The moment you find a fly in your food, you immediately throw it out in disgust. If you’re in a restaurant, you call the manager, right? Not always! Especially not if you’re ordering a dish cooked by Mario Barnard, resident chef at The Insect Experience.
The idea of eating creepy crawlers might make you cringe, but Mzansi is flocking to taste Barnard’s food cooked with insects and fly larvae.
This 28-year-old chef was always charmed by his mother’s food creations. He says that no matter how hard he tries, his food doesn’t even come close to her dishes.
“I’ve been intrigued by the food my mom made and could never fully understand why my food didn’t taste as good as hers,” he says. His mother’s standards have definitely inspired him to take his cooking to the next level, however.
Growing up in Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, Barnard matriculated from Bredasdorp High School in 2009. He went on to sharpen his cooking knowledge at The Culinary Academy, now known as The Hurst Academy, and became a qualified chef in 2011.
To pay off his study debt Barnard travelled to the United States of America to work in agriculture. “I worked as a custom harvester and travelled from the north of the crop fields to the south with a combine harvester to harvest people’s farms.”
A year later he returned to Mzansi and worked as a kitchen manager at Pink Piano restaurant in Bredasdorp. From there, Barnard managed Buena Vista Social Café’s kitchen in Green Point. Towards the end of 2018 to early this year he worked as a cook on a cruise-liner for three months, travelling between the Caribbean and the Bahamas. On the cruiser they fed 5000 guests and 1700 staff members daily.
“I then realised I’ve got to make a drastic change in my career and that’s when I started to cook with insects. And it’s anything but boring and ordinary,” Barnard says.
His drastic career change didn’t happen overnight. He first came into contact with insect-based food in 2015 when he took a six-month break and travelled to Thailand. “I tried some tarantulas and scorpions and it wasn’t really visually appealing for me. I left it and then this year when I met Jean and Leah, the owners of Gourmet Grubb, founders and innovators behind the concept and foods at The Insect Experience.”
Leah Bessa and Jean Louwrens own a company that makes ice-cream with entomilk, which is a dairy alternative made from insects. Together they wanted to show people that insects can also be enjoyed as a meal.
“I partnered with The Insect Experience as the culinary expert to create dishes that drive the culinary side of insects, through the insect experience restaurant, and show consumers that insects can taste delicious,” says Barnard.
He says he prefers cooking with insects because it’s “delicious, sustainable, high in fibre and magnesium and it has positive impact on our planet”. Preparing insect-based dishes and convincing people to eat them might seems daunting, but the hardest thing Barnard has ever had to face was his fear of heights. A few other things you might not know about him – he has 14 tattoos, plays the guitar and for as long as he can remember he’s never been bitten by a mosquito
Barnard recently started to smoke and bottle his own sauce range. He says people loves his smoked tomato chili chutney, which he serves at the pop-up kitchen.
“The chutney recipe is from my grandmother and I tweaked it by cold smoking (using French oak barrel to smoke the chutney) for six hours with other added key ingredients. And nope it doesn’t contain insects.”
He has received excellent feedback from the public on his insect recipes, and Barnard has decided to introduce others to these insect dishes as well. “I chose to go into this direction to make a difference in the world and I’m also just a little bit over the normal monotonous kitchen and pumping out food,” he adds.
“At this stage my goals are to reach ground-breaking levels on introducing the Westerners to the concept of eating insects. Long term goals would be to get my range of sauces out there on the shelves when the opportunity arises.”