Lighting an Argentinian fire in the Cradle of Humankind

Lighting an Argentinian fire in the Cradle of Humankind
Now there is fire at the NIROX Sculpture Park restaurant. (Photo: Supplied)

First there was CHE ‘and then there was Fire…’. But even before there was CHE Argentine Grill in Jozi, the big meat, big fire, big excitement restaurant, there was an Argentinian who arrived in the city. He was trying to make sense of his surroundings.

Today, for the first time, I meet Bernardo Corti, owner of And then there was Fire… restaurant in the Cradle of Humankind, just out of Jozi. Bernardo’s life partner, Manuela, had met me on arrival at this calm and lovely place and suggested I go for a walk and come back after 20 “or more minutes”. It was a pleasure, particularly because of all the park art and is now a pleasure to share coffee with Bernardo.

On arrival in South Africa, Bernardo had been finding that Jozi seemed, disappointingly, less ‘African’ than he had expected. There were also no markets to buy fresh produce. It turned out he was in Morningside, better known for its French denizens. Jozi is where everyone is from somewhere else. It’s how Joburg food became what it is. He was told to go to Maboneng to find “a good market”. And he went.

“You know, a market for buying the local ingredients for the day?” I nod as he throws back an espresso in the country sunshine. “In Maboneng I found another thing, a big hall where you could buy takeaways from many other countries of the world. It was called a market. Well. But in Maboneng I also found the people, real people from this country, from this continent. I liked it very much.” 

In the country sunshine. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Since he was there and saw the food from so many places, he asked if he could add some Argentinian food to this “market”. “Yes.”

Over the popular but simple food, mainly empanadas, Berni was making to sell suddenly at his stall over weekends at the Arts on Main Market, he made friends with a man from the Uruguay embassy, Oscar Faraldo. They worked together at this and other so-called markets. Oscar introduced the Argentinian grilled meats to their offering. They were always selling out of everything. NIROX, the Arts Trust, was run from Arts on Main too, by Benji Liebmann, the father of the man who initiated and developed Maboneng itself. Berni and Oscar also catered at arts events and embassy events with their simple but exciting food.

“Yes, it was not too long before we opened a real restaurant in Maboneng,” says Berni. “We are friends and we call our Argentine Grill CHE.” It’s chummy colloquial slang for “friend”, especially one coming from Argentina. I tell him that I’d loved the atmosphere there as well as the food. They’d put it together themselves in an old Alfa Romeo workshop with concrete, chicken wire, lots of creamy lace and old wooden tables. The long grill was at eye level and many patrons would sit up front and watch it, like a show, which it was, with the foreign meat cuts being shifted around. There were tango evenings too.  

The CHE men continued with the markets, interestingly, both the Maboneng and the then Neighbourgoods in Braamfontein. They were always catering as well. Those two young people were obviously enjoying themselves, making their own home food, and everyone loved it.

The centre of the Maboneng development began to falter in concept. Quite a few businesses sensed a shakeup and started moving out. CHE Argentine Grill moved to Parkwood, on the art gallery strip of Jan Smuts and are now an extended part of Parks Corner (see Eat and drink the city’s best, all in one Parkwood block), where they developed another romantic, vibey version of their first restaurant, also called CHE. Both Oscar and Berni are still owner-partners. It is still popular. South Africans, like Argentinians, love meat and especially meat off a fire.

But Berni now lives here outside the city, in the Cradle with Manu or Manuela Gutierrez, whom he met in San Pedro, Buenos Aires. Their sweet, elderly dog, Carlito, is from Mexico. Berni’s from Argentina but has lived in Brazil, Mexico and London. He says three of his grandparents were Italian and one Spanish.

Berni says, “It’s like a dream,” looking around in the sunshine. The dreamy look of the new version of the new NIROX restaurant is probably part of it. This NIROX  sculpture park has for many years drawn people out of the city to appreciate both this extremely beautiful location and the artworks dotted around within it, courtesy of the NIROX  Foundation. Benji’s son Nick now manages it for his father. As ever, invited artists are given residencies on the property. The only sad part of it was the food side of the experience. There was never anything that measured up to the art. There were certain art and music events with fairly interesting foods available but it generally seemed a little desultory. I used to wonder why.

Dreamy white fabric drifts today in the light breeze through the much expanded main building, open sided. Huge white cushions soften the bareness of concrete and wooden benches or platforms. Underfoot is sand, plain and simple. It is peace to the eye and the other senses. On the bare tables with pure white linen napkins and plain plates is a sprig of rosemary each.

To the palate or plate comes the food of Bernardo Corti. It is homely food, welcoming food, nothing unnerving or complicated. It is pure, unsullied, happy taste. Most of it is Argentinian. There are small dishes, often Italian based, Mexican based, Peruvian, kind-of tapas that feature the same sense of food, the simply natural fare made from the ingredients farmed or grown in this area.

Fire-grilled meat at the new Parkwood CHE. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

And then there was fire… It’s the name of the restaurant, referencing the Cradle of Humankind and its evidence of controlled fire used by hominids over a million years ago but also the flame grill controlled by Bernardo for our food. 

Everything edible on the menu is made or naturally produced here, except ocean fish which is reliably, traceably sourced from the coast. Bernardo, when he meets guest artists from other parts of the world here, asks them to make with him “their favourite dish from home, from a farmhouse or a cottage” Sometimes it’s incorporated into his menu. The food is served fresh, maybe pickled here, preserved or it is fire-grilled, often both. The bread, specially developed right here, is particularly delicious.

Utterly delicious bread and charcuterie made by chef Bernardo Corti. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

The local meat, chicken and egg farms and farmers, Van Gaalen Kaasmakerij down the road, the other local makers and providers are part of all this, contributive. When I spoke to Bernardo a week ago, a neighbouring farm’s free-range pig was being slaughtered and he was there too, to help with the process and the use of every part of the animal, including the blood. He made sausages with that as well as other Argentinian charcuterie. All offal is used at his restaurant too, I’m delighted to say.

Apart from Corti and Guttierez and presently one other, the people who make up the staff are all from this area, trained, fed and accommodated as organically and ethically as the rest of the place, befittingly.

Guest chef Leo Lanussol with chef Berni. (Photo: Supplied)

Part of Bernardo’s dream is what came of his Instagram contact with many other chefs. “I am not a true chef by education – I am just an unstoppable cook,” he claims. But one of such heroes, also from South America, has for him been chef Leo Lanussol of Proper in Buenos Aires and recently Varro in Los Angeles. He has the same ethos of natural everything and wood-fired cooking.

“I say to myself,” says Berni, “‘One day I like to cook with this chef,’ but he’s one of the Michelin people. I’m also ready to raise my game. And then I ask him. He’s here. Now I am really living a dream come true. He’s everything on the fire.” 

Clockwise: the fire bread, lamb kidneys, country paté, broccolini in fermented cashew. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

For lunch, there are three new small dishes. I can’t wait to taste them because the way they’re prepared is already delicious. Responsible, simply wonderful. Along with some fire bread are lamb kidneys quickly seared on the fire, served with this farm-made harissa sauce, farm-made yoghurt, long-cooked butter beans and local vegetables. Another dish bears a rich country paté. The third has fire-grilled fresh broccolini with farm-fermented and -made cashew cream plus crispy chilli. There’s the grilled meat of course but I’m more keen to try the blood sausage and chorizo that Berni made a week ago. I’m delighted I did. So is Berni.

Leo Lanussol is at NIROX  now, as an artist in residence for three or so months. He is helping Bernardo to change the menu, co-ordinating the rustic cuisine at And then there was fire…. Lanussol who’s current restaurant, Varro is named after clay,as in earthen vessels, is a chef from the kitchens of the legendary Argentinian chef, Francis Mallmann, author of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way.

He is, if possible, even more fanatical about cooking only very local ingredients, using the fire of course, making great tastes of simple, organic farm style food. In Los Angeles he’s even involved in more, unwooded, less sophisticated, less aged wines grown in harmony with the land. I know where Berni gets this enthusiasm for the same idea from. It’ll be interesting to see what he does along those lines in a big-wine country like South Africa. It’s interesting to consider and makes me think of many home wines in France as I squint into the light. 

The sun shines differently today. Now here is fire indeed as the new chef friends are creating a new menu of rustic, honest greatness. This is what’s very exciting, their expert handling of simplicity. DM/TGIFood

And then there was fire… is in NIROX Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind 40 minutes from central Jozi on the R540. It is open from Thursdays to Sundays. Entrance to the Sculpture Park is R120 for adults and R60 for children under the age of 12. Adults with a confirmed booking at ‘And then there was Fire…’ enter at a reduced fee of R70.

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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