Chef Jean Nel
A braai is a “go-to” event for any South African, regardless of race, colour, religion or social
status. From the backyards of Bloemfontein to the patios in Camps Bay; the beach braais at
sunset in a wind shelter at Betty’s Bay; a Saturday night on the banks of the Vaal; a car-boot
party in Bishop Lavis; or at stopping for picnic spots along any road, park or dam in SA.
An open fire with meat roasting can be found at carwashes before dawn in Soweto and
Alexandra; at fancy shisa nyamas in Khayelitsha where tourist flock on weekends; at skopas at
dusk on the way home in the townships; when discussing the Bulls’ performance with tjops and
dop in Pretoria; next to a caravan on the beach in Margate; or around a cultured fire in
Welgemoed with stuffed lamb neck on the coals and Cosmopolitans at the bar.
The man who wrote the “ultimate” South African braai book, Braai the Beloved Country, Jean
Nel knows all there is to know about this cult tradition in South Africa.
Spekko asked him some questions to celebrate Braai Day aka Heritage Day.
Spekko: For your ultimate braai, what would you choose to start your fire? Wood? And in this case –
where from, what sort and how chopped?
If any other method – what would you recommend? For example, if you are a South African
sitting on a balcony in New York and you have to braai your chop?
Jean Nel: The world of the braai revolves around the concept of a wood fire. As with the cut of
meat, all braai aficionados have their favourite wood. Myself? I think camel thorn tree
wood (kameeldoring) is simply the best.
Sometimes, I use corn cobs (mieliestronke) but you must have a lot to burn. And the fire
gets extremely hot. So, camel thorn wins.
Braaiing in a city has its limits though. Balcony wise, a Weber would do.
SP: What is your ultimate meat cut to throw on a braai. Your personal favourite, that you would
go to all lengths to find?
JN: Great cut of beef rump! This cut from the back end of the animal can be a bit chewy, but
some aficionados will eat nothing else. It has better flavor than beef fillet for example,
although in my catering business clients always want fillet, serve with a flavourful sauce.
SP: Do you have any preference as to the origin of the meat?
JN: I get all my beef from a farmer outside Moreesburg. It’s important for me to see how the
animals are reared and I visit the farm 3 times a year.
SP: If you had to choose a celebrity to join you around the fire, which would you pick?
• From the Springbok rugby team?
• From parliament?
• From a TV soapie?
JN: I would love a few politicians around the braai fire. To discuss politics and the concept
of UBUNTU. But honestly, I would rather braai for the Springbok rugby team. I braaied
with the Olympic swimmer Cameron van der Burgh a few nights ago. A novice around
the fire, but incredible braaier all the same.
SP: Do you admire any chef in South Africa? If so, whom and why?
JN: My hero is the humble Liam Tomlin from Chefs warehouse.
Two people within the food business definitely have my vote: Firstly, Abigail Donnelly,
food editor for Woolworths Taste magazine. She is a great stylist and trendsetter.
Then, of course, “langtafel” guru Isabella Niehaus, for her insight and knowledge of the
West Coast food culture.
SP: Which is your favourite restaurant here in SA?
JN: Away from the braai, I frequent the Three Wise Monkeys restaurant in Sea point. It is
small, but serves incredible Asian food.
SP: What would you eat, should you find yourself on Braai Day in Paris, France?
JN: “Ca va Madame?”
I’ll pull a braai drum as close as possible to the Eiffel Tower, then braai the French some
steak with heaps of butter and garlic, with boerewors on the side. The method: seared on
the braai and finished off in a pan on the fire. To serve: Perhaps I can talk a French baker
into making some chakalaka bread.
SP: Can you remember when you braaied the very first time? Did you light the fire? What was
on the menu?
JN: I would braai with my mother Salome Nel in our back yard (agterplaas). I still smell the
amazing lamb chops she braaied for me, with just salt and pepper added.
SP: What “bykos” would you choose for your braai? Rolls from the supermarket? A banting
salad? A potbrood?
JN: All bykos from my view should be catered for on the braai: Mielies with a Mexican butter;
garlic bread roasted or cooked in foil on the fire; or pot brood. I can live with those
SP: Do you see yourself marketing your own meat brands in the future?
SP: I am in the process to develop braai salts and marinades but would love to talk to the
farmers at some stage.
SP: In your spare time – if not behind a fire, what would you do for entertainment and pleasure?
JN: I keep myself sane by disappearing into the mountains with my friends, relishing nature.
Deep in my heart I am still an Afrikaans boy who would eventually love to go back to live
on the platteland. Driving a 4 X 4 is also top of my list.
SP: What is the most underrated item to cook on a braai?
JN: Definitely vegetables. You can braai any vegetable on the braai…well just about. Use
your imagination. What about a Brussel sprout sosatie with bacon? Cooking vegetables
on the braai is currently a huge, and hopefully lasting trend.
SP: If you had to braai a fish, which fish and how would you go about this?
JN: Plain and simple and very fresh off the boat, the West Coast way: Butterflied, seasoned
then finished with a dash of lemon juice. Stop fiddling with the fish. Keep it simple!!!!!
SP: Where to from now – tell us about your next cookbook.
JN: It will have a lot of “Heritage” – I look way back in our cultures. There are also a lot of
tips from seasoned braaiers. And then, of course, everything is cooked with wood. You
won’t have to invest in fancy braai gadgets. Extra equipment wise – perhaps just a potjie.
Recipe from the Chef
Jean Nel’s Coffee-rubbed Rib-eye Steak
For the rib-eye steak
4 X 250 g rib eye steaks
For the coffee rub
50 g finely ground dark roast coffee
80 ml chilli powder
80 ml smoked paprika
40 ml brown sugar
30 ml garlic powder
15 ml ground cumin
15 ml cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the buttermilk cream sauce
500 ml cream
60 ml buttermilk
150 g Gorgonzola
For the Basmati, Pomegranate and almond salad
2 cups cooked Spekko India Gate Basmati Rice
125 ml (1/2 cup) raisins
125 ml (1/2 cup) pomegranate pearls
125 ml (1/2 cup) almonds
A handful of roughly chopped fresh mint and coriander.
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Chilli flakes to taste
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
- Mix all the rub ingredients in a bowl. Rub the rib eye steaks in it and set aside.
- To make the sauce, heat the cream in a saucepan. Add the buttermilk and cheese and let it melt. Season with salt.
- Rub olive oil on the rib eye steaks. Braai on a medium-to-high heat for 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter, rest for 10 minute before cutting and serve with the hot sauce.
- In a salad bowl, mix the rice, raisins, pomegranates and almonds.
- Add the chopped mint and coriander.
- Just before serving, season with salt, pepper, chilli flakes, a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle with olive oil.
For the rib-eye steak
For the Basmati, Pomegranate and almond salad