Cape Town - Chef Dave van Staden has spent 27 years in the professional kitchen environment. But when he gets home to his wife and two children, feeding them is still a special occasion. For them, he cooks from his soul.
On Wednesday night, South Africa got to see yet another side of Van Staden: the no-nonsense judge on the debut airing of Chopped South Africa.
He is part of a three-judge panel along with celebrity chefs Jenny Morris and Siba Mtongana. Van Staden is the hotel group Tsogo Sun’s brand development chef.
In each round of the show, the contesting chefs go head-to-head bringing only their knives and experiences to the cooking stations, where their mystery baskets await. These baskets are filled with unexpected ingredients and combinations, and all of the selected items must be incorporated in each round. With only seconds to plan their creation, the chefs race against the clock to create a dish that will impress the judges with taste, creativity and presentation.
Van Staden says the 40 contestants were great at what they did, but the pressure of preparing a meal in 20 minutes, nerves and cameras bearing down, often proved a bit much for the chefs. One of the hardest moments on the show, he reveals, was having to chop his mentor.
“There is no staging. When they say 20 minutes, that’s it and we stop them. We do say a lot of hard things, but maintaining the integrity of the show and chefs was very important. They are great chefs,” he says.
Van Staden cringes when he thinks about himself on television, saying it was difficult to see himself on-screen.
He may come across as harsh, and describes himself as “socially dyslexic”.
He and his wife Michelle have been married for 22 years. And while his home is often filled with friends and family, their roles are clear. Michelle does the socialising, and Van Staden does the cooking.
In all of the houses they’ve lived in, the kitchen always opens up on to the lounge and dining area.
“They talk, I cook. My place is this spot,” he says while working in the kitchen on a wooden table he made himself.
There are times when he engages his guests if he or they have something pressing on their minds. “But to purposely make conversation doesn’t make sense. At least I’m sincere,” he says.
One thing he really doesn’t mind talking about is food and the sourcing thereof.
Van Staden and Michelle recently moved back to Cape Town after living in Durban.
They are in the process of remodelling the house and one of the things he can’t wait to do is get his herb and vegetable garden started. “I love the idea of urban agriculture,” he says.
He’ll also be looking to start an aquaponic system. This combines raising aquatic animals such as fish, in tanks and cultivating plants in water in a symbiotic environment. Water from the aquaculture system is fed to the hydroponic system. The by-products are broken down and used by the plants as nutrients. The water is then circulated back into the aquaculture system.
Van Staden and his family are very conscious about recycling, not wasting anything, and eating organic.
“We have to look after the Earth. As professionals in the industry, it’s our responsibility to know about it. We’re the culinary experts, we should know where our food comes from.”
He adds that eating organic has become very expensive and, in turn, elitist. He feels steps must be taken to reduce the cost of organic food, so that it becomes accessible to everyone.
Van Staden has a set of 11-year-old twins, a son and daughter who he has exposed to a wide range of cuisines. But when it comes down to it, his son’s favourite dish is his dad’s risotto, while the family winter favourite is his vegan lentil stew.
His family eats real food, like pancakes, curries and spaghetti bolognaise.
“Work is work. When I come home, it’s passion cooking. It’s more personal and special when you’re cooking for your family. It’s about cooking with soul when it’s for your family,” says Van Staden.
Chef Dave’s chicken salad
We challenged Van Staden to whip together a delicious meal using ingredients in his fridge.
Use thinly sliced carrot, leeks, peppers, pear, cucumber, lettuce and tomato, and corn cut off the cob.
Chop rye bread into cubes, fry the cubes with sesame seeds in lemon olive oil until nearly charred. This releases a smokey flavour. Place these in a dish.
Season cubes of chicken with salt and pepper and fry in the same pan.
Combine all the ingredients in a dish and drizzle with salad dressing.
Van Staden says salads are inherently boring, so the dressing plays an important role in making it tasty.
Dressing: Whip raw egg, a teaspoon of honey, lemon flavoured olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
Inside Chef Dave’s fridge
The Cape Argus visited chef Dave van Staden’s home, to have a look at what’s in his fridge and what a top chef eats when he’s not on the clock.
The staples in his fridge are fruit, yoghurt, butter, eggs, fresh herbs, vegetables and mushrooms. In his freezer, there is lamb, chicken and beef mince.
Van Staden refuses to cook with margarine because “it’s not real”. Instead, he uses real butter. He may also use fresh cream, but buys this as he needs it.
His motto: if it tastes nice, I eat it. But, he is not a fan of “fancy, frizzy” lettuce. And, while professional kitchens do not cook with wood anymore, Van Staden still uses wooden spoons and a wooden table at home. If cleaned properly, he says it’s not a problem.