Just Add Ice
Can people please stop asking for fresh chilli at restaurants?
Here's why this simple request makes a Joburg restaurant owner's blood boil
There must be a special place in hell for whoever it was who popularised the ubiquitous pots of fresh chilli, minced garlic and sad, dry “Parmesan” deposited thoughtlessly on to restaurant tables around our fair country.
It’s easily one of my top five worst gripes as a Johannesburg restaurant owner. SARS, the constant staffing conveyor belt and people bringing in two crap bottles of wine in their stupid company golf day bottle carrier are some of the others.
But fresh chilli … Jeez. It makes my heart bleed and my head explode. I know it’s cold out there, but do we need to light a fire in our mouths?
Often, the worst moment of my working night goes like this:
I carry a plate of ravioli out of the kitchen.
The chef has made the fresh ricotta for the filling from scratch. He's painstakingly prepared the pasta; hand rolling the dough and folding it into little pockets. He's cooked it for only a minute so it's perfectly al dente. He's placed it on top of a generous spoonful of silky smooth celeriac puree or wild mushrooms. He's grated some Asiago on top; the cheese has been ageing for five years; it's at its crumbly, gum-tingling best.
This dish, prepared with 20 years of experience and a heartful of give a damn, goes down in front of the customer. And before it hits the table, before they even cast their eyes upon it, comes the request that makes my blood boil: “Do you have some fresh chopped chilli?”
Why would we work our asses off all day to make the best possible dishes we can, so that you can douse them in a mouth-numbing blast of chilli?
No! No, I absolutely do not have fresh chopped chilli.
Why would I have fresh chopped chilli? Why would we work our asses off all day to make the best possible dishes we can, with the best ingredients we can buy, at the best time of year to buy them, so that you can douse them in a mouth-numbing blast of capsaicin?
So that all of your food can taste the same - so that the pork belly will end up tasting the same as the steak, which will end up tasting the same the fish?
Why would we have fresh chopped chilli when none of the modern European dishes we serve calls for it?
And people are not happy about it. They want their chilli. They’ve been brainwashed to think they can’t have a meal without it; that they need that little glass bowl of red or green flecks swimming in a tiny pool of rancid sunflower oil. And believe me, it is sunflower oil. And believe me, it is rancid.
I’ve been shouted at by customers for not serving it. By grown-ups, with children and mortgages, who have called me names for not giving them a disgusting little bowl of sadness.
I actually love chilli. I have a hot sauce collection that is a fried egg lover’s dream. I just steadfastly believe that chilli has a place, and that place in not swimming in oil on the tables at my restaurant.
If I’m serving chilli, it’s going to be with purpose. I like it with tequila. And, I particularly like its fiery kick in a Hellfire Margarita, where the tanginess of the lime and the sweetness of the orange liqueur stand up to the burn of the chilli-infused tequila. It’s spicy, but you keep going back for another sip.
If you ask me for fresh chopped chilli at my restaurant, you’re not going to get it. But ask really nicely, and you might just get one of these cocktails.
HOW TO MAKE A HELLFIRE MARGARITA
50ml chilli-infused tequila (see below)
25ml freshly-squeezed lime juice
25ml Cointreau (I like Cointreau, but Triple Sec is traditionally called for in a Margarita. You choose.)
10ml simple syrup
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker.
- Add Ice.
- Shake hard.
- Double strain into a tumbler over a couple of ice cubes.
HOW TO MAKE CHILLI-INFUSED TEQUILA
- Start with a bottle of 100% blue agave unaged tequila — yes, the dreaded white tequila. El Jimador Blanco works well.
- Scrape the seeds and membrane from a few chillies or a small handful of pickled jalapenos. There is no cut and dry amount here; it depends on the chillies you're using and the heat of them. (Don’t be a hero and use Scotch Bonnets, you’ll be throwing away a perfectly good bottle of tequila.)
- Pop the chillies in the bottle of tequila and infuse for an hour or two. Taste as you go; you want it to pack some heat but not blow your head off. When you’re happy with the flavour, strain the chillies out.
- The tequila will last a few months.
• Self proclaimed "cocktail curmudgeon", Eloise Windebank professes that she likes drinks more than she likes people. Find her mixing up the classics at Farro, her casual fine dining restaurant and bar in Joburg.