TSOGO Hotels, Chef “Benny”, South Africa

benny's lambbenny's amarula milk tartchef bennyMy memories around great food go all the way back to my childhood. My mother was Italian and a great cook , as were her mother and sisters.  I remember going to Mama’s on holidays and upon entering her house immediately smelling the enticing aromas coming from her kitchen.  The fragrance of fennel, the almost acrid aroma of roasted garlic and fresh baked Italian bread settled into every part of my being.  The anticipation and excitement never left my senses. At home my Mom prepared authentic meals the same way almost every Sunday.  So I grew up expecting to always eat well.  This expectation allowed me to appreciate truly good food.

So it was quite a pleasant experience when my colleagues and I were recently invited to taste the cuisine of South Africa, held at the impressive new digs of Rick Smilow’s ICE (Institute of  Culinary Education)  in Brookside Place in downtown NYC.

Prepared and cooked by one of the top chefs from Johannesburg , Chef Benny Masekwameng , executive chef at Tsogo Sun Hotels, related to me that he grew up much the same way as I.   Chef Benny  told me when he was very young he would stand next to his mother and learn from her the tastes and techniques of his homeland in Alexandra township.  His hard work and dedication led him through an illustrious career in cuisine. He consults on a number of TV  food shows, represents South African cuisine throughout the continent and at international food events, inspires young talent and is  now showing  the western world his great talent.

At the luncheon, we started with an Amarula cocktail, not too sweet but rich, creamy and delightful. A local fermentation from the fruit of the marula tree, sometimes called the Elephant Tree since the pachyderm loves eating it.  In fact, the distiller of this liqueur has the elephant as its symbol because it is also involved in the protection and conservation of the South African Elephant. Kudos to this distillery!

For starters, we enjoyed a crayfish and avocado mayonnaise cocktail, a tempura prawn tail, stuffed calamari tube and other seafood delights.  All the seafood was purchased in Chinatown, where Chef Benny said he spent so much of his time the first day, inspired by the shops in and around Canal Street.  Chef also prepared for us other dishes of note using ingredients he bought here in NYC, but using techniques from his own kitchen. The sugar beans with brown lentils was a surprisingly tasty accompaniment; as were the crushed green peas and potato croquette served with the pan seared lamb loin in red wine jus.  For dessert we had a deconstructed Amarula Milk Tart –much like a panna cotta–served with fresh berries and a cool berry sorbet.

All dishes were accompanied by wines from several of South Africa’s best vineyards:  a RAATS Chenin Blanc; Demorgenzon DMZ Syrah and a sweet, amber Muscat d’Alexandrie from Heaven on Earth vineyard.

This event was sponsored by South African Airways, South African Tourism board and Tsogo Sun Hotels. At the end of this day’s experience, we wasted no time in adding to our bucket list a future trip to this most beautiful part of the African continent. .

To your health,