'A braai is a primal thing that is hardwired into South Africans,' says Justin Bonello.

Cape Town - Ironically it was the BBC that brought South African TV chef Justin Bonello to the attention of audiences in his native land.

The broadcaster picked up his series, Cooked, in which he packed a bus full of his friends and headed off on an epic road trip across South Africa, cooking along the way.

That was 10 years ago, and since then the local industry has done a lot of catching up. Four series of Bonello’s Cooked in Africa have been broadcast on SABC3, and two more are in the works

In addition, Bonello’s company, Cooked in Africa Films, has produced an impressive list of series including Charley’s Cake Angels, The Ride, Getaway, Exploring the Vine, Long Miles Coffee Project, Bush Boys, Moving Sushi, Around Iceland on Inspiration and Global Wheeling.

Some of these have been aired on SABC3; all of them have gone international, appearing on channels like National Geographic, Discovery, Al-Jazeera, Food Network and Travel. And he’s brought out several cook books.

Last year Cooked In Africa Films took 30 contestants on a gruelling 52-day, 13-location tour covering more than 8 000km for the first season of Ultimate Braai Master.

Bonello is passionate about the origins of food and sustainability, themes which are explored in the series he hosts and those Cooked In Africa produces. Moving Sushi, for example, follows a couple’s journey from Cape Town to Tokyo as they highlight the plight of the world’s oceans.

While the conscience is strongly at work here, it’s also about entertainment.

Ultimate Braai Master is set for a second season this year, with online entries open until February 15 and the first round of countrywide auditions taking place in Cape Town on February 23.

The production company’s catch phrase is “Africa is not for sissies” – and nor is this show. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you’re going to have to prove it. You have to bring everything to the table, so to speak, for the initial audition – your fire, your tools, your ingredients, the lot. After the first round, the shortlisted teams of two contestants will be put through a tough, pressured challenge.

“We’ve been thinking up some really tough ones for this season,” said Bonello. “And when it comes to desserts, grilled fruit and chocolate sauce just won’t make the grade.”

The final 15 teams will be in for the adventure of their lives as the show goes on the road for two months in 40 vehicles with 30 crew members, starting in KwaZulu-Natal and ending in Cape Town. They’ll be braaing three-course feasts in the middle of the bush, on beaches and river banks, forests and mountains, testing their endurance and fire skills to the limit.

Judges Marthinus Ferreira and Bertus Basson are back for season two, both chefs at Eat Out award-winning restaurants. They will be offering invaluable tips and pearls of wisdom to viewers and contestants along the way.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants to learn and grow as a cook – two months on the road with two of the best chefs in the country,” said Bonello, who believes anything that can be cooked on a stove or in an oven can be made over coals.

Braaing is very close to Bonello’s heart. “It can be encapsulated in the Afrikaans word kuier,” he said. “The direct translation is ‘visit’ but the spirit of the word is harder to convey in English. But any South African should understand the attraction of the braai and how it brings people together around a fire. It’s a primal thing that is hardwired into us.”

He’s definitely on to something – poking or feeding a fire, or just standing around it, is irresistible.

Bonello’s earliest braai memory is from childhood. “We lived in Breda Street in Oranjezicht and we’d go get our meat from the Swiss butcher in Gardens Centre – a rabbit to put on the spit – and the rolls from Zerban’s, also in Gardens Centre. Neither of those places is there any more but the memory of the family braais on the banks of the Breede River will never be lost.”.

Bonello loves braaiing so much, he even had one for his wedding in the Transkei. “It was a Greek-style lamb spit and a wonderful sociable event in which everyone could get involved.”

Bonello has braaied in some unusual places including Iceland, Thailand (a stuffed, deboned pig) and over briquettes in a little Weber-style contraption in someone’s tiny back garden in the UK.

“They don’t really have the same braai culture there that we do. The only other countries that truly embrace it are Australia and the Americas,” said Bonello.

The worst thing he’s eaten cooked over flames? Mice, from the Mozambique season of Cooked. “No thank you, never again,” he said emphatically. - Sunday Argus

* Aspirant Braai Masters can enter on www.ultimatebraaimaster. com by February 15. Filming will start in May and the series will air on SABC3 this spring. See http://cookedinafrica.com/