Paul Maciel is the owner and Chef of Pronto Italian Restaurant and Bar in Craighall. He’s a busy man, moonlighting as the Secret Jozi Chef and managing the brand new cooking school underneath Pronto called The Cookery. Pronto is the restaurant that my husband and I chose for our first date, making it a special place for me and making Paul a person I was keen to interview!
Paul talks about food in the same way a sommelier describes a wine. He likes to know the story of where food was grown and the path it took to get to his kitchen. His love of food is obvious and it is clear that he doesn’t think of food as mere combinations of ingredients. Paul wants to invoke emotions and memories when he creates a dish.
Growing up in a big family with a mixed heritage of one Indian and one Portuguese parent, Paul was raised on a variety of flavours. Weekend breakfasts were a huge affair with several courses starting at 9:00 and lasting until 11:30. He tells a story of fighting with his siblings for his turn to churn custard into ice cream and the awe that this process held for him. Custard went in and like magic, ice cream came out. Paul’s love of food is tied to the memories created while cooking and eating with those he loves.
Paul’s mission in opening the Cookery is to break the misconception that we were sold in the 1980s that you don’t need to cook. There is sound research around children’s eating habits that confirms this: children that are involved in food preparation or simply eat with their parents are likely to eat a wider variety of foods and weigh less than children that do not eat with the rest of their family. Eating together provides an opportunity for a family to share their day but is also a space where parents can model healthy food behaviours.
So, what’s happening in Paul’s kitchen? Pronto originally started out as a deli but people wanted food to eat there and then. In time, Paul realized that a restaurant was what people wanted. That was 12 years ago! Paul’s own health story – I’m a dietitian and I believe everyone has a health story – had him starting a delicatessen, not eating much food in the day then eating the left-over muffins when he left work. His weight ballooned up to 140kg. Eventually he realized things had to change and started eating more regular meals. Paul’s recipe like many people’s is small regular meals and exercise. He eats good quality bread and pasta and prefers less refined foods. Diet food is a no-no for Paul, he believes food should have calories.
Originally Paul did not think he and I were on the same page in terms of being interviewed. He thought I wanted a healthy eating spin when all I wanted to do was explore vegetable preparation. A go to dish at home for him is a simple broccoli dish: lightly steamed broccoli tossed with olive oil, lemon, garlic and pine nuts. The dish is great hot or cold. We both agree that people get into a vegetable rut which is part of the reason they get bored of eating vegetables. He uses a long list of salads that he rotates in his house to keep his vegetable intake varied.
Paul’s favourite kitchen gadget is his appetite (I did not see that one coming). Rather than being about the equipment, his kitchen adventures are driven by a need to mix things up and try new things. His appetite is his inspiration.
While chatting, Paul rattled off several dishes that involve either polenta or a risotto as a base with mostly vegetarian toppings such as polenta with sage butter, porcini risotto and butternut and feta risotto. Much of the flavour of these dishes comes from cooking food in stages to really bring out their flavour, for example first roasting butternut before adding it to a dish. These are the type of dishes he’ll rustle up quickly at home during the week. His go-to dish at the restaurant has been the same for years: the penne Salsiccia, their signature dish of fennel infused pork sausages cooked with plum tomatoes, chilli, red wine and herbs. I personally love the sauce with their polenta. If watching your waist, share the pasta and a green salad with a friend. As a general rule, remember to check the menu outside of the salad section as great dishes such as the ricotta, rocket and pine nut salad may have been listed elsewhere. In this case it’s under the antipasti section.
Paul Maciel loves food that is simple and honest. When we start with good produce, we don’t need long ingredient lists to make flavourful and delicious food. I think many people get stuck in a food rut, making the same dishes day after day. I love the idea of a vegetable recipe list that can be rotated in a household, especially as new vegetables come into season. Not everyone has the same inspiring palate as Paul but we can certainly steal some of his ideas and add them to dinner inspiration list to use when shopping.
Kitchen inspiration from Paul
- Enjoy being in the kitchen.
- Trust yourself more – celebrity chefs make things look harder than they really are
- If in doubt, olive oil and lemon are great classic flavours to use with vegetables.