Kare Johannesburg 2021

Why Tashas Inspired is not a cookbook

Spoiler alert: it’s a work of art.

There are three words in the preface of the new tashas Inspired book that speak volumes about Natasha Sideris’ approach as a restaurateur: “every single detail”. As the founder of the Tashas cafes (and subsequently Flamingo Room, Avli and Galaxy Bar) Natasha’s holistic approach puts forward a culinary experience that is masterminded, right down to the seemingly inconsequential details. The effortlessness of a meal or a drink at a Tashas café belies this.

This commitment to “every single detail” hints at the unique formulation for Inspired, her second book, which is part recipe book, part coffee table book. Because food is inextricably linked to travel and to art, Natasha wanted to explore all of these aspects simultaneously, bringing them together in carefully orchestrated chapters.

Let’s start by setting the record straight, this is not just a “book”, it’s a 336-page tome – part cookbook, part art catalogue – arranged into seven menus which are pulled together by country, spirit or culture. These Inspired menus set the mood for each evocative chapter but are also present in many of the Tashas restaurants already, setting the tone for the interiors, the table settings, the dishes and even the crockery. 

The book aptly opens with the chapter Café Society, a culture which set the Tashas brand in motion all those years back. In it, she captures the ease, the style, the flavours and the social aspects of café culture in dishes like the Carpaccio Sandwich, Blue Cheese Wedge Salad, Cacio e Pepe and Affogato. Chosen for their resonance with the theme, the artworks that animate this chapter include Alexandra Ross’ ‘Pink Lady’, Victoria Verbaan’s ‘Stay Slick Forward’ and John Ross’ ‘Hour Glass’ among others.

She talks about creating this book to “evoke emotion and memory”, a sentiment that carries through to each and every one of the establishments under the burgeoning international Tashas Group which now encompasses 24 restaurants and a bar. Above all, these chapters with their beautiful photography, artful styling, intentionally created dishes, foot-tapping Spotify playlists and coordinated artworks are intended to inspire the home cook to create their own culinary experience of the senses – meals that are enhanced by table setting, music, drinks and mood with the help of Natasha’s own styling and serving tips for each menu.

So, if you were planning to capitalize on our lingering summer here in SA with a light, alfresco gathering you’d turn to page 190, where the menu for A Day in the Country awaits. This theme, Natasha writes, is a “celebration of the lazy Sunday lunch tradition,” including dishes like Pea, Courgette and Goat’s Cheese Frittata (recipe courtesy of Natasha down below), Roasted Pear and Gorgonzola Salad and Fig Trifle. You’d arrange the flowers (here, she suggests tuber roses, hydrangeas, tulips and the like), set the scene with her expert styling guidance found in the chapter intro and let the mood percolate with the accompanying Spotify playlist. As we said, this is not a cookbook, it’s so much more.

You produced, shot and styled this book during lockdown, from the confines of your small Atholl test kitchen; what was the reality like behind the scenes?

We actually started working on the book in April 2018.  We started with the idea that we were going to make it in 6 months, create a simple cookbook and focus on the “inspired by” menus at tashas. The creativity just kept flowing and it turned out to be much more than we ever anticipated! Two and half years later, tashas Inspired became a reality. It became a testament to my love for art, food, music and creating beautiful settings.

It still amazes me that all of the recipes in the book were shot in our tiny test kitchen in Atholl. David Ross, the photographer and Alexandra Ross, the stylist and creative director on the book, did an unbelievable job.  Not to mention, Elze Roome, who I worked with closely on the development of the recipes and my brother Savva who was instrumental in its creation. Turning this little space into a French Bistro, a New York deli and a Mediterranean Kitchen was nothing short of a miracle. Behind the scenes, it was an intense but happy space.

You say, “food is art”, how did the sentiment inform tashas Inspired?

Just as an artist considers everything from their canvas to their brushes to their paint to create an amazing piece of art – so does a cook. We need to consider everything from the ingredients to the menu, to the setting. Everything comes together to create a complete experience.  When we do this, whether it is for friends or family, we are creating art. 

How did you go about choosing the artists whose work features in the book alongside the recipes?

This was quite a process. We firstly needed to choose art that created a mood within each chapter. We then went through every piece and chose the right ones that would work. We literally looked at thousands of options. It has been an honour to work with all of them.

Are we likely to ever see any of these dishes on any of the Tashas, Flamingo Room or Avli menus?

It is very likely! The simple, more casual ones will be best for tashas and the more complicated, yet elegant dishes will work for Avli by tashas and Flamingo Room by tashas.  

As a restaurateur and life-long foodie you must have incredible memories of meals eaten around the world. Can you share one in particular?

I have so many memories, but one, at the moment, comes to mind. Sitting at Kiki’s Tavern in Mykonos with dear friends. It is extremely casual, there is no electricity and you sit perched on a cliff overlooking the Aegean under a tree. You almost feel like you’re in a secret treehouse. The food is simple and brilliant. Run by a husband and wife, they serve fresh salads with the most colourful and tasty produce and he cooks fresh octopus and pork chops on the grill, where baked potatoes lie in the hot embers. Cold wine is served in a tumbler. The magic is the simplicity, the heartfelt food and the setting. A meal is about so much more than just the food.

Apart from their relevance to each theme in the book, what were some of the deciding factors when considering a recipe?

All of the recipes are actually quite nostalgic – either coming from my childhood or from the places that I have travelled. We took the basic recipes and then added some magic. 

You’re having a couple of your own close friends around for a relaxed meal, what do you cook, what’s playing in the background and how do you style the scene?

I would look to the Mediterranean Table chapter in the cookbook and choose a selection of recipes – delicious dips, flatbread, a tomato salad, Savva’s souvla, and gemista. These would be served on large, generous platters, all set on a rustic wooden table, with cut bougainvillea in small vases. We would cook and eat to the Med Table Spotify playlist that has been curated just for this chapter.

Pea, Courgette & Goat’s Cheese Frittata 

serves 4

When we opened our first tashas, we had a few frittatas on the menu, not realising how ambitious that was for a restaurant kitchen. A properly made frittata is not a pan-fried omelette. It should be baked after frying because it’s only in the oven that it becomes light and fluffy, like a soufflé. The prepping and cooking time from start to finish can be up to 40 minutes, but you can easily make it ahead and serve it at room temperature (though it will subside a bit). It’s ideal picnic food. Make a large one for lots of guests and cut it into wedges. 

1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
½ red onion, thinly sliced
4 medium courgettes, sliced into ½ cm rings 200 g fresh or frozen peas
10–12 eggs
20 g mint, chopped
20 g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
20 g chives, chopped
salt & black pepper
100 g soft goat’s milk cheese
drizzle of olive oil
chopped chives for garnish
10 g pea shoots for garnish 

In an ovenproof frying pan, heat the butter and olive oil and sauté the onion and courgettes until tender. 

Blanch the peas. If you’re using fresh peas, it will take a bit longer to blanch them until they’re tender. Add the peas to the pan and sauté until they are heated through. 

In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs together with the herbs, salt and pepper. Pour into the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes. With a spatula, continuously scrape through the mixture, from the outside to the middle, all around the pan. This will help to lift the cooked parts and allow the raw egg to run in underneath to cook. 

In the meantime, preheat the oven grill. When the egg mixture is halfway cooked, make sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Break half the cheese into small pieces and sprinkle on top of the egg mixture. Place the pan in the oven and cook under the grill for 8–10 minutes, or until golden brown. Do not overcook the frittata. 

Remove the frittata from the oven, and top with the remaining cheese, also broken into smaller pieces, and chopped chives. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with pea shoots. Season with salt and pepper. 

tashascafe.com | @tashascafe

Words: Mila Crewe-Brown and Natasha Sideris
Photographs and Video: David Ross