From a farm in Zimbabwe to Cape Town to the bush to the urban innards of Johannesburg, Chef Jack Coetzee has, as he puts it, “gone from one jungle to another”.
I sat down with the head chef of Urbanologi, a unique shared plates eatery that shares a space with Mad Giant Brewery in an old industrial part of Johannesburg, to get a behind-the-scenes look at this hidden gem.
Chef Jack Coetzee was born and raised in Zimbabwe and moved to Cape Town for culinary school. He’s managed to rack up time in some impressive kitchens and under the tutelage of some notable names. Chef Jack worked at Luke Dale-Roberts’s The Test Kitchen for around 2 years, then moved out to the bush near Kruger Park to work at a small luxury lodge for 2.5 years. Then, he got the offer for Urbanologi.
If you had told him at any point growing up, or at the beginning of his culinary path, that he’d end up working and living in the middle of Johannesburg, he would have laughed.
And yet, at the beginning of 2017, Jack Coetzee found himself taking the reins from Chef Angelo Scirocco, the original chef who opened Urbanologi.
Q&A With Chef Jack Coetzee
How he goes about the menu
Urbanologi is known for its Asian-Fusion menu. You’ll see plenty of Asian cooking techniques and ingredients employed in the various dishes. However, Chef Jack hopes to start bringing in more African ingredients, little by little, in order to make the menu more relatable to South Africans (and no doubt to make use of some of the amazing produce available in the country).
He admits that sometimes he feels bad because nothing is cooked here in its purest form. The chef will take a traditional dish, ingredient, or technique, and then tear it apart before putting it back together again.
“A lot of Asian techniques make use of stuff that people consider waste. And they get so much flavour and different textures from it. It’s incredible. It seems a crime not to borrow from it.”
Where he gets his inspiration
“At the moment, the menu is kind of like a rolling ball.”
In other words, it’s constantly evolving as the kitchen tries new things. Chef Jack admits that there are a handful of dishes that he’ll probably never be able to take off the menu because he would “end up in a morgue”.
But there’s a lot of seasonal influence and the menu changes almost out of necessity. Since they try to source locally, many dishes come about as a solution to solving a problem, such as the lack of availability of a certain ingredient or the abundance of another.
For example, their micro herbs supplier who uses an aquaponics system approached Chef Jack one day saying that some of the tilapia being used to fertilise the water were getting too big. This was causing them to fight and creating problems. Would he be able to use the bigger fish? The chef said yes and that’s how they worked a curried fish dish onto the menu.
Sustainability and creating less waste
Chef Jack places a huge focus on sustainability. Due to his time spent on a farm, he has a deep-seated appreciation for how long it actually takes to grow something. It goes beyond just picking up ready to eat produce at the local store and, instead, understanding the time and work it takes to plant, grow, and harvest a crop. With that in mind, he tries to make use of every part.
“If you want celeriac, you have to plant it now and then dream of all the stuff you’re going to do with it for the next nine months until you get it. When you get the celeriac, you shave off the outsides, burn those, and turn them into ash. Really just using every single bit of it and having an appreciation for what we’re working with.”
He refers to Chef Dan Barber in the US (chef and owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, both in New York) who is known to take vegetable peels and tempura-fry them, turning them into a delicious snack, where most people would just throw the peels away.
The other benefit to this cooking approach is that it ultimately makes dining more economical. The more they can spread out the costs and make use of every single ingredient, the better for the consumer. Not to mention that it can be an eye-opening experience for the diner by introducing different ways to use the bits that you usually toss. Education and gustation in one!
Urbanologi and Mad Giant work together quite a bit when it comes to the menu. Not only do the food and beer have to work together in a synergy but it’s also another way to help reduce waste. When this interview took place, Chef Jack mentioned experimenting with the yeast from the brewery to make Marmite.
“It’s about an eight-day process…the flavours are incredible, there’s so much depth.”
They also play around with beer vinegars, beer teriyaki, beer honeycomb. Nothing is left untouched!
This goes back to making it a unique dining experience since they’re so far out. What’s going to entice the guy in Bryanston to get off the couch and drive all the way down to Urbanologi?
A lot of credit goes to Ivor Jones, who was the head chef at The Test Kitchen during Chef Jack’s stint there. He admits that at the time, he didn’t understand a lot of the reasoning behind why Ivor was so tough or why he took time to teach certain things. But looking back now, he gets it. He has a lot of respect for what Chef Ivor did and how and why he did it.
Introduction to Asian cuisine
So, it turns out that Asian food wasn't always Chef Jack’s thing. His introduction to Asian ingredients and cooking came from Chef James Park, the sous chef at The Test Kitchen. Park has since returned to South Korea to open up his own restaurant but not before passing on knowledge about core Asian ingredients and cooking techniques.
Chef Jack laughs as he recalls his time in the kitchen with him, getting flustered when he was told to fetch some mirin, not even knowing what it was. Before then, the most he knew about Asian food was soy sauce and wasabi. The best thing Chef Park did, though, was not just teaching him about the ingredients but also about the culture and people behind them. Giving Chef Jack reference points to work from and an understanding of the why and how are likely what have given him such a leg up today. He was constantly pushed to learn more.
Favourite dishes on the menu
The chef has a sentimental attachment to the coal-fired broccoli dish, which is served in a smoked gorgonzola cream with broccoli gremolata. It’s the kind of dish that got him to where he is today and he just can’t bring himself to take it off the menu yet. (By the way, I tried this dish and it was one of my absolute favourites.)
He also has a soft spot for the curried fish because it’s one of the first dishes that came about as a solution to a problem.
Plating and presentation
This is a fine line for Chef Jack. Because they send out so many dishes at the same time, he can’t get too hung up on quirky or detailed plating techniques. On a busy night, the kitchen can prep and serve anywhere from 400 to 600 dishes in one service! The biggest factors that influence how each dish is presented are how practical it is to eat (does it make sense if it’s going to be shared by a table?) and how easy it is to plate under pressure. Practicality is the name of the game here - can they do a lot, to the same standard, at the same time?
When customer requests mess with the integrity of the food
If you ask for tomato sauce (ketchup) to accompany your dish, you’re going to get a firm but apologetic “no” from the server or Roger the General Manager (who has the very tough job of having to be the diplomat between the kitchen and the guests!). The kitchen works hard to create a balance of flavours and textures in these dishes and if you take things off or try to replace them, it just doesn’t work as well.
For example, there’s a tempura shimeji mushroom dish that comes with a tamarind dressing and a butternut puree. A server might try to accommodate a vegan by saying that they can leave off the dressing and the puree but:
“You have now taken the steering wheel and all the wheels off the car. How do you expect it to go??”
This is where communication and education come into play. Chef Jack makes an effort to explain the process behind the food to the front of house staff. If they can see the work that goes into it and why certain elements are being plated together, it makes them appreciate the complexity of the dishes and better able to explain it to the diners.
In the same way, having an open kitchen has also helped enormously with creating a more tangible connection between the ones making the food and the ones eating it.
"Gone are the days where your food comes out of a hole in the wall. It’s really nice for the guest to be able to see exactly what’s going on. There’s nothing to hide. You can come to the pass and see what’s going on. It gets people excited."
The restaurant isn’t an easy place to be and when you’re working in the kitchen, you have to be willing to stay the extra hour, make sure that things are done properly, and that you’re not cutting corners. And having a regular Monday through Friday 9-5 schedule? Forget about it.
His leadership style
“I like to lead from the front. Being in the kitchen, prepping with the guys, walking around and getting involved.”
It’s not always easy finding the balance between being in the kitchen and dealing with admin and paperwork, especially for senior chefs.
One of his favourite meals
When he goes home for the holidays, he likes to get the farm workers to cook up a dish called sadza ne muriwo, which is basically mielie pap (maize porridge) with spinach, tomato, and onion relish, heaped into a bowl. If he's lucky, they also put in a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter that really ties it together. It’s a humble dish that is like soul food to the chef.
“They can show you how to cook it but it will never be as good as theirs.”
Restaurants around Johannesburg
Much like other chefs, Chef Jack prefers relaxed environments with good, solid fare when he goes out to eat. Fancy places, he says, ultimately end up with him analysing the dishes rather than just sitting back and taking his mind off of things.
For good ramen, he likes Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville. Further north in Bryanston is Gemelli’s where they apparently have an incredible burrata salad. He’s been trying to get the name of their burrata supplier but so far, they’re keeping their lips sealed! And about every six months or so, Roger (who is Portuguese) gets them to head to the South to the famed Portuguese restaurant Parreirinha.
(I live near this restaurant, by the way, and it’s worth the trip. It’s in a slightly dodgy-looking neighbourhood and it’s nothing fancy but that doesn’t matter - you’re there for the hearty Portuguese food.)
Keep an eye on Chef Jack Coetzee because his career is only just beginning. In just the few months from the time I sat down with him to publishing this, he’s already been interviewed for CNN’s African Voices series, and Urbanologi was recently mentioned in The New York Times “36 Hours in Johannesburg”.
Plan on seeing some awesome things from him.
Read about our dining experience at Urbanologi for more!