• KZN restaurateur Paul Sheppard turns comfort food into culinary nirvana with his suckling pig.

    Tracy Gielink

    fha2012615114346Paul Sheppard, owner of Mount Edgecombe eatery Marco Paulo, has an all-consuming love of food and is a firm disciple of the Slow Food movement (see page 116). The 29-year old chef makes a lovingly prepared suckling pig, and says pork has played a big part in his culinary experiences. “In my gap year after school I travelled and worked through Europe, and I remember being in Barcelona and not eating for the whole day just so I could afford the expensive hams at the market. I didn’t even know what Iberico ham was, but I knew I wanted it. Nothing else seemed to matter.” His career began with a three-year indenture at the Royal Hotel School in Durban. At night he worked in a restaurant and loved the adrenalinecharged life.

    He joined the Three Cities group and set up the food and beverage side of uShaka Marine World before moving to Durban institution Spiga d’Oro, which gave him a new perspective: “I got a chance to engage with people in the front of house, and discovered how smitten people actually are with food.”

    Marco Paulo is a joint venture with food industry consultant Marco Nico, who met Paul at uShaka. “We hit it off immediately. We share a real love of feeding others and ourselves. The time came when I needed to go on my own, so I resigned, phoned Marco and said, ‘I’m unemployed; you’re going to need to help me open a shop.’ Who knows what I would have done had he not taken pity on me. Marco gave me the gap.

    It’s very rare to find someone in our industry that will share all their knowledge with complete transparency and honesty.” The now firm friends opened Marco Paulo in February 2008. Located just  outside the prestigious enclave of the gated Mount Edgecombe golf estate, the restaurant fast gained (and has maintained) a loyal fan base. Marco sold his shares in the restaurant inSeptember 2009 to Paul’s ex-Spiga colleague Brenton Franks.

    The two have maintained and exalted the restaurant’s cult status, but Paul is quick to pay tribute to Marco’s profound influence on him as a chef and restaurateur. “Marco is a forager. Way before it became trendy he was sourcing ingredients in the suburban environment. I’ve spent a whole afternoon with him hopping over people’s fences because he remembers being at that house 10 years ago and there was a bay tree. He finds wild spinach, pink peppercorns, amakhowe, sea urchins, clams, octopus… if he was on Survivor he would never be voted off. My staff call the wild spinach ‘mahala veg’ – free veg.
    I still get a kick out of picking it in the summer. Everything costs so much nowadays that picking produce that grows wild is thrilling.” Paul’s Italian-influenced lunch menu kicks off with suppli (risotto cakes), a snack native to the Lazio region of Rome. They are served on a bed of rocket and topped with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomato pesto. For the main course, Paul has indulged his fixation of porchetta style suckling pig – the star attraction has a simple supporting act in the form of a green salad and perfectly roasted rosemary potatoes. It is a decadent feast dish. “I remember reading Asterix and  Obelix as a kid and salivating at the sight of those golden roast boars,” says Paul.

    “I have always been besotted with pork, so it was a natural step for me to start making suckling pig. We cook it in the pizza oven overnight and start off the next day with lashings of sweet pork between slices of bread for breakfast.” Wine is another of Paul’s great love affairs and he is currently playing with matching different pinot noirs to the suckling pig. “I grew up in a house where I was sent to the cellar before dinner to choose a bottle of wine. It was a big deal, so wine has always been associated with food for me. I like finding wines that become favourites with my guests.

    It’s always great when a wine develops a little cult following.” Paul puts taste ahead of calorie counting and ends the meal with a three-chocolate semifreddo, creamy and rich with white, milk and dark chocolate. His favourite meal, he says, is always a work in progress, but he favours simple meals. “We play the death-row-meal game at work, and what we’d each choose as our last meal changes all the time. Right at this moment I’m craving a prawn and homemade mayo sarmie.

    But tomorrow it will be different. I love crumbed pork or veal. A crumbed veal chop is a special thing. “I have learnt that it’s so easy to destroy a meal with too many flavours and distractions. That cutting and shaping food into geometric shapes thathave perfect symmetry on the plate is not how I want to spend my time. I also know that if something doesn’t look and smell good when raw, no amount of cooking is likely to help it.”

    Marco Paulo, Shop 3, Accord House, 2 Golf Course Drive, Mount Edgecombe. Call 031-502-2221.

    Clinton Friedman