The food truck chef on serving cosmopolitan cuisine inspired by his homeland
South African cuisine is comfort food for Damian Ettish, the owner and chef of Fetty’s Street Food. It’s international in scope—influenced by Indian, Chinese, American and European cooking, Ettish says—but downhome in approach. He describes meals held around a big table in his native Cape Town, with everyone grabbing bits of this and that from communal platters. The gastronomy leans heavily toward baked dishes and barbecue, called braai, cooked with wood or charcoal to lend smoky flavor. Ironically, it took an intercontinental move for Ettish to begin serving some of this South African food himself.
A little over a year ago, he relocated to Columbus to be with his girlfriend, now his wife, whose family ran a Thai restaurant in Central Ohio for 30 years. Ettish had already been operating Fetty’s food truck in Cape Town for more than two years, but the menu didn’t have South African staples because they were ubiquitous there. His truck mostly featured Southeast Asian and Thai food—he learned to cook it before he met his wife’s family, though their influence certainly hasn’t hurt—but now he’s also able to offer Columbus patrons a taste of his homeland, like the Boerewors Bites he adapted from a traditional farmer’s sausage. That recipe is among many local favorites in the forthcoming “Best of Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook,” out Aug. 15, and it’s also included in the August issue of Columbus Monthly.
Here, Ettish provides deeper insights into the experience of serving his style of comfort food to an unfamiliar audience and spanning a culinary divide in his new home.
On his preferred utensils, or lack thereof: “I like it when people use their hands to eat my food, but not everything is handhelds. And you can’t exactly eat curries and stuff with your hands, especially in America. People are a bit scared to do that.”
On locals’ hesitation to try his fare: “Often on the truck I get people glancing over at the menu, and then they’ll walk away because they know that there’s an option up the road which they’re familiar with. And then they see things like bunny chow, and they go, ‘What is that?’ … They walk away, and I get a little disheartened, but when they do try it, they inevitably come back because they know that it is going to be good thereafter. So I’ve learnt to not worry as much about people walking away at first glance, but it would be nice if people were more familiar with the cuisine and with the food and with the fact that it’s going to be good and tasty.”
On bunny chow, a customary dish of chicken curry in hollowed-out bread: “You find that everywhere in South Africa, and obviously you’ll just be another number if you had to [serve] it there. Whereas over here, no one else does it, so it’s exciting that I can offer it. And it’s really exciting that people enjoy it. It’s actually my best-selling menu item at the moment.”
On using traditional preparations: “I try and stay as authentic as I can just because that’s how I’ve learnt to cook it and I prefer serving it that way. … Everything is done from scratch and as authentically as possible just to keep it, keep it there. I don’t want to lose track of where I am and where I want to go to, you know?”