• Richard Carstens has opened a new restaurant, Nova in Cape Town. While showing a few culinary tricks of his trade, Richard discusses style, ingredients and unadventurous diners.

    By Kim Maxwell

    A nova is a new star that suddenly increases in brightness after a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. I can’t vouch for chef Richard Carstens’s thinking in naming his Cape Town restaurant Nova, but I’d hazard a guess that he’d like diners to have a culinary experience of such proportions that the world as they know it might shift. Richard is a disciple of the school of cooking that employs complex techniques, multiple flavour distillations and textural renditions more often associated with gastronomic science than with recognisable farmers’ market produce.

    Labels such as “molecular gastronomy” are often applied to what he prefers to call “a more modernised way of looking at food that leans towards the avantgarde style. As [Spanish chef] Ferran [Adrià] said, the first foam created had nothing to do with science. It was an evolution of an idea when he realised that fruit juice foam had more flavour than its juice. It was similar with savoury ice creams,” Richard explains. South Africans might remember Richard’s savoury Gorgonzola ice creams at a Franschhoek restaurant called Le Provençal (now Grand Provence) in 1999.

    After reading about Ferran Adrià’s savoury ice creams, he’d started experimenting with Gorgonzola and mushroom versions, graduating to pinotage and carrot foams and the like. Moving to Bijou restaurant in Franschhoek, baked Alaska with smoked trout ice cream became a signature dish. Incorporating a stint in Australia to dabble with Franco-Japanese fusion, Richard’s next challenge (between 2002 and 2007) was putting KwaZulu-Natal’s Lynton Hall restaurant on the culinary map. He did.

    When Richard’s personal life necessitated a move to Cape Town, he found dining fans at Manolo restaurant, before assisting chef Mike Bassett at Myoga at the Vineyard Hotel & Spa on culinary projects until mid-2008. Opening Nova in November 2008 as chef patron was a long time in the making. Restaurateur Richard Walsh is a partner and his venue Relish operates as a bar on the building’s second and third floors. Nova occupies the ground floor, with a separate entrance wallpapered in gold with black floral motifs.

    The rest of the 50-seater venue features stark white linen, slipcovers and walls. A cream banquette, dark wood wine rack, sheer brown blinds and Table Mountain views provide the only diversions – the focus stays on the food. In the bowels of the Nova kitchen, I’m observing Spanish olive oil being heated with maltodextrin (a sugar derivative) to form a pale green powder resembling grated Parmesan. Cake mixture with the scent of ground pine nuts is being piped from a siphon gun into a plastic cup and microwaved. It’s over-baked, so Richard scrutinises his stopwatch more carefully during the second attempt. He’s obsessive about details yet patient with kitchen protégés.

    Richard’s chefs leave his employ with cooking manuals. Asked if he’s concerned that some diners might find savoury ice creams, froths and liquid nitrogen intimidating – or worse – off-putting, he states: “Our waiters know all the techniques we use: spherification, how the olive oil powder is made… they taste new items and can explain it,” adding that only the degustation menu pushes the boat out in an avant-garde direction. “The à la carte menu offers dishes grounded in the classics, with lighter cuisine and sauces.”

    A clean Japanese aesthetic and delicate flavouring are other common features. I’d tried the seven-course degustation menu the previous evening, where a nitrogen-frozen citric dome with melon seed milk and caramelised caviar had introduced the meal. Some elements seemed superfluous, while other aspects cleverly highlighted an ingredient. Individual elements came alive in a study of tomatoes topped with nitrogen-frozen tomato passata foam bits. Although finicky in totality, the tomato sorbet did complement tomato petals and chewy dehydrated tomato skins interspersed with pine nut sponge cake. Similarly, in the togarashi salt salmon dish with scallop and salted apricot emulsion, Japanese seven-spice mix lifted the salmon skin in a delicious direction.

    By the time the sour lemon white “snowball” plus Asian-inspired cakey bits arrived in a dramatic whoosh of nitrogen, I could sense a culinary pattern, even if my sensible side sometimes deemed it excessive. And perhaps this is the point. “We’re moving along with technology. Why shouldn’t food also move? If it’s available, why not use it?” Richard explains with characteristic folded arms, intense brown eyes driving home a point. “In this kitchen, a baby carrot or tomato should be treated with the same respect as a loin of veal or piece of foie gras. It’s about isolation of ingredients and encapsulation of flavour of that ingredient – you’re letting tomatoes speak for themselves by separating the parts.” He’s been experimenting with methyl cellulose and alginates, and he’s trying to get his hands on trisol, a coating that won’t absorb oil in a tempura batter.

    As an amateur cook, I don’t expect to understand these things. But I can appreciate how Richard’s style has matured at Nova, and how it’s contributing to South African cuisine. To borrow from Madrid-based journalist Lisa Abend’s article on modern Spanish food on www.slate.com: “What lies at its [Spain’s] heart is not a particular dish – not even the emblematic foam. Rather, it’s a spirit – a vigorous, often intellectual search for new flavours that takes place not just in gardens and pantries, but in landscapes and art exhibitions, and, yes, in the laboratory. And that isn’t going away.”

    By Warren Heath