Joburg's dw eleven-13 celebrates a decade of turning food into fine art

Chef Marthinus Ferreira's flavours are as instantly recognisable as Irma Stern's brushstrokes

13 October 2019 - 00:00 By Sue De Groot
Chef Marthinus Ferreira's gnocchi with spinach.
Chef Marthinus Ferreira's gnocchi with spinach.
Image: Supplied

Great chefs, like all great artists, are known by their signature styles. Were a food aficionado to visit a gallery lined with dishes prepared by famous chefs, she would probably recognise the creators by their combinations of flavours and textures - just as you'd know a work by Irma Stern, Vincent van Gogh or Mary Sibande.

Chef Marthinus Ferreira has been making art at dw eleven-13, his gallery in Dunkeld, Johannesburg, for 10 years. In that time, regular patrons have come to know and love his work. With great delicacy, he transforms familiar sensations into utterly new experiences that are still somehow rooted in their origins: known and yet unknown.

Chef Marthinus Ferreira transforms familiar sensations into utterly new experiences that are still somehow rooted in their origins: known and yet unknown

Staying true to his sense of earthy realism, Ferreira does not give his creations fancy titles. No Starry Night or Mona Lisa for this artist. His catalogue - better known in these parts as a menu - lists each work simply by its main ingredients.

You would not know, from the description "Cape salmon / curry / mint / coriander / buttermilk / cucumber / tempura", that you were about to be served a mosaic of colourful swirls topped by a nest of gold filigree, a visual triumph worthy of Gustav Klimt.

This is Ferreira's take on traditional Cape Malay pickled fish, each part separated from the whole and prepared with devoted attention to every detail from the fragile tempura "roti" on top to the clean cucumber base and the marinated fish in between. It does not in any way resemble any pickled fish ever eaten anywhere else, and yet if you close your eyes you will know the taste. This is pickled fish as its best self. It has been broken down and rebuilt, but instead of becoming something else, it has become the essence of itself.

Chef Marthinus Ferreira's take on traditional Cape Malay pickled fish.
Chef Marthinus Ferreira's take on traditional Cape Malay pickled fish.
Image: Supplied

Similarly, a bowl that appears to be lined with green fabric, like an emerald valley cradling the ruins of a small castle, is described on the menu as "Gnocchi / spinach / seeds / raisin / capers / Karoo crumble". The coating around the bowl is intensely spinachy spinach puree that loses none of its spinachiness when combined with the contrasting soft, crunchy, pungent, tart and sweet flavours from the tumble of elements in the middle.

To call this creation "fried gnocchi" seems both impertinent and misleading, but that is its nickname, for convenience, and Ferreira says it is currently the most popular dish at dw eleven-13. It was one of those on his special 10th-birthday tasting menu, as was the "pickled fish". Both will continue to appear on other menu combinations. Otherwise there might be riots.

There are some areas in which great chefs differ from famous painters. Where painters tend to stick to a particular medium and mode of expression (otherwise how would the pretentiati be able to airily say, "Oh, that's a Turner of course"?), chefs are required to constantly surprise their audience.

Three years ago, when dw eleven-13 turned seven, the dish that Ferreira might have conceded to be his signature item was "Polenta / cauliflower espuma / sultanas / pine nuts / kale / brown butter". It might sound a world away from what he's creating now, but look beneath the surface and you see the same genius brushstrokes - everyday South African ingredients combined with a hint of the exotic; textures pulled together from the far sides of the spectrum; a taste sensation never before experienced and yet comfortingly familiar.

Chef Marthinus Ferreira of dw eleven-13.
Chef Marthinus Ferreira of dw eleven-13.
Image: Supplied

Another thing that separates food art from oil on canvas is its evanescence. A painting will hang in a gallery for hundreds of years and everyone who sees it will see the same work, even though they might describe and feel it differently.

Food, on the other hand, becomes art when it is consumed because only by eating it can you fully appreciate it. It is there, and then it is gone. Even though many more versions of the same work, that all look exactly the same, will be recreated by Ferreira and his talented team, the experience of consuming that particular dish belongs only and ever to that particular diner. This is part of what makes food art, and Ferreira, one of SA's great artists, knows it.

DW eleven-13, in the Dunkeld West shopping centre, cnr Bompas and Jan Smuts avenues, offers a four-course or eight-course tasting menu which can be paired with wines, whiskies or non-alcoholic cocktails. Visit dw11-13.co.za for details and prices or call 011-341-0663.