Young SA chef bags top award in international competition

We chat to Callan Austin, whose sustainable seafood dish, ‘The Ghost Net’, recently won at the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition in Milan

18 November 2021 - 10:20
Chef Callan Austin's 'Ghost Net' dish is a study in sustainability.
Chef Callan Austin's 'Ghost Net' dish is a study in sustainability.
Image: S.Pellegrino

Where did you do your chefs’ training?

I trained at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and have worked at numerous top restaurants and food businesses and am currently based at Chefs Warehouse, Tintswalo Atlantic, in Cape Town.

What is the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition and why did you decide to enter?

It’s a platform for young chefs from around the world to showcase their culinary talents. This year the competition added three new award categories and one of these, the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility, is the award I won.

I entered the competition because my mentor and head chef at the time, Darren Badenhorst of Le coin Français restaurant in Franschhoek, competed in the first ever regional edition of the competition back in 2015 and encouraged me to enter. So, I conceptualised my ‘The Ghost Net’ dish, with his guidance, and entered the competition.

My entry category was about conceptual cooking and I didn’t have to recreate my dish in Milan. I had already motivated my concept, dish, and vision for the future to the regional panel of jurors before I even left for Italy.

‘The Ghost Net’, a curious name for a dish?

My dish is in response to the unsustainable fishing practices that are destroying our oceans. The net refers to old damaged trawler nets that are abandoned in the ocean to entangle, trap and suffocate sea life. It is full of meaning, with the elements linking to sustainability of local and foraged ingredients, and the ocean itself.

Describe the dish? 

The kob ceviche is a farmed local SA species, done in two ways. One is rubbed with chokka ink to create a black ring around the fish. When sliced it reflects a link to oil pollution in the ocean. The thin layer of gold dust coats the chokka ink kob and speaks of oil companies making profit off the destruction of the oceans. The tuile in my dish physically looks like coral and is a reminder that pollution affects every aspect of the ocean.

Chef Callan Austin
Chef Callan Austin
Image: S.Pellegrino

'The Ghost Net' itself is made from kohlrabi and on the dish it visually ‘traps’ other elements as a ghost net would in the ocean. Deep fried sardine skeletons add texture and are a visual representation of death.

Other elements pay homage to local ingredients, such as buchu, naartjie, foraged wood sorrel and crispy seaweed that emulate a plastic bag caught in the net, and local Franschhoek smoking chips used to smoke the kob. The sensory element of my dish is created by dropping dry ice into hot seawater I collected to produce an eerie mist or ghost that covers the dish.

What has winning this award meant?

Chefs need to use their power to educate people and other chefs about important messages we can convey through our food.

Coming home has given me the tools to push the sustainability movement in our country, and with backing from brand SanPellegrino I will forever have support for my vision. I don’t necessarily see this as a win for Callan Austin, but rather a win for SA.


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