Chef Coco Reinarhz: Food Out of Africa, Out of This World

Fine dining. Seasonally influenced. Elegant. Sophisticated. Refined. Pioneering. Art on a plate. Fusion — but not confusion. Opulent flavors. World class cuisine.

Contrast those descriptions with the familiar parental entreaty when the kid is sitting pushing food around his or her plate refusing to eat, “Think about the starving children in Africa.” And add to that the reality of pictures of starving children in Africa.

Which of the above is more stereotypical — more characteristically associated with — “Africa” and “food?”

Chef Coco Reinarhz would rather have it be the former. You could say it’s his mission — a mission rooted in a passion both for fine dining and for what Africa, with its diversity, has to offer in the realm of pleasures of the palate, specifically in the context of flavors, ingredients, specialty dishes and creative potential.

All the “fine dining” foodie terms above have been used to describe the internationally acclaimed chef’s food. What he serves up has been written about as “innovative fine dining Afro-fusion heavily influenced by classic French cuisine” using some of the “most opulent of African flavors.”

In 2007, he co-authored a book called To The Banqueting House: African Cuisine an Epic Journey, described as an exploration of the fine dining flavor potential of classic African recipes from Cape to Cairo.

He recently paired Champagne (real, from France) with a tiger prawn dish from the Democratic Republic of Congo; marinated quail inspired by the Cote d’Ivoire, Nile perch from Tanzania, Argan oil rack of lamb a-la-Morocco and malva pudding from South Africa. “There is no reason African food should not look and taste fabulous and that it should not be served with Champagne,” he says in a recent interview from the kitchen of his restaurant, Le Sel at The Cradle. That is, the Cradle of Humankind.

Along with his French culinary gems on his fine dining menu at his Johannesburg-based Sel et Poivre (he also has a bistro), Reinarhz has introduced dishes such as Ivorian Assigni crab, palm-nut infused chicken, amadumbe* (keep reading for how he prepares this typical African veggie) and wild mushroom mille feuilles, as well as reportedly exquisite yam and crayfish rice melange inspired by the Senegalese national dish, thiebou dienne.

We caught him as he was preparing to head off to Brazil to set up a fine dining pop-up African village in Rio for the duration of the 2014 Fifa World Cup (June 12 through July 13). There, he will be showcasing the cuisine of the five African countries competing. Namely, Ghana, Nigeria, the Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Algeria. The dishes will all be paired with South African wines. “The South African team didn’t make it into the World Cup, but South Africa is the biggest wine producer in Africa and has some of the world’s best wines,” he says.

Soul Food

Reinarhz knows about African-American soul food. Comfort food. Food that has its origins, in the U.S., in slavery. Food that, he says, probably came into being thanks to people pulled away from their families; foods relished by them in the early days because of food’s evocative power. Food that would have linked them — taken them back — to their families left behind. To their roots.

But, he says, “The time has come to look at African food and African flavors through different eyes, not through the eyes of slavery. That’s a really limited perspective and does no justice to what’s possible and what’s available.”

He also knows what hunger looks like. Reinarhz was born and grew up in Burundi. If you haven’t been there, small wonder, given that it’s one of the continent’s smallest countries — in Central Africa, landlocked and bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west.

If you Google it, you will learn that Burundi is one of the five poorest countries in the world. It has suffered much political turmoil and warfare. In its European colonial days it was occupied by Germany and by Belgium. It has the ignominious distinction of being one of the hungriest countries in the world, according to the Global Hunger Index of 2013. Its largest source of revenue is coffee, which makes up 93 percent of its exports.

Reinarhz points out that while Burundi’s food diversity is small, especially compared to that of vast Congo next door — and a shadow of that of the Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa where, in Abidjan, Reinarhz has enjoyed some of his top gastronomic experiences in Africa — Burundi does have a culinary culture. Root vegetables that grow in the mountains. There’s the coffee, as we’ve mentioned. And fish from nearby Lake Tanganyika.

It was enough to inspire his late mother, whose cooking excellence was expressed when she became the chef at a hotel in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura.

At some point the family moved to Kinshasa, capital of the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, where she was chef patronne at Pili Pili, at the time the most fashionable restaurant in the sprawling city.

Ecole Hotelière de Namur

That’s where it all began for Reinarhz. He got his love of food and early cooking lessons from his mom. “She taught me about seasonal cooking. And also, how to keep things simple. Fusion is all very well but so often, what you end up with is confusion.”

The 44-year-old French speaker (who speaks English with one of those oh-so-attractive don’t stop talking French accents) did his formal chef training at the Hotel Management School at Ecole Hotelière de Namur in Belgium. He then worked as a chef in Belgium, in Kinshasa and then in the Cote d’Ivoire, before basing himself in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“I’d rather be in Africa than anywhere else in the world,” he says. “In Europe, everything is done and overdone. You can still be pioneering in Africa.”

Giving people this appreciation is up to chefs like him, he will tell you. And he will also tell you that he has an intense dislike for African restaurants designed for tourists. “The sort where people are playing drums, dancing and are dressed in African outfits.

“When I go to a French restaurant, I don’t expect staff to be wearing French berets. It’s a stereotype. Thinking of that cliched tourist sort of experience as African food is like me going to America and saying America food is only McDonald and America is Disneyland.

“That’s not the African cuisine I’m promoting. I’m promoting fine dining, something elegant, something you wouldn’t be ashamed to serve in a top-rated restaurant anywhere in the world.”

Game and fish are very African, he says when we get into discussion about African specialty items. “And seafood — like crab. The way people eat crayfish in Mozambique is really an African way of eating.”

Thinking of African food in terms of comfort food or any cliche “is like me saying Italian is only spaghetti Bolognese or pizza. Only someone who knows nothing about food will say that; someone who doesn’t know how diverse and rich Italian cuisine is.

“African cuisine is similar.

“I believe our duty as African chefs to take African food to another level. Nobody will do it for us,” says the judge on Little Cook, Big Cook, a 13-episode TV series currently running on South Africa’s SABC 3.

Good eating African style!

* Amadumbe: Potatoes, Reinarhz points out, were once a peasant food eaten by the hungry of Ireland and elsewhere. Now, you get potatoes on the menus of Michelin-star establishments in the grand restaurants of Europe and beyond. So it is with amadumbe, a South African veggie that is half potato, half yam — unsightly and slimy at its most basic.

But “you cook it for a long time, puree it and infuse it with truffle oil and it becomes — I don’t like the world refined, but let’s say ‘posh’.” His version of Afro-fusion and something that sits very well as a substitute for potato au gratin or a delicate mash with a classic French dish.

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.