CHEF Brian Shalkoff sits behind a wooden bowl of spicy Mopani worms, proudly pointing to his contribution to a culinary revolution in the new South Africa.
``This is the future of South African cooking, unifying our food and cultures,'' he declares.
With the demise of apartheid in the historic April elections that brought Nelson Mandela to power, South African restaurants are increasingly exalting in traditional dishes long ignored by white chefs.
At the forefront is Mr. Shalkoff, who for nearly 30 years has presided over the trendsetting kitchens of Gramadoelas, the Johannesburg restaurant that defied the law to keep its doors open to blacks during apartheid and offered its diners tribal fare well before black pride became fashionable.
The popular up-market eatery, situated in the trendy Market Theatre cultural complex, is an indisputable leader among restaurants restoring dignity to traditional black dishes. `Hot pot' of cultures
``This is like a volcanic eruption of a new society. The time is ripe to break rank and marry the traditional with the Western. This is a hot pot of cultures in South Africa. Ways of preparing food are evolving along with the society,'' Shalkoff explains, reaching for a plate of creamed Zulu spinach.
Gramadoelas blends the diverse cultures of South Africa, which are finally learning to co-exist after years apart. The walls, decorated with brass pots and paintings of colonial landscapes, hark back to the 18th-century Dutch who settled in Cape Town. African masks and baskets lend a tribal touch.
The dishes include traditional heavy Afrikaner sweets and casseroles - Melktert Custard Tart, Bobotie Minced Spice Beef Casserole, Tomato Bredie Tomato and Lamb Stew, Sosati Beef Kebabs, and Corn Bread.
The pungent Cape Malay curries bear testimony to the influences of the spice trade. And then there are the local dishes, such as Malamogodu - boiled African black tripe - Ostrich Steak, Kudu (antelope), and, of course, the worms.
While the restaurant attracts tourists who are curious to sample exotica, increasingly South Africa's new black elite come seeking what they ate growing up.
Shalkoff refines some dishes for the Western palate, boiling particularly pungent game extra long or adding piri-piri (red-pepper) chiles and garlic when salt alone normally suffices.
``We are getting more black clients, especially from the African National Congress. There is definitely a new pride in local cooking. It is a little voguish. The women turn out elegantly, with headdresses. They know what they are eating and are quick to tell you whether it is not right.'' Not for the squeamish
Shalkoff says the intrepid generally only sample the worm appetizer once. The leathery texture and strawlike taste are difficult for many to stomach, even with his attractive red sauce and parsley garnish.
He and his kitchen staff are still seeking a gourmet way to prepare what is for many impoverished blacks a protein-rich but not terribly glamorous food. ``Maybe deep-fried in batter with a garlic sauce,'' he says thoughtfully.
About 40 percent of his customers are black, versus only 5 percent before Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and apartheid began to die.
The guest book reads like a litany of foreign and local luminaries - jazz musician Hugh Masekela, British actor Ben Kingsley, and even Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dropped by for a meal while attending Mandela's inauguration. Kudos from Hillary
``Bravo!'' wrote Mrs. Clinton, who reportedly sampled everything exotic put before her.
Shalkoff has no formal training and picks up tips from sampling the dishes of many cultures. Two such dishes he plans to launch in the new year are Skop - braised sheep's head, and Umngqusho, a bean stew from the Xhosa ethnic group reputed to be Mandela's favorite dish.
Across the country, restaurants have long existed that offer game and Cape Malay-Dutch fare, notably Leipold's, whose buffet makes it one of Johannesburg's premier places to dine. But increasingly, small restaurants are cropping up in the style of Shalkoff's Gramadoelas, offering the dishes of the black majority.
Don Wilkinson, chef of the Durban Razzmatazz restaurant, argues that traditional cooking is too bland and peasantlike to stand alone.
Wilkinson's restaurant has won some of the country's top culinary awards over the past few years for its menu, which resembles a safari on a plate.
Mr. Wilkinson prefers to refine local delicacies - crocodile, wild duck, guinea fowl, zebra, springbok (gazelle), and a variety of antelope: reedbuck, gemsbok, impala, and kudu - with foreign touches, such as crocodile sausages with Camembert cheese or adding sun-dried tomatoes or Thai lemon grass to an antelope dish.
The house specialty is a French-style casserole of cane rat - a plump rodent related to the porcupine that lives in sugar- cane fields and is prized on Zulu tables.
``Many people will just boil whatever they can get, with salt only. We take pride in the local heritage and take it further, presenting traditional dishes in a modern style with foreign influences,'' Shalkoff says. ``You could say we are culinary pioneers.''