Growing up in Namibia, where the land is parched and the sand dunes burnt red, it’s no surprise that chef David Higgs brought the heat to Joburg’s culinary scene. His Marble is all about food cooked on an open flame
Cooking with fire takes us back to a time when our evolving ancestors had only begun to tinker with the intricacies of putting freshly hunted protein over the flames, inadvertently discovering the myriad ways in which this magical heat source affected the taste of our food. Every South African knows that braaiing is more art than science, and that cooking over coals – with an open flame – can be risky. There’s always that hint of a thrill, thanks to the unpredictability of working with a heat source that’s alive, with temperatures that aren’t controlled by buttons and knobs, and knowing that turning the meat at precisely the right time is as important as getting its distance from the flames spot-on.
Cooking this way – braaiing, essentially – also connects us with something primal, something that both our DNA and our senses recognise from our early days as a species of hunters that discovered fire and then stumbled upon its magical ability to transform the flavour, texture and palatability of what we brought back to the cave. That primal connection is brought on by the smell of smoke and powerful waft of cooking meat, the crackle and shimmer of open flames, and the heat emanating from the hearth. While cooking this way is a ritual that’s stood the test of time, braaiing’s also deeply ingrained in South Africa’s culinary culture. And most of us can claim at least one special braai memory.
For David Higgs, it’s back to the Namibian coast, where he caught his first fish, a galjoen. His mother prepared it for cooking and he braaied it himself. ‘I caught it, cooked it and ate it all by myself,’ he recalls. ‘I’m still like that with my food. I hate sharing.’ But getting a taste of David’s food is easy enough – all you have to do is simply order from the menu at Marble, his booming restaurant situated in Rosebank, Joburg.
Having previously helmed two of the country’s top restaurants – Rust en Vrede and Five Hundred at The Saxon – David has regularly been referred to as the country’s top chef, and has long associations with fine dining. But Marble, he says, is as much about reconnecting with his roots as it is about actually tapping into a form of cooking that is distinctly South African.
Centre stage at Marble is a state-of-the-art restaurant-capacity grill made by Michigan-based Grillworks, which has become a piece of cult technology among chefs prepared to pay dearly for what is surely the most sophisticated braai on the planet. ‘It works on pulleys that respond very quickly and are easy to work with,’ says David, ‘and it’s easy to adjust the levels of the grills. In the centre of this is a large smoker and there’s a rotisserie, so the options are endless. Essentially, it’s a braai. There’s no cheating or trying to recreate some-thing. It is what it is – a big, open fire.’
And at this fire, he and his cheffing team put on quite a show. ‘Open-fire cooking is an art form. It’s about the show and the performance,’ says David of the undeniable element of drama that comes off the back of roaring flames and working in a room that’s always at a sweat-inducing temperature. David believes that cooking on an open fire connects us with an ancient, primitive, primordial human practice.
What keeps us coming back is the element of shared experience – and the incomparable flavours, of course. Just try to resist a piece of wors straight off the fire. ‘Fish on the fire is always my favourite,’ he adds, ‘or a lovely thin lamb sausage that you eat right off the fire.’ A braai tip from David: only turn sausage once. Make the flip when you can feel, with the back of your hand, the topside of the meat warming.
David has brought the braai indoors and added his magic touch to elevate the basic backyard experience into something suitable for a high-calibre restaurant. ‘The attraction to fine dining is in the past, so I’ve moved away from it,’ he says. ‘My feeling is that when people come here, they want something a bit different; an all-round experience and they want to see value for money.
That being said, this doesn’t mean you can’t be a little bit fancy in what you’re doing.’ While the menu is refined, there’s something for everyone. ‘Order what jumps at you, but if you want to try something unusual, octopus on the fire is amazing,’ David advises. There is also a wood-fired oven for slow-cooking big cuts of meat and a pizza oven that produces impeccable bread and veggies, too.
And, of course, now there’s The Pantry, Marble’s side hustle which has recently taken Joburg by storm. It’s a kind of one-stop petrol station forecourt stop with everything you need for the home table: ready-made meals, fresh produce, baked goods, quality wine – and it’s open round-the-clock. When he’s not cooking up a storm, you’ll find him feeding his soul from his bicycle saddle. As for this flame-seeker’s best dining spot away from Marble: Why, David braais at home, of course!
Photography: Courtesy Images
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