• Milanese chef Giorgio Nava produces classic northern Italian recipes at both his Cape Town restaurants.

    By Kim Maxwell

    “‘Mantecatura’ means to stir,” Giorgio Nava says. “It’s what you do to finish a risotto, vigorously stirring butter and Parmesan to bind it together. None of this cream I sometimes see added in South Africa; make risotto with cream in Italy and they’ll arrest you and throw away the key!” He’s explaining why it’s impossible to offer risotto on the menu of his northern Italian restaurant 95 Keerom Street, or at Carne SA, his new venue focused on meat, across the road in Cape Town’s central business district. Italian traditions dictate that original recipes are followed without compromise or additions. “Italian recipes have been around for 600 years and never change. Osso buco is osso buco; lasagne is lasagne. We may be making the dishes lighter for health reasons, but the main ingredients shouldn’t change,” he says.

    Drawing on his tutelage under some of the best chefs in Italy during his early career, Giorgio feels culinary innovation and creativity are overrated. One of his early mentors was Gualtiero Marchesi, known as “il maestro” in Italy. The first chef in Italy to receive three Michelin stars in 1986, Gualtiero caused a stir in 2008 when he announced that he planned to give back the guide’s one-star rating for one of his restaurants. He reportedly said that at the age of 78 he no longer wanted to be judged like a student.

    To the young Giorgio, Gualtiero’s strict work ethic made a sobering impression. “If your jacket had a mark on it, you’d be sent home to change; if the knives were not in the correct positions, you were called back after a shift,” he says. In Giorgio’s domain, a spotless kitchen, fresh apron and clean white chef’s jacket are standard. He changes jackets two or three times a day when there is a lot on the stove; and with two open kitchens, Giorgio’s perfectionist tendencies mean he’s usually quick to raise his voice about hygiene with his staff.

    Customers who dined at 95 Keerom Street in the early days will also recall Giorgio’s presence. A typical experience involved the menu and specials being recited by Giorgio in precise Italian-accented detail to every table. Some diners loved it; others complained that it was overbearing. Nowadays the mood is more relaxed: Giorgio visits both restaurants every evening to chat to regulars, but menus and waiters do the rest. There is no disputing that Giorgio inspires respect and loyalty from employees. Chef Carl Penn worked for him when 95 Keerom Street opened in 2003, and returned from a stint overseas to become head chef – and partner – at new restaurant Carne SA in late 2008.

    Carl describes Giorgio as the best boss he’s worked for: somebody who knows what he wants yet is also very generous. As a partner Carl is involved in decisions ranging from decor to menus and recipe translations.Some things you may not know about the Milanese chef: rosemary is Giorgio’s favourite fresh herb and he doesn’t drink coffee or follow soccer. He believes that a lot of garlic ruins a dish, and if quality is optimal then ingredients should be cooked without adornments. “When Italians sit at a table, it’s always a feast of four courses, plus a little something to taste. We call it ‘assaggio’. But portions are small, to allow only a sampling of each,” he explains. Defying the cliché that Italian restaurants in South Africa offer only pizza and pasta, regular customers return weekly to 95 Keerom Street to enjoy grilled meat, carpaccio variations and fish.

    Says Giorgio: “People forget that Italy has about 2 000km of coastline with fish and shellfish. And that we can also braai, without any basting sauce!” Grilled meat at Carne SA is some of the tastiest you’ll encounter. Giorgio is in the privileged position of being able to supply his own restaurants with fish and meat that have been healthily reared and handled: the game, lamb and beef are grass fed and reared on his Karoo farms – and it shows in the flavour. “It is the dream of every chef to know the raw materials,” he says proudly. In fact, fishing and game hunting were the hobbies that originally brought Giorgio to Cape Town at the end of 1999.

    He had entered a kitchen at the age of 17 and by 1999 was suffering from burnout. Cape Town provided his break from cooking in European restaurants. What started out as just a fishing holiday led to a popular nightclub called Rhodes House being established in an historic building. In 2003 Giorgio created a stylish restaurant at the back of Rhodes House called 95 Keerom Street.

    Carl Penn was employed to run the kitchen while Giorgio stayed in the front. But when one of the chefs didn’t pitch for Christmas lunch in 2004, Giorgio put on his chef’s jacket for the first time in years and enjoyed cooking again. “From that moment, I never missed a shift at 95 Keerom. If I went away, I closed the restaurant for a couple of days.” Ask Giorgio about his personal life and he laughs. “I’m married to the restaurants: I have two wives, and lots of kids!” Leaving home after breakfast during an average day, Giorgio’s working week is unrelenting, but those close to him swear that he’s happiest working.

    He spares one weekend every month to drive to his Karoo farms, where Italian Romagnola cattle are crossed with South African Nguni and Afrikaner cows. He also breeds game and Dorper lamb. Besides an export meat business, the Karoo provides time for Giorgio to hunt game and to bond with his beloved stud bulls. His face lights up: “I spend a few hours with the bulls whenever I’m there. I recognise them all and know them by name.

    By Warren Heath