Adventurous eating with The Leopard’s Andrea Burgener

Food is an adventure for The Leopard’s Andrea Burgener, whose sense of fun shines through in her book, Lampedusa Pie.

Andrea Burgener is the enfant terrible of Johannesburg chefs. You won’t be pandered to at her restaurant, The Leopard, where you have to bring a doctor’s note if you want your salad dressing on the side.

“Don’t they trust us to dress a salad?” asks the ebullient Burgener, who has kindly agreed to cook something for me at her home out of her new cookbook Lampedusa Pie (Macmillan), out now.

At her three restaurants, Superbonbon, Deluxe and now at the Leopard, patrons have been invited to have fun. Diners have been served food on real South African Airways trays (half-price if they arrived in their pyjamas), and were able to bring their dogs to one of the restaurants for a gourmet meal of chicken-liver biscuits and steak tartare.

“Perhaps I’ve painted myself into a quirky corner,” she says. “It’s who I am, it’s what I do. I don’t have a theme or a concept. I make decisions like somebody in their own house … It’s not brain surgery; you’re just serving someone some supper.”

Too many cooks
Burgener said she’d started cooking occasionally at Bob’s Bar in Troyeville, Johannesburg, in the mid-1990s, and took over one evening as guest chef. Next door was the late Braam Kruger’s Kitchenboy restaurant. They recognised one another’s sensibilities, “really clicked with food”, and he asked her to cook for him.

“Things got exaggerated. It was not your usual restaurant. For example, there was no extractor, and he was cooking [with] a lot of chilli.

“He had a sense of theatre, performance. I think people came there to be abused by him. People came to be pushed.

“I’d be standing in the kitchen at 7pm and there had been no prep done, and Braam was outside playing Frisbee with his dog Tarzan. We were at his house one day and he decided to roast a whole lamb, but he decided we should pierce it all over, and fill it with liquorice allsorts.”

Kruger — an artist, chef, writer and raconteur — died at the age of 58 in June 2008, and at times Burgener seems to be channelling him.

Up for a mad time
In 1999, Burgener opened Superbonbon, a tiny restaurant with a kind of Asian/trashy theme in Richmond in Jo’burg. You could order Coco Pops and milk, which came with a prize, such as a large blow-up pencil, or fluffy slippers.

“There was a moment [in Johannesburg] where a lot of people were up for a mad time.” But the moment couldn’t last, so Superbonbon was closed, to be followed in 2001 by Deluxe in Parktown North. Here, apart from the dog breakfasts, they served eggs Benedict, pan-fried quail with German potato salad, and Congolese peanut chicken.

A year and a half later, she was pregnant again and closed Deluxe for four months, after which it reopened in the Stanley Avenue complex near Milpark in August 2003.

Burgener was in the back, cooking, because for her physical work is easier than the “emotional work” of being front-of-house where you have to “kiss ass for four hours”.

Growing up
Finally, then, we have The Leopard, which was on 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, but after a brief hiatus will now be reopening in the same place the Hard Times Café used to be on Melville’s 4th Avenue, where there are “very few Hummers”.

This is perhaps Burgener’s most grown-up, or structured restaurant, but you’ll still find spaghetti and Marmite on the menu. The restaurant was named after Giuseppe Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). The author also provides the title to Burgener’s recipe book.

The recipe for the chicken and macaroni pie or timbale, which Lampedusa describes, is in the book. It’s not an everyday cookbook, but there are recipes for harissa, dukkah, granadilla curd, or a hot, sharp dressing – even how to make paneer. You won’t find a recipe for bolognaise, but rather one (adapted from Kruger) for lemon, soy and chilli prawns cooked in baking paper in the oven, with cellophane noodles.

I found it a bit of a struggle to cook from the book, perhaps because it calls for some ingredients that I don’t usually buy or have in my pantry. It takes a leap of faith to tackle the Viennese carrot torte, or the peanut butter pie.

I can recommend the Asian salad of sliced cucumber, onion, carrot and sesame seeds with a dressing of sesame oil, vinegar and honey. The Indian bread salad is also good – pita or sourdough toasted with cumin, and tossed with tomatoes, cucumber, onion, chilli, dhania and a dressing.

“Potatoes cooked under a brick” was a revelation. Thinly sliced, with thinly sliced onion, then mixed with cream, they’re then flattened into a baking tray (I used a rock that I’d found at the seaside). The pressure (in)fuses the flavours together.

With one book down, Burgener now wants to do another and, just before I leave, she shows me London chef Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca Cookbook. She highlights a recipe for sanguinaccio, a dessert made with, among other things, pig’s blood, whipping cream, cinnamon and chocolate.

For Burgener food is adventure – and she’s inviting the adventurous to join in the fun.

By Matthew Burbidge for Mail & Guardian online

Not in Joburg? Try Andrea’s recipe for beer cake.

Photographs: Madelene Cronjé, Brett Rubin and  Theana Breugem.

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