Food to die for, PR not so much

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By Diane De Beer

Pretoria - It was quite intriguing to travel to Joburg to check out the new restaurant of our first MasterChef winner, Deena Naidoo.

When the invite to Aarya first dropped into my inbox, I was chuffed because readers would be interested and this was a fun food event – even if in Joburg. But then I saw the time – 6 for 6.30pm – and I knew it would be a problem. Supposedly driving against the traffic, it took us 90 minutes for what had taken us a mere 40 minutes returning from the Dirty Dancing premiere the previous Sunday.

Landing at Montecasino, we rushed to the restaurant which is part of the Tsogo Sun stable, facing the popular square and close to the Teatro – the perfect spot for a celebrity kitchen. Yep, I should have known, this was going to be a bunfight rather than a meal with a group of journalists who get to test the food and speak a few words to the chef.

Time being the thing, I don’t often go anywhere if I’m not going to leave with a story in hand. If a weekly column is one of your tasks, you’re constantly planning the next meal or interview. When one falls through the cracks while on the job, it’s a disaster.

But I’m an old hand and soon realised that though the circumstances weren’t ideal, I would be able to comment on the restaurant and the food which seemed to be streaming through the doors in bite-size portions, which was perfect for the task in hand.

Tsogo Sun and their team know how to organise. They have a long history of marketing their products and know how best to get the mileage they need. We try to oblige, but with information that will benefit the reader. Sitting outside on the patio, where big TV screens were installed to capture every move of the celebs when they were performing, you could see all the veteran journalists keeping their seats and getting everything they needed without rushing around.

I was keeping an eye out for Deena, but knew it would be tough as I hadn’t arranged it before the time, thinking it was going to be a more intimate event.

He gave his talk, smiling beautifully on the TV screen, articulate and excited to be in this position, and I could get some of the info needed. Then I saw his wife and daughter, Kathy and Aarya, the one who has been widely reported as lending the restaurant her name. Good chance, I thought, to get the family impressions of their personal chef’s food, or something in that innocent vein.

We’re talking food here, not political persuasion or the next cabinet. She was wonderfully accommodating and friendly but said I had to check with the marketing head. Not wanting to ruffle especially her feathers (she’s new on this beat), I went seeking permission and was amused to be told in dulcet but determined tones that I should seek to speak to Deena rather than his wife.

Forty years in the business but because I chose the arts, it’s always been a beat where any publicity is welcomed because we are selling a commodity – whether art, theatre, food or fashion.

But then who knows what kind of state secrets this Durban family might be schlepping around. Either way, I knew it was just someone being unnecessarily officious with info that they would rather have in the public domain than not.

So apart from not being welcome to chat with the family, what was the food and the restaurant like?

We were three souls trying the different snacks; myself, my wine specialist/chef and a designated driver who is a determined foodie. All of us agreed that the titbits on offer were tasty, a crafty selection, and to get that kind of crème brûlée going for such a huge bunch was quite something.

Deena will be there a few nights a week as often as he can, but that will probably dwindle with time. That’s not the same as testing your passion and discovering if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

I understand his family is based in Durban, but think of the lost opportunity of two years’ actual experience and learning the ways of running a restaurant.

I might have put my other career on hold, flown between the family home and this test kitchen and at the end of probably a year, made a decision. It would have been enough to know if it is as good as your head and heart think it is. The way he chose to go, he won’t know. What Deena is doing is not the real thing.

But still, for those who want to experience his food, the menu is his. We tried some of his now famous butter chicken served with jeera basmati rice, which was yummy. Grilled karan hamburgers with avo, roasted onions, melted Emmental cheese and thick-cut French fries, served on ciabatta roll were also on offer and our foodie had about five or six mini portions, so I’m deducing they were really good.

The other items on the menu that remind me of Deena and what I would imagine he would make in his kitchen are a Mediterranean couscous salad with lemon, coriander, roasted peppers, grilled brinjals, pistachios, with yoghurt, cumin and honey dressing, Aarya butter chicken pizza tomato base, butter chicken, melted mozzarella and the Cardamom pannacotta with stewed Cape gooseberry coulis.

The crème brûlée on the menu is a strawberry and rhubarb and is recommended because they obviously know how to do this well.

The thing about the venue is that it is a fun place to have a meal. The staff on the night and every time we’ve been there are extraordinary, as are the management team, including the general manager, the food and beverage manager and the sommelier, all of them specialists in their field – and it shows.

So if you want to see Deena, you should check and confirm whether he will be on site.

As for talking to his family, you might have to ask for permission – and then that might be denied. It’s a mystery that a team so professional could be so silly. - Pretoria News

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