• After years of being the avant-garde enfant terrible of the Gauteng food scene, Dario d’Angeli has returned from a grand tour of the world’s finest restaurants with a new outlook on food and life. Or so he thinks.

    By Anna Trapido

    Dario d’Angeli is famed for his fusion food and daring deconstructed dining. As he shells prawns and chops onions, the selftaught restaurant impresario and former chef-patron of popular restaurant Yum in Greenside, Johannesburg, describes his recent voyage of gastronomic discovery.

    The trip, which encompassed eating everywhere from The French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s in the USA to The Fat Duck in England and El Bulli in Spain, has stirred up a pot of culinary contradictions for the man many consider the darling of South African culinary chic.

    In celebration of the return from his travels, today Dario is cooking for friends in his Parkhurst, Johannesburg home. Of his alimentary adventure he says, “I loved what I saw and tasted overseas but I don’t think that it’s what South Africa wants or needs right now. I went away thinking perhaps I could become the Heston Blumenthal of the southern hemisphere, but I came back knowing that it’s not possible in our context.”

    Maximus his Persian cat looks longingly at the prawn shells but Dario ignores him and tips them all into a pot for seafood stock. The menu for tonight’s meal has been designed with simplicity and friendship in mind. There is no pretension, just simple flavours served with style.

    The Brie and raspberry jam salad was created by Dario’s girlfriend Bianca Brough (who complains that he is “making it wrong”) and the thrice-cooked duck main course was a favourite at his previous restaurant, Salt, in White River. As the ducks are being poached he continues, “I love futuristic cooking, but I have learnt that South African palates need to be educated before such a restaurant could stand a chance of survival here. “My new restaurant, on Rivonia Road in Johannesburg, is called Yum Nostalgia and it is the product of what I have learnt on my travels, but not in the sense that you might expect.”

    As guests start to arrive, Dario explains that his new approach to food is to concentrate on creating those tastes that evoke comforting memories. “I am who I am because of my childhood food memories. I still contend that my mother makes the world’s best roast lamb.” As he rolls out pasta for butternut ravioli he remarks that locally he loves the work of Margot Janse. “I am inspired by the tasting room at Le Quartier Français. As a work of art it is unsurpassed, but the reality is that it is her bistro and not the tasting room that is packed. If we want to survive as restaurateurs in South Africa we need to slow down and wait for the market to catch up. We can’t impose sea urchin with gin jelly on an unwilling public just because it’s what chefs think they should eat.”

    As salt-crusted ducks sizzle in the oven and the seafood stock reaches its aromatic climax, Maximus is in a frenzy of excitement but Dario, unaware of the feline fury, is happily peeling peaches and melting chocolate for his dessert. As he whips cream he continues, “Before we can have a food revolution we need to get a sense of our food identity as South Africans.

    What we find comforting and nostalgic is part of who we are. Australia only became an interesting food destination when they looked around and realised their proximity to Asia. We need to look around and define ourselves in the context of our continent and life experiences. Looking at what the South African public really like to eat is an important part of this process.” Despite his conclusion that we are not ready for the modern culinary masterpieces he saw and tasted overseas, Dario is remarkably upbeat.

    However, his depiction of a local food culture that can support nothing but comfort food is extremely demoralising for those of us with aspirations of futuristic fine dining. But then the chef calls us to the table and tasting the food lifts any sense of depression. The food is simple South African perfection. The combination of apricot glaze, butternut and peaches are central to the South African flavour repertoire. His attempt at comfort food is an unnervingly accurate portrait of a nation.

    In the TV comedy series Friends, Rachel once quipped, “The way to find the man of your dreams is to stop looking for him, so I have stopped looking for Russell Crowe. He’ll find me.” Dario’s duck is the gastronomic equivalent of calling off the search for Russell Crowe. Something tells me that Dario’s fantasy futuristic restaurant is much closer than he thinks.

    By Vanessa Grobler

    Be sure to check out any of the top Parkhurst restaurants.