CRUSH CHATS TO Westley Müller
EXECUTIVE CHEF FROM Towerbosch Earth Kitchen
Who is Westley the chef? Tell us who you are and how you got here.
I was born in JHB, but grew up on my grandparent’s farm, eating everything the land produced. Fruit from the trees, rabbit, venison, proper ‘plaas-hoenders’ and offal for breakfast. My first memories are about food, the smell of a slaughtered animal, seeing the breaking down of the whole carcass and all the uses of the different cuts of meat, including the offal, which was the first to be cooked and made the best breakfast ever.
As a child I was always in and around the kitchen, irritating, as well as helping, my mom and gran. Growing up in a house where art and a love for nature were the norm, I thought it would be an easy decision to study game-ranging and professional photography, but there was always the love of food, and this pushed me to study at the Institute of Culinary Arts.
Being a chef comes with all sorts of responsibilities, like not being wasteful, being environmentally and sustainability conscious, how does this affect the way you cook?
Minimum wastage is one of the basics you’re taught as a chef, but you only get to practice it once you are in the industry. I have always believed in eating and serving the whole beast, so being sustainable has always been my norm. If you cook with respect for your produce, you will never waste.
We have a vegetable garden on the farm where we grow all our own organic vegetables and we use all the food scraps from the kitchen for compost. We don’t waste any energy, what we don’t use goes through a biodegradable composting system. We also use no pesticides, but instead plant specific plants within the vegetable garden, which deter certain pests.
Our beef and pork is also locally sourced; we use grass-fed, pasture-reared beef and pork, and Farmer Angus’s real free-range eggs. All our lamb is certified-Karoo lamb, sourced from a few certain farms in the Karoo. We believe in supporting small suppliers who understand sustainability, and have environmentally healthy farm practices. The bottom-line is that it is part of our food philosophy to cook, and be sustainably and environmentally correct, as far as we can.
What do you think is the most important responsibility chefs today have when cooking and educating the public about food?
To steer away from consumerism and bulk food. We have to teach people that animals don’t only have fillets and sirloins. There is so much more to an animal, and to respect the beast, you have to eat the whole animal. Restaurants should concentrate more on lesser-known cuts of meat, and teach people that they are as tasty, if not more so, than a piece of fillet. Very important as well, is that we don’t need to eat meat everyday, rather eat less meat, but choose healthier and better quality meat, this is good for your own health as well as for the earth.
Diners are getting more and more used to seeing odd ingredients on the menu, especially when it comes to snout-to-tail cooking. What is the one ingredient you serve/have served that raises the most eyebrows?
Pigs ears, pigs tails and lamb peertjies! I think it is a texture thing, or the idea of sucking and chewing on a pigs tail. The lamb peertjies, well do you eat lamb balls?
Do you have a green thumb? If so, do you look after the kitchen gardens at Towerbosch?
I love a pretty and resourceful garden, but think you need ample time to really work at it. Ingrid, the farm-owner’s wife, made our vegetable garden her hobby and she is pretty good at it. She also does sustainable gardening courses for farm owners and workers.
Is something that home cooks can do to make their lifestyles more enviro-friendly and sustainable?
As I said before, think before you just buy the first piece of meat you can get, buy better and buy less. Try a tougher cut of meat; that animal died to feed you, so use the whole animal. Start a Bokashi compost system and work all your offcuts of vegetables and meat back into your garden – you are giving back energy and your vegetables and garden will flourish.
Make buying food fun, rather drive out on a Saturday and buy your weeks vegetables at an organic market, and buy meat from the loads of farmers that also sell meat at these markets. These suppliers are prone to use less pesticides and antibiotics on their crops and when rearing their animals, than the big farms selling vegetables and meat by the ton.
If you could choose one unconventional ingredient to grow on a tree, what would it be?
Offal! Every part of offal, so we can teach people to start eating it again. To recognise that offal is healthy, and when cooked in the right way, can compete with any good steak or fillet.
If you could choose to fly right now anywhere in the world and cook for someone, who would it be?
Sweden. To cook with, not for, Magnus Nilsson. – he is a young chef at Faviken Restaurant. Their whole cooking philosophy is to forage for all their ingredients, as well as to use the whole animal – proper nose-to-tail eating. We have the same philosophy about food and respect for the animals we consume.
What would you cook; the pantry has everything your heart desires?
I would start of with a steak tartare cut from the hanger steak, with proper sourdough toast. Mains would be slow-braised ox heart on celeriac pureé with crispy shallots. For dessert, apple tarte Tatin and home-made tonka bean ice-cream.
What gets you out of bed in the morning and into the kitchen?
Food! I live my passion and my wife shares the same passion, so from getting up till getting home after work, food is on my brain. It helps if you are married to a good chef and both of you share the same passion.