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Text: Lisa van den Knaap. Photographs: Peter Whitfield, Murray Anderson-Ogle and Toby Murphy. Article from the June 2012 issue of Food and Home Entertaining Magazine.
Venturing as far afield as Norway, Italy and Australia, five successful chefs discuss their reasons for coming home
Victor du Plessis cooked for Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand on a yacht while he was overseas, and has now transferred his skills to Red Dot Cafe and Catering, which he opened in Joburg in 2010.
What’s your food background? Ten years ago, when I was in Spain, a friend of mine landed a job on a super yacht and asked me if I would be her sous chef, promising to teach me everything that I would have learnt at chef school, in a year. It gave me experiences I wouldn’t have even dreamt of – I’ve cooked for Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen came into the kitchen to say thanks for a great meal. I was also extremely lucky to work with a great friend, Paula Nel (of the British TV programme, Gourmet Girls). She taught me there are no limitations to what I could create food-wise.
Why did you come back? A holiday in South Africa and love brought me back about three years ago. I went into catering first and worked with well-known events coordinator, Rudie Stoop, which was a great stepping stone. Then I started Red Dot Cafe and Catering. Eight months later, my girlfriend, Kirsty Haiden, left her corporate job to do the Red Dot thing and we’ve been growing steadily ever since.
Tell us a little bit about Red Dot. There’s very much a Bill Granger/Donna Hay vibe going on with old classics and delicious sandwiches. As we have lots of offices close by, our meals are quick and easy. Our catering includes everything from a small dinner for two to a massive event for 2 500. I also have a regular spot cooking dishes on the Afrikaans TV show, Toks ‘n Tjops.
What’s next for you? We have a weight-loss and aesthetic centre opposite us and we’re looking at upping our healthy dishes and incorporating a salad bar where people can create their own salads. We’re also going to make certain dishes wheat-free.
What did you learn overseas? On the super yachts, we would do big plates of food – over-catering was part of the gig. We’d often be told at the last minute that celebrities would be bringing guests – sometimes 30 people at a time – and with a limited amount of stock, we still had to create five-star dishes, which really helped me to think on my feet.
Best thing about being home? The space – especially after living on a yacht! I’m enjoying running my own business because the only person I answer to is myself. I have complete creative licence when it comes to food.
Red Dot Cafe and Catering, The Pivot, Montecasino Boulevard, Fourways. Call 076 966 1355 or visit www.reddot.co.za.
Former textile designer turned food stylist and writer, Sonja Edridge, fell in love with all things culinary in Italy and London before coming home to run The Larder at Block & Chisel.
What is your food background? I grew up in Cape Town and studied textile design but, while recovering from a skiing accident in Australia, I answered an ad to help with interiors for a guest house. The owner was an amazing chef who also grew her own veggies, so I said I’d stay if she taught me how to cook. She really helped me fall in love with food.
What did you do overseas? I came back to South Africa in 1995 and was disappointed with the local food scene so I went to London. My friend Prue Leith suggested a six-month course and then lined up a job in Tuscany at an incredible castle. I cooked for everyone, from famous designers to priests from the Vatican, and learnt how to make breads, pastas and ice creams. In London I helped on a TV show called Light Lunch and was a food editor for various food magazines. I worked on shoots and books – Food from Plenty by Diana Henry was my favourite – and ad campaigns with Jamie Oliver’s photographer, David Loftus.
What brought you back? Years ago, one of my first interior design commissions was from Block & Chisel and last year, when they offered me the opportunity to run The Larder, I persuaded my husband to take the leap with me. In just over three weeks, I was back home and sourcing amazing producers and suppliers.
Tell us about your menu. One of my favourite dishes is our beetroot gravadlax with creme fraiche and horseradish. We also sell a gluten-free Zulu cake, using polenta, almonds and oranges with an orange syrup. Our carrot cake is said to be the best and our Bunga Bunga sweet dukkah mix is delicious on Greek yoghurt, meringue and poached fruit. Every Thursday we have a market in the cafe from 3 – 5pm, when a few of our producers set up shop and we all sell something ready-cooked for the weekend.
Best part about being back? I’m passionate about food and love using small producers – especially the great ones that South Africa has to offer. I love the sunshine and the fact that I’m able to boogie board with my kids after work, and the geselligheid of everyone here.
Favourite local ingredient? Guavas, but I like anything seasonal and I can’t say no to a yummy homemade milk tart.
The Larder at Block & Chisel, 99 Main Road, Diep River, Cape Town. Call 021-712-1961.
Having originally studied a B Com, Jason Powell followed his love for food with a two-year stint in Norway, before returning to the Lowveld to open The Food Fundi.
What’s your food background? I always wanted to work in the food industry but did a B Com instead and during that time I was always cooking in our digs. After travelling, finally joined my brother and sister at Prue Leith in Pretoria to study as a chef. From there I worked at Sprigs, Singita I and on Vamizi island in Mozambique, but a big highlight was spending two years in Norway. The lodge I worked at had their own butchery, so I learnt to make everything from bacon and deer sausage to smoked salmon and gravadlax.
What brought you back to South Africa? I came back for a wedding and met Mel (now my wife). After the weekend, went straight to the airport and back to Norway. We kept in touch for four months until I threw in the towel on the long distance idea and returned in 2010. Back home, I did marketing for a while, but decided to go back to my passion of food and ended up in Nelspruit. A friend from Singita, GT Lundie, asked if I could help him manage his restaurant until I could find premises to start my own business. A few months later, a space opened up in the Nelspruit CBD and The Food Fundi was born.
What’s on the menu? Our brownies and cheesecake are unbeatable and we have a great confectionery selection. On the savoury side, we do smoked chicken with spiced pineapple chutney on homemade low-GI bread. We make our own chutneys, relishes and onion marmalade.
What makes The Food Fundi different? Based in the Nelspruit CBD, we’re open during office hours, which means we can utilise weekends and evenings for outside catering. We change our menu seasonally and keep things fresh and flavourful.
Favourite South African ingredients? I really enjoy piquante peppers – being both sweet and sour, they have so much going for them and are really versatile. Although they’re not particularly South African, I love avos and mangoes in season and adore South African cheeses.
Biggest lessons you learnt overseas? Most of the places I’ve worked at have been in very remote areas and often with language barriers, so I learnt about being alone and looking inward. I think all of that has made me stronger and more confident.
Best part about being back? Working for myself is extremely rewarding. Most of my staff were unskilled in the food industry and I have really enjoyed training them. I’ve also tried to show my staff that food is so much more than something that simply fills the stomach and I hope this comes through in my dishes.
The Food Fundi, Shop HG8, Absa Square, Nelspruit. Call 013-755-1091.
Being spoilt with the amazing ingredients at food markets in the UK, Gareth Lee, executive chef at Voodoo Lily Cafe, brings his non-negotiable philosophy of local and organic produce to a Joburg hotspot.
What’s your food background? I’m originally from Namibia and was classically trained in French cooking. Initially, I was a stress management specialist in kitchens, before getting behind the stove. I found the SA food scene limiting, so I left for the UK in 2002. I worked in gastro pubs, where we did everything from scratch, including the pastries and breads. I loved being able to go to the food markets and make up a menu as I walked through them. Anything from Europe was available as it was right on our doorstep.
What brought you back home? I wanted to set up something similar in South Africa, so came back in 2006. When I met Beth (owner of Voodoo Lily Cafe) last year, we soon realised our ideas about food were extremely similar and started working together.
What’s the philosophy at Voodoo Lily Cafe? Overseas, everything comes from local farmers, is fresh and organic, picked daily and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. That’s what we’re trying to do here. All our veggies come from the Foodbam Foundation in Soweto, an NGO that teaches unemployed locals to grow their own edible allotments. We thought it was great and wanted to support them. We try to be reasonably priced, with brilliant local suppliers, offering organic, sustainable and Fair Trade products as far as possible. We also try not to import anything and we do everything in-house.
What sets your food apart? We have a permanent menu and a specials menu; if dishes don’t sell, they don’t stay, so we’re constantly changing our menu, depending on the ingredients. I’ve recently found some great Karoo lamb and Chalmar beef, and we’re getting in a lot of free-range duck at the moment and fresh fish. Dishes like our confit of duck leg quarters with sour cherry compot, herbed mash and steamed veg, and tender Chalmar fillet strip pasta with chilli, mushrooms, tomato and a splash of cream were a hit with customers. We also have a fair amount of vegetarian dishes. We’re starting to make different German breads, which are really popular.
People are becoming much more conscious about what they are eating and are often very interested in trying something unusual when they come here.
What did you learn overseas? How to really handle pressure in the kitchen and how to make proper ice creams and cheesecake – it’s easier than you think! Best thing about being home? The wide open spaces and the madness of it all.
Voodoo Lily Cafe, 64 St Andrew Street, Birdhaven. Call 011-442-6965.
With a passion for food and experience from London’s much-loved Ottolenghi restaurant, Danielle Postma and her husband, Mike Caudle, opened Moemas Patisserie & Food Shop in Joburg.
What is your food background? When I was 19,I was an au pair for an American lady who had completed a course at Peter Kump’s, a cooking school in New York. She got me so excited about the world of cooking that I started investigating study possibilities in London and decided on Leiths. One of the people who came to chat to us was the fabulous Yotam Ottolenghi (head chef at Baker & Spice at the time). The next week, I called to see if they were looking for someone to help -and he said I should come in for a trial. I stayed at Baker & Spice for another two years before I begged him for a job in Notting Hill. I learnt so much from him – we’re still in contact and share ideas regularly.
What brought you back? I was homesick. Mike is English but was happy to give South Africa a try, so we came home in 2005. We did catering from home, selling our (now infamous) Magic Bars to coffee shops. Although Mike isn’t formally trained, I taught him everything I know and he now makes amazing pastries. When the space in Parktown Quarter became available, we knew we had to take it, even though we didn’t really have the money.
What’s on your menu? We’re known for delicious breakfasts, our fabulous lunch table and sinful sweet treats: brownies, meringue twists and freshly baked cupcakes every day. Our petits fours are delicious – a gorgeous almond sponge with apricot jam and vanilla buttercream centre and a super-thin layer of fondant.
What sets Moemas apart? We aren’t limited by our menu and add specials or change ingredients according to availability. We recently opened in the evenings, putting up lanterns and fairy lights, and firing up the pizza oven. We also do catering - generous dishes with a Mediterranean slant.
Best part about being back? The weather of course, and family, which in my mind is irreplaceable. I love the fact that my kids can really get to know their grandparents now.
Besides skills, what else did you learn overseas? I learnt that when I was younger, I didn’t trust my own instinct enough, but rather relied on other people’s opinions far too much. Living and working overseas was a huge learning curve.
Favourite local ingredients? We had fig, plum, peach and walnut trees in our garden when I was three, so these ingredients always remind me of home. My first baking experience was Christmas cake with my gran, Moema, so I’m transported back to the smell of the kitchen and cakes every time I see baker’s mix.
Moemas Patisserie and Food Shop, Parktown Quarter, corner 3rd and 7th Avenues, Parktown North. Call 011-788-7725 or visit www.moemas.co.za.
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