South African celebrity chef and cooking sensation Reuben Riffel paid a visit to NYU Abu Dhabi and treated the staff and students to a live cookery demonstration in the new Marketplace restaurant. At the event, Salaam caught up with the master chef, who opened up about why he started cooking, and his mom's curry fish.
What inspired you to become a chef?
It started when I ended working in a restaurant and I realized how much I loved cooking. Growing up, I enjoyed cooking with my mum but it was just a hobby; I never thought I would make it my profession. While I was working in the restaurant one day, the chef didn’t come to work. Up to that point, I wasn’t even second in command of the kitchen; I was just told what to do. Then suddenly, I was thrown into the deep end and I had to produce. I had to manage a kitchen and cook food. One day, a guest sent compliments to the chef and it was me who they were referring to. That’s when I realized I had a talent.
What did you cook on your first day?
Yes, I remember it like yesterday. It was this Venetian springbock dish that’s just a classic. It came with a slow-cooked red cabbage, a caramelized apple and potato cooked in butter and chicken stock. The springbock was heavily peppered with freshly crushed black pepper and served with a reduction: a very beautiful dish. It was a French man who complimented me so I thought wow, I can cook for the French!
What is your favorite dish?
My mom makes a curry (pickled) fish dish. First, the fish is dipped in seasoned flour and then is cooked in oil. The same oil is then used to fry the onions and basil leaves to which sugar and vinegar is added. Then you pour that over the fish, which is stored for a day or two. Then you eat it with fresh bread and plenty of butter. That’s one of my favorite dishes.
When you have the opportunity to cook with your mom, do you feel like you are the student and she is the teacher?
Yes. What’s amazing is that through cooking I’ve been able to strengthen my relationship with my mum. When I’m with her it's great to actually engage in an activity like cooking with her. I’ve sensed lately that she looks up to me, like I’m the professional. We almost have fights about that because I don’t like that. I really think that you can learn so much from the simple cooks like my mum.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I follow a few Australian chefs, like Neil Perry. I love Asian food so I have been trying to add Asian ingredients to my cooking. Professional chefs inspire me but home cooks equally inspire me; I like to call them the real people. They cook to please the people they love; how could that not be good!
If you could cook a meal for someone, who would be?
I’ve always wanted to cook for Nelson Mandela but he has passed on. Now, there are a few sports stars I would like to cook for. I’m a big fan of Lewis Hamilton so I’d love to cook for him.
What are some of your hobbies?
I have two young kids and I love to spend time with them. I like to play golf. I’m a huge Formula One fan. I’m also into classic cars so I like to buy them and restore them.
What is the best advise you received and from whom?
The first chef that I worked with told me don’t ever cut corners when it comes to cooking. If something is to be done in a certain way then do it in that way and improve on it. Never try to make it easier for yourself.
What advise would you give to aspiring professionals in the cooking industry?
Spend as much time in your early years getting as much experience and drawing as much as you could from the people you admire. Make up your mind in terms of how you want to approach what you want to do then go for it.