TGIFOOD

MASTER OF THE SHEEP’S TAIL

The grammable dishes of chef Richard Carstens

The grammable dishes of chef Richard Carstens
Richard Carstens’ triple take on skaapstertjies, clockwise from right: kapokbos-glazed lambs’ tails with lovage, mustard and gooseberries; with a lamb jus glaze, pickled artichoke and lamb ragu sauce, and miso-glazed with sushi rice, bonito, and umeboshi emulsion. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The uncustomarily modest dimensions of this chef frame a massive talent, yet the humble Richard Carstens took time out of his madly busy schedule to take on the challenge to produce a skaapstertjie dish worthy of a top menu. He did it with aplomb – and in three different ways.

Richard Carstens is a chef among chefs. He was making Insta-worthy plates of food long before Instagram had been invented. The word “grammable” could be applied to every single dish he has ever made. Yet he somehow remains humble, a mensch, unassuming despite his massive talents and achievements. He’s a good man and a great chef.

Carstens has a particular place in my regard right now because he is also the first top chef to take up my challenge to produce a menu-worthy dish centred on the humble skaapstertjie (sheep’s tail). And who, rather than fobbing me off with one quickly-hashed-together dish, spent days on it, practising, experimenting, and finally coming up with not one, not even two, but three skaapstertjie dishes. All of which are utterly wonderful.

I was so touched, truly moved, to be invited to his present Franschhoek restaurant, Arkeste, to taste, well, all three, and surprised to find that, even though each dish was so good, he still felt that they all needed more work before he would add any of them to his menu (which he is now doing). 

He was keen to hear my opinion of each and listened with rapt attention to my (humble, I hope) notes. I say notes because I felt a bit like a director giving notes to an actor after a dress rehearsal; you don’t interrupt the action until it’s curtain-down, because it’s the final rehearsal before opening night; you sit quietly at the back of the theatre, taking notes, then sit down with the actor afterwards and go through them. Except that in this case, the “actor” knew far more than the director.

Carstens gets far more fancy with them

In my Karoo kitchen or at my braai out back, I cook skaapstertjies twice – first in an aromatic stock, then I finish them by crisping them up over hot coals. But Richard Carstens gets far more fancy with them than I did. I make kapokbos skaapstertjies, and I won’t pretend that they aren’t divine because I was inordinately proud of them (here’s that recipe); but I bow to the superior talent and creative palate of this man, for at least three very good reasons:

#Kapokbos-glazed lambs’ tails with lovage, mustard and gooseberries;

#Miso-glazed lambs’ tails with sushi rice, bonito, and umeboshi emulsion (ume is a variety of Japanese plum);

#Lambs’ tails with a lamb jus glaze, pickled artichoke and lamb ragu sauce.

And with that, every other top chef in the country is further challenged to beat all of the above. 

Richard served me small portions of all three one sunny day in early February and each was gobsmackingly good; well, there’s no dish he ever produces that is less than that. Yes, even so, he wanted to tweak them further in the ensuing weeks.

I spoke to Richard again this week and he updated me with the news that he had served the kapokbos-glazed version as one of two dishes he presented at a charity dinner in Franschhoek with three other chefs. Each of them served two dishes to a group of eight people.

“I’m also testing it on my regular customers and have been serving it with a lamb ragu sauce and artichoke and a little bit of polenta. I’m in the process of finalising my autumn-winter menu and the lamb tails will definitely feature. I’ll phase in the new dishes slowly in the next few weeks.”

His airy Franschhoek space is on Chamonix farm where, in the Nineties, he shot to fame while cheffing at La Maison de Chamonix, across the road from the forest-edge venue where he is now, and where the then unknown Reuben Riffel was a young kitchen hand who showed a lot of interest in cooking methods. Earlier, he had been under the wing of the legendary Ralph van Pletzen at his Ralph’s restaurant in Stellenbosch. Ralph is a chef hardly ever mentioned any more, but those of us with long palate memory will never forget his magnificent food.

Carstens has moved extensively since then, including a brief tenure at his Nova restaurant in the Cape Town City Bowl; at Lynton Hall in Pennington, KwaZulu-Natal, where he was the national chef of the year in 2005; and even Melbourne, Australia, at a restaurant called Le Japon where he increased his knowledge of and passion for Japanese cuisine.

More recently he had an extensive stint at Tokara in nearby Stellenbosch. Once upon a time, way back when, I ate his food at Monneaux, Le Provençal (where he first served me garlic ice cream) and at Bijoux, all near to his latest venture. 

The distinguished air of the chef-patron

Here at Arkeste, he has the distinguished air of the chef-patron about him; I sensed that he has truly come into his own, has settled into himself; he seems comfortable in his skin in a way I have not noticed before; perhaps it is simply what comes to us all with the years. He seems as one with this new restaurant environment and I hope, this time, he settles for a lot longer than the wanderings his nomadic spirit has led him on in the past.

There was inevitably going to be something interesting in the ice cream department at that early February lunch. Past incarnations include gorgonzola ice cream, smoked salmon ice cream, mustard ice cream and what else but garlic. The last was also on the menu at Le Japon in Melbourne.

Beneath walls decorated with the architectural photography of London-based South African photographer Adam Letch, just indoors from the expansive patio that overlooks a forest, inevitably his now 25-year-old classic Carstensian take on Baked Alaska came out. This is the dish that is centred on his smoked salmon ice cream, served on softly succulent rainbow trout with citrus salsa, ginger, soy, mirin and caviare. 

You have to do a mind-switch, but if you think about it intelligently there is no reason why a frozen confection cannot be savoury; it is only tradition that has required ice creams to be sweet. And there’s no reason not to break a tradition as long as sweet ice creams don’t disappear. There is space for both.

The Baked Alaska was born in 2000 and has remained on his menus, unchanged, ever since. Two years older, spawned in 1998, is his Franco Japanese Interpretation. This dish has evolved since then; the recipe for the current incarnation of it runs to three pages and comprises an oyster, a mussel, a prawn, calamari, black rice, sushi rice, nori, ponzu, linefish, and a miso marinade. But that isn’t the half of it. You’re presented with a large white plate with an array of morsels in a circle, and are told which one to start with and to eat them clockwise from there. It’s a cortège of texture and flavour, everything cool, yet with bite everywhere too. It is a masterpiece.

The combinations he makes are remarkable. In a cucumber dish you’ll find butter lettuce, red onion, basil, mint, oregano (an underrated herb),  sunflower and pumpkin, cashews, goat’s cheese, meringue, olives and gooseberries. Oh, and a drizzle of lovage oil. That could easily go very wrong, yet in his hands it becomes a perfectly melded morsel.

The dish that had me swooning

The other dish that day that had me swooning was his slow-cooked lamb shoulder with steamed vegetables, polenta and a Cape Malay sweet and sour sauce. There was a little Turkish apricot and a sunny yellow poppadom. For all the bells and whistles on every plate, there is good, solid fare too.

To get here, Carstens had to wade through the pandemic years along with the rest of us – in his case, opening this restaurant early on and having to idle time until the customers were able to come back. 

This was the finest repast I can remember at any of Richard’s tables, and was made even more special by the effort he had gone to to put that humblest of Karoo ingredients, the often forgotten little sheep’s tail, at the centre of the plate. It’s worth the trek to the Valley of the Huguenots for that alone.

Now, who’s next? I’m still looking at you, Peter Tempelhoff, and at you, Pete Goffe-Wood, and any chef who does meet the challenge may well find themselves featuring in these pages. 

If you’re keen to give it a go, let me know at [email protected] and don’t forget to take great hi-res landscape images of the resulting masterpiece. 

Cheers to all that, but especially to Richard Carstens. DM/TGIFood

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