a boys-only affair with much too-tanniny Cabernet and what they regarded as the greatest steaks in town. Wine was a newly groovy thing.

We worked “in town” then and Braamfontein was part of it. Usually he’d return to the office just in time to close up, bringing lots of industry skinner and a few hiccups. He was generally inclined to vegetarianism, with piccalilli wholewheat sandwiches or tomatoey Italian pasta at La Romantica, where we’d scatter dope as one would basil, over the dishes. But his “business” lunches at Turn ’n Tender with carpetbagger steaks, never rare, were the serious food occasions.

Narina Trogon’s green mosaic and glass frontage, still lovely at 81 De Korte street this evening. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It’s the same address that attracted Carlyn Zehner, when she had the double-storey space redesigned with its still-lovely green mosaic and clear-glass frontage, for her magnificent Narina Trogon restaurant. She initiated it to remind her of New York and had a succession of trendy chefs. The restaurant was known then for baking all its own wonderful breads, table rolls and breakfast pastries. It was a forerunner for local and responsible sourcing.

I fondly remember fish cake on wilted spinach with a dill sauce and a fairly new restaurant item at the time, roasted pork belly, accompanied by mustard mash and caramelised apple. The other thing people gossiped about was the phenomenal price of the silk ceiling lights that had been specially designed. I thought they looked like pasta shapes and was fond of them. I saw them again recently in Adam Levy’s Playground’s offices. The upstairs part of The Orbit worked as an art gallery, often with music at the trendy launches.

Perhaps that was what gave Aymeric Péguillan and Kevin Naidoo the idea for their live bistro-food restaurant, The Orbit. It was like a sit-down supper club and the food was initially very good. There was a pork cheek and leek terrine that I particularly liked and also things like oxtail with truffle, bean and potato purée. The food veered a little towards interesting versions of South African dishes, as it had at the Narina Trogon but, as is bound to happen when waiters are constantly pushing through an excited throng to deliver drinks and three courses of interesting food, meat platters and burgers began to be preferred for simpler delivery and easier eating in blue-lit, semi-dark, loud-sound conditions. The Orbit was one of my brag spots for national and international visitors for all the time it was going.

I’ve found another. In December, chef Absalom or Absa Kotsokoane of Moeng in the Oxford Parks development of Rosebank and his MD partner, Keitumetse Molatlhegi, moved into 81 De Korte Street. They’d found their Moeng music evenings were too popular for that restaurant size and needed a space so that both the live music and Kotsokoane’s fine take on traditional food could be retained.

Absalom Kotsokoane, known as the gentle chef, on the wintry evening at Leano. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I’m here at Leano purposely early so that I can still see the chef’s dishes and catch up with him, before listening to pianist Keenan Meyer in darker conditions upstairs. He’s playing more classical than jazz works, thoughtfully commenting on Africanness, as on his album The Alchemy of Living. Apt music to eat by here.

In answer to my concerns about The Orbit’s food and why it changed, chef Absalom smiles, “I think there can be a good balance between music and food. And more space for it now than was the case here before.”

He also laughs at how interesting it is that the food ordered here, more than at Moeng, changes according to who’s playing. “The market in Braamfontein is different too.” Tonight he says there will be a demand for his more interesting traditional dishes but that many will be vegetarian. If there’s a full band, the orders are often for the table, meaty, simpler grill plates or chicken wings with potato wedges.  

Kotsokoane adds that it’s not just the food that changes with the artist but also what the audience wears. “Tonight they will all be wearing black.” He looks a little bemused by my leopard print jacket and I do realise all the people who’ve been passing me downstairs and waiting for friends to arrive have, whatever their ages, infallibly been in black.

“I didn’t know there was a colour dress code. It didn’t say so on the event announcement or on Bookings?” 

“People who follow him know he likes black.” He does? I’ve only ever seen him in a shiny, long gold show-top so I’m surprised, and Absa grins.

He says, “It’s like when some of the old Sophiatown-related artists perform, the audience automatically knows to wear Fifties gangster styles.”

We talk about my own food order. I’m here for two very particular menu items, apart from the music. Kotsokoane’s missing his self-designed kitchen at Moeng, he says ruefully, though his chefs and cooks have accompanied him here and he’s delighted about that. He has a reputation for being the chef who never shouts, as they say.

Good chef that he is anyway, Kotsokoane takes great joy in constructing all his sauces and stocks himself. The orange sauce that accompanies my first order is no exception. Juice and flesh from the oranges, his own chutney, onion, garlic and ginger is the marinade for the feet. Roasted tomatoes are added and the ensuing bright gravy is reduced for a long slow time before it gets the orange zest and a little more of the juice and starts turning into the sticky sauce for the marinated, slow-cooked feet. I have three, served in a kind of small shovel, with orange nasturtium flowers. I suddenly remember something I’d forgotten, that Absalom Kotsokoane was a qualified landscape designer before he qualified as a chef. 

“This dish is simplicity. It’s easy to hold if you like. See it as the simple art of eating food.”

I know a full chicken or duck would be proud to wear this exquisite clingy sauce and this increases how special it is. I decide to eat with my fingers, much to Absa’s approval, biting off the fleshier bits, sucking and crunching the ends, working up to the last, bigger bones, using what’s left as scoops for the rest of the sauce. We talk about the ways cutlery sometimes distances you from an experience because, apart from smell and taste, there is touch. I hear some practice chords on the piano. It’s not yet concert time.

Among quite a few South Africans, chicken feet seem somehow scarier than chicken wings. I did once but was mercilessly laughed at. I eat brains, sweetbreads, cheeks, ears, tails, even the broken down cartilage of animals as brawn, so no feet? I’ve also grown to believe in using and eating everything of an animal, making stock of the rest. If we’re happy to eat one piece of its meat, best eat the rest too. I now even feel like that about plants, except of course the selectively poisonous ones. Everything can taste delicious when it’s cooked that way. That’s why I’m here.

Absalom is mad about South Africa’s many beans and we chat about those, my own knowledge having been broadened by farmer friend Siphiwe Sithole of African Marmalade. For his vegetarian sections of the audiences he makes wonderful bean and potato curries.

My second dish is mogodu, South Africa’s major national dish. Everyone’s mother always makes the best one and tripe seems to be a national dish of many countries like Vietnam (in pho), Italy and France, prepared in plenty of different ways. Here it’s v-e-r-y slow cooked in onion broth, sigh-tender.

A surprise teacupful of coconut chicken curry is slipped onto my table. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

But a teacupful of coconut chicken curry is slipped on to my table for me, served with a slice of golden sweet potato, as a small surprise. Chef Absalom serves this or his bean curry, mogudu, ox liver with dumpling as kinds of tapas at Leano, potato wedges for some. The detail of even this curry is in the two lengths of basmati, one sweeter, one nuttier, combined and served, the celery, some cabbage and fennel enriching the curry. 

The little A5 plastic laminated menu may be anti-Covid but does not do justice to the food at Leano. One would never guess at the brilliance and surprise that lies behind say Maotwana/ Chicken Feet in Orange Sauce, with no description or taste hints. One could not guess that behind the little list is such a chef as Absalom Kotsokoane, the man who says, “I’m always a chef before anything else”, when he loves his most ordinary-seeming culinary task. It belies the depth of care, experience and food knowledge that goes into everything he does.

My mogodu comes with Kotosokoane’s own chakalaka, and his pap balls that he used to make at Moeng. He likes people to guess ingredients and once asked me to guess the contents of the balls. I did guess pap but had no idea of the herbs and peas also within. Here there are no peas but herbs in the batter. They’re deep-fried and served with butternut.

My mogudu, sigh-tender, slow-cooked in onion broth, plated with pap balls, Absa’s own chakalaka and butternut. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Kotsokoane mentions that he’s receiving his Chaîne des Rôtisseurs in September and is hoping to do something to celebrate, something that gives him more of an opportunity to show his skills, who he is.

His very long-term plan is quite a leap but may not be something for that celebration, yet. Absalom Kotsokoane’s always looked forward to growing local South African products, preparing and cooking them right there, wherever that is. He wants people to appreciate the natural tastes of true food, to find out about it by eating what he makes with it specially for them. He wants to take leaves from chef Massimo Bottura’s ways of taking the ordinary and creating the extraordinary, to help people to eat but also to work with the world, giving it and people their best chances. 

He asks me to have a taste of some ice cream he’s making and guess what it is. I guess it’s amasi and he pulls a face.

He’s known for taking students into his kitchen. When I ask a friend who also knows Kotsokoane what he thinks of him, he says, “Absa is kindness, care, gentility and gentleness personified. He’s so self-effacing that if you don’t go and experience what he does, you’d probably never know he exists.”

Absalom Kotsokoane’s the chef, remember, who never shouts in the kitchen, always seems happy. 

The show is starting. The piano music seems to fit these moments. I already have goosebumps when chef Absalom adds, “You can’t serve bad food if you’re happy.” DM/TGIFood

Leano Restaurant, 81 De Korte St, Braamfontein 071 664 9253

Follow Marie-Lais Emond on Instagram @marielaisemond

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.

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