Exclusive: Starting fires with the Ultimate Braai Master himself: Justin Bonello!

You have more chance of catching Justin Bonello on his successful television show Ultimate Braai Master than meeting him in person. He’s not evasive, just elusive, because his time between producing television shows, writing books and managing his own production company is scheduled months, if not years, in advance.

Justin Bonello is no stranger in the public eye thanks to the global success of Ultimate Braai Master on DStv’s Travel Channel. Few people appreciate that while the series takes over a year to produce, and less than thirteen hours to broadcast, Justin and his team have been planning everything from locations to ingredients- without the certainty of weather forecasts or reliable Wi-Fi reception, so JoziStyle went behind the scenes to see if the Ultimate Braai Master was also the Ultimate Travel Planner!

I was determined to get an exclusive interview with South African television’s most successful television show’s producer and presenter- and I did!

Edward Chamberlain-Bell: You’re a producer, presenter, writer, environmentalist- how do you plan everything?
Justin Bonello: You forgot things like dust kicker, psychologist, gardener, father, husband, cook, etc… But in terms of what’s next I’m lucky in that my projects generally lead from one experience to the next. For example, Cooked 5 was the culmination of four seasons of the Cooked series where I realised that I had no idea where my food came from or what was in it, so I decided to investigate by following the story of our food from farm to table. One day while filming in the Karoo I came across these words scribbled on the wall of an abandoned farmhouse:

I’ve injected poison into myself. Don’t worry; I’m going into the town to die. I had no choice.

It was written in Afrikaans and those words still haunt me, so after that experience I had to find out what was happening to this place that was once the agricultural heartland of South Africa. That kicked off a two year journey across the length and breadth of the Karoo and ultimately lead me to the story about the conflict between farmers who rear the domesticated livestock that we eat and wild nature, with the most prominent example being the many fatalities of the endangered populations of leopards that exist in the Cape Fold Mountains, and so I’ve started tackling that monster of a project. Beyond that I can’t tell you where Leopard will lead me…at least not yet.
Justin, you host Ultimate Braai Master- how do you start the ultimate fire?
Justin Bonello: It’s funny that you ask that question because many people just put a stack of wood together, chuck a packet of blitz underneath and light it, thinking that the fire will automatically catch. The truth is that you need to let it breathe. You need to have enough air to fuel the fire otherwise you will just smother it, so make sure that there are spaces between the pieces of wood that allows for air to reach the flames.

What is the quickest way to ruin a braai / or an absolute no-no?
Well there are a number of things that could go wrong:
A) You could run out of beer,
B) your beer could be warm,
C) you don’t have the wine for the ladies,
D) you have bad company.
Cold beer, good wine and great company – the rest will just fall into place that’s the beauty of the braai!

What is your favourite food to braai?
I love doing a spitted lamb, deboned leg of lamb, lamb ribs between two hot igneous rocks, skilpadjies, lamb chops, lamb Italian potjie with gnocchi, lamb, lamb, lamb. I think that my love affair with lamb has something to do with the fact that I spent two years in the Karoo shooting a series, called ‘Karoo: Land of Thirst’ which is coming out soon, but in the meantime you can cook all those lamb recipes in my latest book called Cooked in the Karoo available at all major bookstores.

How many braais have you been to in your life, and which was your most memorable?
That’ is a question that I don’t have an answer for because there are just too many to count, but I would imagine that the figure would be somewhere in the thousands. For me it’s a way of life, so when we’re on the road shooting that’s how we cook our dinner. I think one of the most memorable braais would have to be when my wife and I had our second wedding – a big kuier with our friends and not the formal family ceremony. It was a collective braai where my good mate Nick and I spitted a sheep and everyone got involved making tzatziki and salads and everything to go with it on the Wild Coast – that’s pretty much my idea of perfection!

Congratulations because you’re producing the fourth season of Ultimate Braai Master. I assume the stakes are going to be higher, so can you tell us what you have in store for contestants?
Well I can’t give too much away, but I can tell you this much: if anyone thinks they’ve watched three seasons and they understand how the game works, they are sorely mistaken and I have a few new tricks up my sleeve that should make for a very interesting season. This year we’ve changed the game dynamics of the competition to really make for the best road trip thus far, so if you haven’t entered yet, go to the website and do it now because I can guarantee that it will be the adventure of a lifetime. One thing I can promise you is this: as much as we have a fantastic culture of getting together around the fire in South Africa, this year I’m out to stir the pot and make the contestants more responsible for their own fate in the game and not just what the judges think! Entries close on the 21st of February for Cape Town and the 28th of February for everyone else!

What do you look for in contestants? What is a deal breaker getting selected or disqualified?
We’re just looking for all South Africans who love life, food and the braai. Obviously you need to be able to cook well. I think that people have become quite intimidated by what the contestants have produced on the fire over the past three years, but the truth is that anything you can cook in a kitchen you can cook on a braai and it’s the fire that levels the playing field. The first two seasons were both won by amateur chefs and the curve balls that I have lined up for this next season will definitely catch even the most experienced chefs off-guard. Remember you spend two months on the road with Bertus Basson, Petrus Madutlela and myself, starting as a good cook but ending as a great cook.

Ultimate Braai Master works well in South Africa butis there any chance of it being franchised globally? Eg. Ultimate Braai Master: USA or Ultimate Braai Master: UK?
Last year Ultimate Braai Master was selected by one of the world’s largest independent production and format rights companies, all3mediaInternational who own Undercover Boss and Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, to become part of its global format catalogue, which is a first for us and will hopefully see the Ultimate Braai Master replicated as a successful global format in territories around the world! So that’s definitely a possibility, but you never know it’s a big television market out there. Both the Americans and the Australians are big on their barbeques, but South Africans are the only people who can braai!

Finally, let’s pretend you’ve burnt the braai (hypothetically speaking!) What do you do?
I normally pull an old Afrikaans trick here. Let me explain it to you in one sentence: the longer you make your friends wait for their food, the better it tastes, so provide and ply them with loads and loads of alcohol, give them the contact number for a taxi or a couch to sleep on and feed them as late as possible. Remember there is no such thing as a bad cook, only friends who aren’t hungry enough!

You travel extensively but we have to if you pack your own bags?
Well I’m a big boy now so I pack my own bags. The truth is that I travel so much that packing is almost second nature to me. I’ve had loads of experience in packing up and leaving home for two, three, four months at a time, that I can now probably do it with my eyes closed. That being said, there will always be something that you leave behind – it’s unavoidable I think, but as long as you have all the essentials you should be fine and anything else can be improvised. My best two tips would be not to rush and to have a list. Generally I’ll pack my bags a good couple of weeks before the trip, and just before I go I’ll take everything out and get rid of half of it because the truth is that you almost always end up wearing the same few things and carrying around bits and bobs that you never use.

Here’s a checklist that we work off of for everything beyond clothes:
Passport and Driver’s Licence.
Decent Music – and lots of it.
A Pillow.
Cooking Utensils.
A Stash of Padkos.
A Puncture Repair Kit. Or five.
A Map.
A Decent Flask.
Toilet paper and wet wipes. And a spade
First-Aid Kit
A Hacky Sack.
A Toolkit.
A Camera.

Ultimate Braai Master attracts great sponsors. How do you decide which ones are the right fit or not?
South Africa is a really unique country with a unique set of circumstances but there’s a worldwide truth when it comes to brands and content: they’re investing in entertaining content that compliments their brands and that’s specifically true of the brands that are involved with us – everyone from Robertsons Herbs and Spices, SAT, and Coca-Cola. The interesting thing is that they’re providing entertainment for the viewing public while subtly getting their brand ethos and message across. I think that is the key thing for them –they get out into that space in a manner that’s not in your face or just product placement, so we actually get to bring the brands to life and by the brands supporting us, we get to give the viewer entertainment, so it’s a great win-win relationship.

Ultimate Braai Master took off like wildfire but was it that easy to get it it onto television?
Well Ultimate Braai Master is basically Cooked (my first shows) on steroids. In the old days I would travel around with a bunch of mates and we’d cook in the great outdoors, eat, drink and be merry and then do it again the next day – and UBM is basically that, except it’s on a much larger scale. I meet a whole bunch of new friends every time and we cook up a storm along the way. The main difference is that the contestants are fighting for their lives in the game and they could walk away with a big prize other than just a free holiday around the length and breadth of the country and here we are, three seasons later and gearing up for the fourth! From drawing board to first execution it took about a year, I must admit it couldn’t have been done without my business partner, Peter Gird. I tend to not be the suit and tie type of guy that can speak the same corporate language that Peter can, but then again I love putting shows together and finding the right people to go on the road together.

UBM remains fresh each season but could you create another successful reality show?
I think that there’s a little bit of ego attached to that question because you’re always thinking, “Can I come up with the next big idea?”– whether you’re a show creator, inventor, artist – it doesn’t really matter, so yes, I think that I have a couple of ideas spinning around, but sometimes you also need to take a step back in order to take two steps forward, so ask me again in six months time when we’re finished shooting Ultimate Braai Master Season Four.

People assume that you are the Ultimate Braai Master- by default because you produce & present the show, but would you win Ultimate Braai Master if you were competing against your friends or in a celebrity edition of UBM?
Sure! But it would be unfair and you might as well just give me the cash!

Just as our time is up Justin’s PA reminds him that he has to leave for another meeting- and checks if he told me about the closing date for entries for Ultimate Braai Master: Game On (Season 4). He did!

Images of Justin Bonello courtesy of COOKED IN AFRICA FILMS.