Interviewing Justin Bonello: the Ultimate Braai Master

Posted on 3 December 2012

It started off as an idea, developed into a TV series and now it’s a book! Justin Bonello’s Ultimate Braai Master is a braai education that takes you on an 8000 kilometre culinary journey across South Africa and explores the land, traditions and food that make up our beautiful country. I chatted to Justin Bonello, host and author of the Ultimate Braai Master (UBM), and found out a little more about our braai universe, and of course about his latest book.

The book is like a braai education. Tell us more.

When you look at a group of friends there’s always a Braai Master and that girl or guy is the person who has to take care of the chisa nyama (or braaing in Zulu). The problem is your braai universe stays within that group of friends; you never really learn anything new. The UBM changes that. It opens up your braai universe with new and different ideas.

What else can we expect in the book?

There’s so much more to the book than the recipes. You’ll go on a journey through South Africa and experience the braai road trip of a lifetime and the road trippers that made it happen. We’ve included snippets about South Africa, fun intros and useful extras like potjie basics.

How did you choose which recipes feature in the book?

The best recipes from the show made it into the book as well as some of the weird and wonderful ones. Those that break a few boundaries like walkie talkies (chicken necks), pear, walnut and crème fraiche salad and braai tapas made me wonder why I didn’t think of that first.

Favourite recipe from the book?

I wouldn’t be able to give you one. There will always be those straightforward recipes that make you look good around the fire, but there are also those surprise recipes that expand your braai universe. Snoek liver sausage, baked apple tart and fillet stuffed pork belly prove that braai is not just about chops and boerewors.

Favourite destination from the road trip?

There are two sweet spots in the world that I love and that feature on the trip: the Orange River Gorge and the Wild Coast. The big wide-open spaces, the painted landscapes and the lack of stimulation and pollution make these places magical for me.

Most unexpected experience?

I incorrectly assume that people have experienced South Africa like I have. I didn’t expect the experience that the contestants had to impact me so much. To have two sisters from Soweto, who have never left Johannesburg, and put them on the banks of the Orange River or catch trout in KwaZulu Natal blew me away. The UBM really does inspire South Africans to get out and see more of our country.

Best cooking tip learnt?

Food and the making of food is really very simple. If you understand timing, combinations and heat source then you pretty much do anything on the braai. Also, don’t be scared of trying out something new and experiment!

Some say braaing is only for meat-eaters. How would you respond?

Not true. As a meat-eater the expectation is that there will always be meat on the braai, but it’s about changing your preconception about what can be made on the braai: as you can literally do anything. Vegetarian options in the book range from smoky pumpkin soup to herby olive and sundried tomato braai spuds. There’s something in the book for everyone.

What food would you recommend for Christmas?

One can combine a number of elements from the book, which covers starters, mains, beverages and desserts. Essentially Christmas in South Africa should be about using local ingredients. If I’m going to the Transkei for the festive season, then our Christmas theme is wild coast and we eat fish, mussels and oysters. It’s best to prepare food that represents the environment that you’re in, rather than importing goods. Choose those ten or fifteen items that are from the area and put the food together in a celebratory fashion on the braai. You’ll also find that braaing pulls the family together like nothing else does.

Any advice for up-and-coming Ultimate Braai Masters?

I would suggest they don’t go in with any preconceptions of what can be done on the fire. Get to know the areas that you are in and use the time to explore the place. Not only will it make your trip a greater experience it will also allow you to try something new. Visit the local markets, source locally based produce, investigate local cooking methods and be prepared to learn from others.

What does one need to get ‘braai ready’?

Nothing more that what you have right now. You don’t need super fancy equipment or expensive ingredients. Use real wood (alien please) over briquettes and get creative. There are no hard and fast rules. An old wheelbarrow can make the perfect braai pit for example. A place where you can congregate is also key.

What should braaiers absolutely avoid?

Compressed briquettes; friends who do their steak well done (laugh); gas (preferably only used for your skottel breakfasts); bad company and too many cooks – rather have a designated person who is responsible for the cooking.

What should braaiers absolutely adhere to?

Don’t cause bush fires, use organic and free-range produce and take the bear minimum. When you travel to a place with the bear minimum you end up supporting the local communities, going into the markets and experiencing the places you go to on a completely different level. Immerse yourself in whatever culture you’re in, because that way you open yourself up to way more experiences.

What’s your ultimate braai recipe?

Kliprib – a really simple recipe with rather a strange method of cooking. My friend Kobus, who lives on a farm in the Tankwa Karoo, decided to make lamb ribs – notorious for being fatty and tricky to cook as the fat often drips onto the fire, causing the flames to flare up. The ribs (seasoned with salt and pepper) were cooked between two super-charged hot flat igneous rocks (that were placed on the fire for about an hour). The combination of the really hot rocks, fatty meat and lack of flame cooked the ribs to perfection in 45 minutes. The best ribs I’ve had!

Final words?

They say in South Africa that sport brings us together. I don’t disagree, but more so than anything else I believe that braai brings us together. We call it braai in all 11 languages and it is the African leveler in many respects. The show and the book are uniquely South African and by South Africans. Buy the book, enter the show but more importantly get out into our country, experience what it has to offer and braai!

Justin Bonello’s Ultimate Braai Master is available in all good book stores.
Cost: R200
Buy the book online here

Call to entry for the next season of the Ultimate Braai Master is in December and January.
Entry will be online.

 Pics courtesy of The Ultimate Braai Master.

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