Self-taught chef Nick Scott captures flavour memories in the chic minimalist ethos of The Great Eastern Food Bar.
Nick Scott wasn’t planning to be the chef at The Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville when he opened it in early 2014. ‘I’m not a chef and I’m cooking because we couldn’t find anyone who was willing to cook for us,’ he says. The concept he had in mind for his new restaurant didn’t necessarily appeal to your average chef. He decided to take to the kitchen himself in a ‘do-or-die moment’, and Joburgers have been flocking for the ramen, dim sum and dumplings ever since.
Nick was visiting South Africa from the UK, where he lived and worked in London’s Soho district in the film industry, and decided to stay on but he needed something to do, and thought that opening a restaurant seemed to be a good idea. ‘Looking back, it seems like a naive and arrogant thing to do,’ he says but he had a vision: he wanted to recapture the smells, tastes and sounds of Soho. The concept, he says, was ‘really based on living in Soho and being a vegetarian’. Nick’s flatmate in Soho was a Japanese ramen chef who had mentored him and got him hooked.
When he started Nick began with an almost street-vendor approach: ‘Doing two things really well and feeding a lot of people,’ he says. The original menu had just five or six items, although he’s been expanding since, ‘going back and working with food memories and the flavours’.
Somehow, the GE manages to stay unique. ‘I’m not influenced by anyone,’ says Nick, although he doesn’t indulge romantic notions of individuality. ‘The restaurant is a hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere. We’re here 14 hours a day and don’t get out much,’ he laughs. ‘I think that all incubates.’ The result is unlike anything else in Joburg – which is a huge part of its appeal. Nick says that he has the feeling when he walks into the GE that he has been here before. Mission accomplished.
What tastes remind you of childhood? As a young boy my childhood memories before boarding school were the council flats of Essex. My gran used to look after me and my brothers but honestly we were hooligans. My memory is always drawn back to not so much food but the sweet van and the simple joy of chasing it, with the coins she used to save. Bless.
What’s always in your pantry? I’m screwed without konbu or lime.
If you were a drink what would you be? Totally a gin and tonic; queen and country you see. We’re both remnants of the empire.
What’s for supper tonight? Running the Great Eastern’s kitchen, my dinner is whatever my customers are ordering that night. Tasting every dish as the night goes along leaves you pretty much done. However, I can reveal that their is a strong Laos and northern Thai influence in the colder autumn evenings.
What and where was your most memorable meal? My most memorable meals, and most notably not for good reasons, were at boarding school. At the age of seven I attended a boarding school in the British county of Berkshire. Sitting down to eat was an act of discipline, making sure table etiquette was maintained at all times. All food put down had to be eaten otherwise it was a long stay in the mess hall. The one I could never stomach was coleslaw and equally sprouts and cabbage. Ironically, learning about fermentation and making kimchi was a cornerstone for me. Still makes me shiver thinking about it.
Current favourite restaurant: I work seven nights a week at The Great Eastern Food Bar to ensure that the kitchen grows stronger and develops deeper flavours as it progresses through the seasons. Without being biased, it has to be The Great Eastern Food Bar. This decision is based on the fact that I don’t get out and I believe strongly in what our kitchen represents. I know that there are great restaurants and chefs out here but I’m in my four walls and in here it’s about our style and our flavours.
If you could take five food items with you to a desert island what would they be and why? I think I would anticipate that I have time on my hands so things options such as activated koji rice for miso and curing or Asian cabbages and peppers for fermenting and dehydrating would be my logic. Grow a little veggie patch, sorted.
What would be on the menu for your last meal? If it was really my last meal I would want the scents and sounds of my life all arranged in little bottles and on an iPod. The smell of malt vinegar at a fish and chip shop, the sounds of slurping in noodle bars, the smell of jasmine and lemon grass, the hustle and bustle of a food market, washed down with some ginjo sake. Something like that.
Can’t live without? Ramen. Bloody love it.
What should every kitchen have? Thermometer and timer.
What’s on your kitchen wish list? I would be perfectly happy with an aquaponic system for our herbs and live stock.
Do you have any culinary vices? Chips. The only one.
Your most used recipe book? Harold McGee on science and cooking. I discovered this book when I needed it the most. I never intended to be the chef/owner at The Great Eastern. However, as it goes, the culinary institutes didn’t support the concept of the GE as my brief was simply not what they do. I realised that I had to do it if we were to open and I knew I wanted to do ramen, or my take on a ramen bar. That book influenced the way I think about ingredients rather than recipes.
Favourite sandwich filling? I don’t eat sandwiches but pickled shiitake mushroom with cucumber is my daily guilty pleasure at the GE.
My ultimate breakfast is? I don’t really do breakfast so it has to be a good cup of black coffee. An ultimate breakfast would have to involve all the senses and the ritual of a morning food market.
I won’t eat? Meat. Can’t do it. Since opening the restaurant I’ve contemplated my pescetarian lifestyle and if I would be able to work with pork especially. The reality is, I can’t.
Weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten? Easy, some dodgy biltong cake thing from a service station that my mates fooled me with as a practical joke. At the time, I may have had a bit to drink.
What wine are you enjoying? When we opened the GE developing a wine list was a difficult duty. We started with a six-item menu. As we grew there was a pressure to do what everyone else does and have a wine list. This wasn’t for me and we chose to source from a single vineyard that I knew shared a similar ethos in minimalism and craft. The vineyard is Miravel, the bottle is Family Reserve ‘Ella’ Cabernet Sauvignon. They nailed it.
Who is your foodie icon? Ivan Orkin from Ivan Ramen Tokyo. Simply, the balls he had as a Jewish bloke from New York opening a ramen bar in Tokyo. I admire the maverick nature and self-belief. Legend.
What’s your signature dish? I would love to say my black garlic shio ramen but, as fate has it, the sashimi tacos would win the title hands down. You have to accept that you can’t pick what you may be known for.
What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream? Sorry to say, I don’t have a sweet tooth at all. Purely based on nostalgia, Flake 99.
Food aroma you love? Smoke.
What’s your absolute food weakness? A slice of pizza from Supa Sconto. I can’t resist. Impossible.
What’s your entertaining style? Raucous.
Top three tips for entertaining? Play good music, don’t run out of booze and hide the good stuff.
Soundtrack for the perfect party? Shaft by Isaac Hayes.
What did you want to be when you were little? Free. Boarding school was very restricting. The sense of breaking out appealed to me.
What do you think will be the next food trend? Without sounding preachy, we can’t continue as a species consuming how we do. The next food trend will be survival.
Where is your favourite food destination in the world? Kyoto. The purity of Kaiseki.
Do you think it’s important for a chef to travel? I think it is important for anyone to travel. The ability to experience and respect other cultures is fundamental in making us more tolerant individuals.
Advice for aspiring chefs? Make sure this is exactly what you aspire to. There are easier ways to make a living.
Biggest culinary influences/passion? Japan and ramen. It was where I learned to understand patience, depth and balance as terms of reference to cooking. I lived in Soho London and as a vegetarian was intoxicated by the smells of alternating Asian kitchens, Thai to Korean to Japanese. The simple minimal ramen bar blew me away as it evoked such a strong sense of peace and comfort that I knew I had to learn how to cook that. I fortunately had a Japanese flat mate named Koski San who was a ramen chef from Osaka escaping what he felt was the rigid pre-destination of his life. Luckily for me he was my friend and mentor.
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