Clive Aaron is making culinary waves in Durban with his approach to modern South African cuisine. We had lunch with him at his new restaurant, EatMe Gourmet Cafe.
By Tracy Gielink
Clive Aaron, quietly stylish in a chef’s jacket made by local fashion designer Terrence Bray, doesn’t look his 40 years. Glasses invoke a sense of studiousness that is dispelled by an easy smile and a ready laugh when his focus shifts from cooking. A good sense of humour and literary inspiration are behind the name EatMe, Clive’s catering company and newly opened gourmet café, both of which operate in Durban. “The name is inspired by Alice in Wonderland,” he explains. “When Alice fell through the rabbit hole, she came across a slice of cake with a sign on it that demanded, ‘Eat me’. On doing so, she was magically transformed.
I too want to magically change people’s days by serving great food in a friendly atmosphere with attentive service. I have experienced this transformation on occasion, usually unexpectedly, when I’ve been to a fantastic restaurant, and have had an all-round incredible food experience and suddenly realised how my mood had lifted.” Becoming a professional chef was a late career move – Clive joined the ranks of the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in 2001. “It’s a second career.
My family was in the shoe manufacturing business and when I resigned I didn’t know I was going to get into cooking; it just happened. The closer the deadline came for acceptance (to college), the more I realised I wanted to do it. Part of it I suppose was that my partner Richard Salmon was a good eater!
Richard and his friends are foodies – they inspired me and steered me in this direction.” Clive stuck to his original plan of starting a catering company (he opened three years ago and still caters for a select clientele) but also does cooking demonstrations and opened EatMe Gourmet Café in July to give himself a creative outlet. The restaurant is a daytime-only affair covering breakfast and lunch, with plans to hold gourmet evenings three times a month. Food aside, there is also an independent beauty salon and Terrence Bray showcases a small range of clothing.
While opening the restaurant, he was also busy with the transformation of his “narrow, ugly, 70s kitchen” at home and his custom-made Ilve stove is now his pride and joy. “It weighs just under a ton and we had to hire a crane to lift it over the wall. Six strapping men had to carry it up the stairs,” he laughs. The beautiful piece is artistically offset against a mosaic splashback designed by Jane du Rand, wife of Eerhard Huizinga, the architect who redesigned the kitchen. The stove offers further enticement for Clive to entertain and, on this occasion, he’s hosting some of the “Cook Sisters”. They are a group of women who have been attending his cooking demonstrations for three years. The demos originally started in his home kitchen but have now graduated to the restaurant. “I use free-range and organic ingredients for healthier eating,” says Clive.
“It’s not ‘diet’ food but you should have an idea of where things come from and how we got them. “The style I am attempting is modern South African, a combination of various elements put together in a way that is uniquely local. During a trip to Australia I was particularly inspired by the way they have developed Mod Oz cuisine and reclaimed traditional European food as their own by putting a uniquely Australian spin on it.” One wall of the kitchen is lined with windows and in the sun-drenched room, Clive whips up cappuccinos before systematically getting to work.
A spring menu boasts fresh flavours and colours, and pairs simple basics that are elegantly prepared. It starts with the restaurant’s much-loved sweet potato gnocchi tossed with rocket and chilli pesto and served with baby spinach and feta. “The River Café in London has been an inspiration – they have gone from fancy stuff back to basics, and that inspired me as a chef to go back to where we started. Many of the ideas I’m using today are European, yet the final dish is South African,” explains Clive as he coats spring lamb in a brioche and herb crust. Dessert, a delectably subtle green apple bavarois, has been prepared in advance and requires simple unmoulding and plating. It’s all savoured on the veranda of his Glenwood home, which offers sweeping vistas of the harbour on one of Durban’s trademark idyllic days.
EatMe Gourmet Café, 100 Clarence Road, Morningside, 031-303-4118.
By Sally Chance