December 8, 2021

Chef Callan explains the meaning behind ‘The Ghost Net’, his award-winning dish

SA chef Callan Austin recently won the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility for his seafood dish ‘The Ghost Net’.

Chef Callan Austin says coming back to South Africa with the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility has given him the tools necessary to push the sustainability movement in the country, and with backing from a renowned international organisation/brand, S.Pellegrino. “I will forever have support for my vision. I will be able to execute my ideas much quicker than if I had not won the award. I don’t necessarily see this as a win for me but instead a win for South Africa,” he says.

Meaning of ‘The Ghost Net’

Callan says his winning dish is full of meaning, with nearly every element making a link to sustainability, local and foraged ingredients, and the ocean itself.

“A Ghost Net refers to the phenomenon of an old trawlers net that is too damaged for commercial use, so it is cut loose from the boat and left to drift around with the ocean’s currents continuing to entangle, trap and suffocate sea life, never to biodegrade because of the materials used to make up the net. It is truly horrific,” he explains.

“The kob ceviche done in two ways is farmed and native to South Africa. The one style of ceviche is rubbed with chokka ink to create a black ring around the fish when sliced and is a link to oil pollution and how it is literally smothering our fish and ocean. A thin layer of gold dust coats the chokka ink kob and speaks about how these massive oil companies are making profit off the destruction of our oceans.

“Octopus fishing has recently stirred up some controversy in Cape Town as the two methods used to catch the species is either the pot method (which has been infamous for entangling whales in the thick rope that leads to buoys), and the second method is as bycatch from (you guessed it) trawling nets. On the SASSI list octopus is listed as green-orange, which without further research chefs could be led to believe that it is kind of sustainable when in fact there are underlying issues with cultivating these animals. Hence, I decided to take matters into my own hands and catch my own octopus in the most sustainable and traditional method there is, by going to the rocky coastline and catching them in rock pools.

“The tuile in my dish physically looks like coral and is a reminder that pollution affects every aspect of the ocean, coral being one of the most affected while it is also one of the most important creatures in maintaining the health of the ocean.

“The Ghost Net itself is made from spiralized kohlrabi and on the dish it visually “traps” other elements on the dish just as a ghost net would in the ocean. Deep fried sardine skeletons add texture and are a visual representation of death,” he says.

Sensory elements

“Other elements on the dish simply pay homage to local ingredients, such as buchu, naartjie, foraged wood sorrel, foraged crispy seaweed (probably the highlight of the development of the dish was discovering this ingredient and its possibilities) that emulates 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 sea water I collected to produce an eerie mist or ghost that covers most of the dish when poured over. This very important element speaks about the main issue of sustainability: education. Most people don’t even know what a ghost net is, which poses the question: What other unsustainable crimes are people committing that lay beneath the surface?”

The young chef, who currently works at Chefs Warehouse at Tintswalo Atlantic, says the most important lesson he had learnt in a kitchen so far is “mise en place”. 

“It is a French term that means ‘to put in place’. It’s a phrase that every chef knows and that every good chef works by. The art of being strategically prepared is something working in a kitchen has taught me and is a quality that has become a part of my everyday life. As chefs we need to not only be prepared for a busy dinner service but must start preparing for the future of our industry. I believe we are approaching a tipping point where being socially responsible will become something that is necessary to run a successful and ethical restaurant.”

Callan says chefs need to use their power to educate people and other chefs about important messages they can convey through food.

“Kitchens produce a lot of waste as it is, it’s important to try to reduce that and change the mindset of chefs in our industry to work towards a common, sustainability-driven goal. Chefs are now influencers and should use that power to educate.”

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