In times of Covid things have been tough for everyone, but some had no options, they had to make plans. DIANE DE BEER speaks to (her friend) Dr Hennie Fisher, chef and lecturer at University of Pretoria about food and the innovative ways he got working to get the students cooking when the world was in lockdown. But also exploring the way he celebrates his own creativity in this world:
PICTURES: AB Heyns and Hennie Fisher
Thinking about food, chef Hennie Fisher can’t remember a time that he wasn’t fascinated by it. He didn’t come from a family particularly interested in food, with the result, that food nostalgia has little meaning for him.
And yet, once he moved into the food realm himself, he never stopped experimenting – to the delight of those of us who are part of some of these kitchen creations. He believes culture rather than history is what drives him.
That’s what gives us the measure of things. If, for example, you are doing a korma recipe and it wasn’t part of your upbringing, you don’t have anything to measure it against. But in that instance, because there was no way he was strictly sticking to the food he was familiar with, he developed his senses.
Cake sculpting in progress.
That’s what the modern consumer does, he says. And, more than anything, he loves cooking off the cuff. Something I witnessed again, when we spent a week at the coast where he could let his hair down and cook for appreciative people who love to eat – no pressure. It was a time to relax, with sea air and food to make everyone happy.
The previous year we had gone mad foraging, but this year the pickings were scarce and we did less of that with Fisher relying on the produce we had all brought to the table.
For me, more than anything, it is exciting to witness how the mind of a chef works, what he comes up with and how food enchants when it is well made and the simplicity celebrated.
One of his favourite things to do is baking, especially magnificent cakes which are decorated in a way that’s difficult to absorb. When I think of cake decorating in the past and what happens in that field today when you have a real master at work, it’s astonishing. There’s nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work and being able to witness what he comes up with.
Like anything in the creative world, when you give artists free rein, is when they have most fun. Working within guidelines is fine, but preferably give them the freedom to play.
Genius at work.
On a trip that we did together to Turkey, six of us stayed together in an apartment block where we cooked on and off when we didn’t go out for a meal.
Watching Hennie put all of this together was quite something. In the middle of a cooking stint, he would dash outside to a pavement quite close by, where he had spotted some herbs growing wild. That would just be the final touch to another taste sensation – and it might have been something as simple as a roasted chicken which he then turned into something extraordinary.
Hennie’s food feasts.
In the meantime, his real work is as a lecturer at the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoria. This is where the real challenge began a few years back with the start of Covid. Their’s is a practical degree and while there isn’t really any replacement for a hands-on food demo with the students doing their own cooking, Hennie had long been thinking about creating a digital library which would be on hand for students to access when necessary.
Now was the time and, when he thought about it, digital demos were the only alternative, but one which would also have long-term advantages. The idea that face-to-face teaching was suddenly impossible was daunting, because there simply was no other option. Working with students you can see where they stumble and you also get to know one another on a deeper level. But this was the challenge.
It meant hard work, as did the new Zoom lectures all of which required a different work process and a deep dive to establish the best way forward in this interrupted and episodic lifestyle we all entered and are still engaged in.
It’s all about setting a base and establishing videos that would be the best version of what was possible. This was as much a learning process for the lecturer as it would be for the students and, having sat in at some of those sessions, the work that goes into the cooking sessions, in preparation and then the actual filming, is quite something.
What appealed to him was the learning process, which is continuous. Even though he had lost the possibility to learn from the students, which was always there when they were cooking together, new skills were suddenly surfacing in this novel way of teaching he suddenly had to establish. Yet, everything, unfortunately comes at a price.
Students at work and play.
He already knew that much of his teaching in the past came about when he watched the students cooking. “It’s about seeing them do it,” he explains. Think of yourself doing something in a kitchen and suddenly being stumped by a particular method ̶ should it first cool down or should you immediately go ahead with the process, for example. Cooking is like that and by example and repetition, is how you learn.
“Cooking is complex,” says Hennie, and that is something all of us can concede. He does encourage those interested in the food industry to go ahead, however. “There are so many different opportunities,” he says , and both the conditions and the pay have improved over time and trickled down.
A selection of paw paw recipes developed by Chef Fisher for an ongoing project.
With the advent of social media, it is also much easier for people to reinvent themselves, and he feels, the work is much more satisfying than it might have been in the past. If you think of all the imaginative developments in the food world, the mind boggles.
With someone like Hennie, who seems to have food and the way to present it as part of his DNA, I can only smile at the future and the many meals created in that brilliant mind that will make my heart sing.