• Perfect produce plus a dash of passion equals success. Just ask Giorgio Nava…

    By Richard Holmes

    Visit www.95keerom.com, www.carne-sa.com, www.mozzarellabar.co.za and www.caffemilanonaples.com
    I’m convinced of it. Giorgio Nava must be the hardest-working chef in the business. With four eateries, a cheese factory and two farms to keep an eye on, you’d expect him to spend most of his days behind a desk, crunching numbers before running off to meetings with the bean counters.

    Instead, it’s a rare day when the 48-year-old isn’t on the floor – or in the kitchen – of his four Cape Town restaurants. Most mornings see him fine-tuning the menu at Kloof Street’s trendy Caffe Milano, a palace for delicate Italian pastries, before stopping in at The Mozzarella Bar next door to watch foodies bustling in and out in search of creamy burrata, a fresh rotolo, or a batch of fior di latte.

    Down in the city’s legal district, candlelit evenings are spent greeting diners at 95 Keerom. While keeping an eye on the kitchen and making patrons feel at home, his lilting Italian accent runs through the specials and raises women’s pulses. But the carnivorous crowd at Carne SA aren’t forgotten either, and Giorgio is usually on hand to tell guests all about the meat that was reared on his Karoo farm; grass-fed and as free range as it gets.

    It’s an impressive culinary CV for a man who was born in Milan, started out in the international flower trade, arrived in South Africa just over a decade ago, and did his training at the kitchen coalface. “I haven’t trained as a chef, but I have had the luck and opportunity to work with some very good chefs and train with them. I have good eyes and a good memory, and I have good hands,” says Giorgio in typically humble style, his chef’s whites gleaming atop a pair of tailored jeans and leather loafers.

    The outfit is a perfect mirror of the man: serious about the formality of the kitchen, but without ego or pretence. But with so much on the go, does he really get to spend any time in the kitchen these days? “I’m a chef first but, as the number of restaurants increase, I have to spend more time out of the kitchen,” says Giorgio. “And I don’t like too much paperwork, so I try to surround myself with good people I can trust and rely on, to allow me more time in the kitchen.” As if on cue, the morning’s prep gets going and 95 Keerom is a hive of activity.

    As we chat over a coffee – surprisingly, it’s un-Italian tea for Giorgio – deliveries flow into the kitchen and the phone rings incessantly as the reservations book fills up for the evening. It’s the end of the summer season, but Giorgio’s eateries are fully booked most nights of the week. It’s no small achievement in the over-traded and notoriously fickle Cape Town restaurant scene. So what’s the secret, I ask him. “The passion I put into my restaurants is seen by my customers. I’m always in my restaurants and people rely on that,” explains Giorgio. “I’m on the floor; you see me every night. Each evening I go through my tables, so people feel at home. That is the only secret I know.”

    And it’s a secret that seems to be working. 95 Keerom, his northern Italian eatery much loved for its delicate carpaccios and hand-crafted pastas, opened nearly a decade ago and remains a perennial favourite in Cape Town, winning Eat Out magazine’s award for the country’s Best Italian Restaurant last year.

    The new kids – Caffe Milano and The Mozzarella Bar – opened in early 2011 and are steadily building a coterie of loyal clientele, but it’s Giorgio’s monument to meat that is perhaps his most striking addition to the Cape culinary scene. Carne SA, situated directly across Keerom Street from ‘95’ is, as the name suggests, all about meat. And not just any old steak slapped on the grill and dished up with chips and creamed spinach. In bringing an Italian palate to protein, Carne SA reimagines what a steak restaurant can be. A counterpoint to the exposedbrick embrace of 95 Keerom, or the over-chintzy wood-panelled feel of most steakhouses, Carne SA is about industrial minimalism. Transparent ‘ghost chairs’ abut brushed steel walls and unadorned tables, putting the focus firmly on the steaks that fly off the grill.

    Much of the beef and almost all of the venison is sourced from Giorgio’s two Karoo farms outside Graaff-Reinet, and it’s all grass-fed and free range. What’s not from his own land is from his neighbour’s – “because I know exactly how they graze their cattle” – or from free-range farms in Namibia and Botswana. “I always choose grass-fed, because for me it has a far better flavour,” says Giorgio simply. “Of course the cattle don’t grow as fast as if you feed them grain, so it takes time to fatten them up, but that is no problem. I’m in no hurry.”

    Apart from championing grass-fed beef, Carne SA has also been proactive in introducing local palates to new cuts. Because, contrary to popular belief, there is more to a cow than sirloin, rump and fillet, says Giorgio. “You know, in Italy we cut our animal more than 26 ways. Here in South Africa it’s only 10 or 12 cuts. At Carne there is a lot of interest in new cuts of meat, but you have to tell people what they will get. For example, hangar steak is next to the kidneys, so it has a particularly gamey flavour. We explain that to people so they are not surprised by what’s on their plate.”

    Fillet on the bone, wing rib and prime rib are other staples on the menu – “the meat cooked next to the bone is fantastic” – as are liver, kidneys and sweetbreads. But South Africans are only adventurous up to a point, laughs Giorgio. “I don’t cook the difficult cuts like the brain, heart or testicles, because they will be difficult to understand. The South African palate just isn’t used to these. I tried the bollito misto [boiled meats, usually including tongue, trotter, brisket, chicken and Italian sausage] for a while, because it’s a dish I love. But it didn’t sell.”

    And after four restaurants and a decade in the industry, Giorgio would rather pull a dish off the menu than water down Italian traditions to suit local tastes. Because, apart from being a Certified Master Chef of Italian Cuisine, what would his mother think? “I do not compromise my food,” says Giorgio emphatically. “What would my mama say if she eat that dish? Sometimes customers ask for barbecue sauce for their steak, or soy sauce for the carpaccio. They ask for sauce everywhere, but the answer is always ‘No’.”

    South Africans’ obsession with sauces is a particular bugbear for Giorgio. “For us Italians, the sauce is olive oil… only olive oil,” says Giorgio, slightly bemused that it could be any other way. “These other sauces are only helpful because chefs can use them to hide ingredients that are not as fresh. “But when it is only olive oil, finally people discover how good meat can really be. Served like this, with just olive oil and salt, you can’t hide anything. Finally the customer gets to eat the meat and actually taste the flavour of the steak, not the sauce.”

    I’m certainly one of those steak-lovers who will keep going back for more. And as restaurants and chefs hail a return to the primacy of produce, and letting the ingredients do the talking, Giorgio Nava seems to simply shrug his Italian shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about. “We have always focused on the ingredients completely: you order a steak, you get an amazing steak grilled perfectly. You order fish at 95 Keerom and you get a fantastic piece of fresh, well-cooked fish. This is what you order; this is what you get. Simple as that.” Passion, simplicity… and a dollop of hard work. Welcome to the wonderful world of Giorgio Nava.

    by Bruce Tuck