‘Passport to Travel – Cape Town, South Africa
Being a chef is a passport to travel with food being a universal language.
To be honest this was the reason why I choose my career path. As an inquisitive child and lucky enough to holiday around the world in the late seventies, early eighties I was never afraid to try that ‘foreign muck’, opting for the sometimes obscure, authentic and local fayre whilst on my hols.
Having qualified as a chef and acquiring the basic skills and knowledge, my intrepid sense of adventure was put to the test as I embarked on a trip to the unknown. Cape Town – South Africa, not exactly a culinary haven for chefs at the time.
As we all know South Africa has had its fair share of problems in history. However, in the early nineties’ times were amidst change with sanctions dropped and apartheid abolished. F W De Klerk served as state president and head of state with an election fast approaching where a certain Mr Nelson Mandela led the opposing ANC (African National Congress) party and was certain to seize power.
Enjoying an extended holiday in the African sunshine where I drank copious amounts of Castle lager, sampled the finest local herbs, ate charred boerewors off a Braai on Camps Bay beach. Celebrated the festive period, played loads of Monopoly, on one occasion totally wasted whilst watching the Cape to Rio boat race in my luxury air-conditioned penthouse apartment at the foot of Table top mountain. With sanctions now dropped bands from the U.K. were now welcomed but most still seemed to stay away, however one evening I was lucky enough to see the now cool Duran Duran on their Wedding album comeback tour.
So with a killer suntan and Simon Le Bon sun- bleached hair, inevitably all this opulent living ended as my once endless pot of South African Rands were squandered fast, more through necessity I secured a job via an employment agency.
The Alphen hotel was an old Dutch Colonial homestead nestled in the Constantia valley, Western Cape, set in 12 acres of a once working wine estate.
Travelling to work was a mission to say the least, being young fearless and eager to blend I did the unspeakable at the time and endevoured to travel cheaply by ‘Taxi’. Best described as dilapidated old mini buses with sliding doors destined to fail any MOT by sight alone. Rules were broken in every way as passengers clambered over each other, hanging off doors and roof racks determined to reach their destinations.
Fundamental in shipping in and out of the townships as the chosen transport of the poor workers. Constantia was a trek in the outer suburbs so this involved jumping 2 taxis at the total cost of 4 Rand (equivalent of 60p). In a fractured society, I must say I never encountered any danger or problems whilst in transit, in fact it was probably quite the opposite, always being greeted warmly and treated with the same respect I showed.
On my first day at the Alphen I was greeted by a true white South African called Brett who broke the ice by proceeding to proudly show me a pistol hand gun tucked in his sock.
Brett was my inductor, my tour guide, where he showed me around the grounds introduced me to the staff, telling me who and what to avoid before announcing that he was to leave in two weeks and more than likely I would be getting his job.
John Reid was the executive chef, an ex-pat who had fled the UK, settling and raising his family in suburban Cape Town. He was a stern-faced chap, almost miserable looking with zero sense of humour (very reminiscent of the Spitting Image song). He had an extreme lack of creativity probably due to the fact he didn’t have any one to spark against.
The multi-cultural, unskilled kitchen labour force comprised of around twenty staff some resident with provided on site accommodation, others were trucked in daily from the townships.
The F & B facilities consisted of a 60-seater a la carte restaurant, a busy outside terrace, the locally famous Boer & Brit bar and a function facility that catered for around 100 plus guests. So, in the height of the summer season the old colonial homestead was a bee-hive of activity.
So, with Brett now gone and having truly learnt the ropes I became John’s right hand man. His cooking was safe, hearty and traditional pulling on local, typical South African classics like Bobotie, lamb Sosaties, Boerewors, Waterblommetjie Bredie, Melk tart and koeksisters. Plenty of new ingredients to learn, strange sounding fish like Snoek, yellowtail and Kingklip as well as game meats like Kudu, Gemsbok and Ostrich.
The methods and techniques were caught in a time warp and culinary boundaries were not about to be broken.
Sauces were all made from a large mother pot of murky, flour thickened demi- glace where derivatives were made by adding weird and wonderful flavours but all still managing to taste the same and providing a great lining for the roof of your mouth.
Then one day a month after my gifted promotion, John announced that he would be returning to the UK for a six-week holiday. So, at the age of twenty- three I was handed the huge responsibility of acting head chef in an alien country, a steep learning curve and baptism into management.
With Chef John now in the departure lounge obvious apprehension started to kick in. I was the only European traveller in a team predominately made up of ladies/mothers who came to work daily via minibus from the townships but were gone for 6pm. During rainy season the head count was very much depleted with numerous no shows, that couldn’t be acted on in a disciplinary manner due to the sensitivity of the times.
The evening crew was made up of those who were a little more flexible i.e. lived on site or had their own transportation. Two of the most memorable white South Africans were Garth a typical Afrikaans – opinionated, hating everyone and everything but surprisingly sharp and witty which provided much needed entertainment. Then the other was Jason (or my JJ) who had the unfortunate disability of epilepsy that was systematically brought about by bright lights and stress – with the kitchen being the obvious perfect environment and chosen career path.
My JJ had apparently developed epilepsy after his step- father had dropped a trailer on his head when he was a toddler. Poor guy, when he felt a seizure coming on, he would politely ask to be excused from service, so you’d free space up in the chef’s office and grab a handful of kitchen towels (luppies) so he could lie on the floor comfortably. Garth was a little less sympathetic in fact cruel in his approach calling the suffering Jason a con- artist in attempt to skive that evenings service. On one occasion mid – seizure Garth entered the office to deliver a mixing bowl, cream and a whisk so Jason didn’t feel left out during service.
When Jason did finally come around, he was exhausted and fit for nothing- which Garth again took pleasure in confirming. A large glass of water and a phone call to his parents was the usual procedure.
So, with my dysfunctional band of brothers my apprehension grew in anticipation of John’s departure until one day as if by magic an Essex boy arrived via the agency called Alan Fox. He was the saviour of the hour, having worked in quality London establishments like the Goring Hotel, the RAC club to name just a few.
In his words, Alan had escaped London as he was becoming involved in too much mischief. Five -foot tall, baggy jeans and short cropped ginger hair he looked like he’d come straight from a rave in Epping forest.
As we walked the grounds we connected immediately, discussing our experiences so far in RSA and the potency and availability of the local grass. Let’s just say Alan became my brother and now a lifelong friend that late summer in 1993.
Chef John disappeared for six weeks so me and Alan set about transforming the Alphen kitchen – by deep cleaning, organising, updating the menu, motivating the staff and vastly improving the gross profit. Experimenting and creating dishes using freshly picked woodland mushrooms, farm grown vegetables and Alphen reared ducks that were slaughtered on our command.
Very protective of my new realm young, naïve and detached from the class difficulties created problems from time to time. On one occasion having already barred the homeless from the back door trading grapes for food to the staff, I caught a certain scruffy guy smashed onMandrex stealing from the dry stores at the back of the kitchen. When confronted and told to leave he lost the plot and had to be restrained. As he was removed by security he told me that he’d wait for me and cut my throat. I later found out that he’d just been released from prison for man-slaughter. On another occasion Trisha my best cold larder chef arrived to work beaten black & blue. When investigated this cowardly act had been carried out by Kingcliff who worked as a waiter in the restaurant after some drunken argument. I was told not to get involved, but realised quickly how fragile my new working environment was.
Six weeks flew by and when John did return the kitchen was unrecognisable, taking him a few weeks to regain his stable footing in his once unchallengened domain. Playing boss had been good, but I was relieved to hand it back.
Times were changing, but my eyes were wide open. Race equality was far from fair, white elders talked about a past when things were better only generations would heal the deep scars.
Race hierarchy was clearly evident as white hotel staff wore gold names badges whereas non- whites wore plastic name badges.
Lunchtime white staff choose off the menu where non- whites enjoyed a bowl of boiled mince made from a bucket of rancid meat scraps from the butchery bucket.
The hotel employed a full- time security guard called Brian who was ex- Rhodesian army and told stories how he lobbed ears off and hung them from his belt like dried prunes.
Brian a large thick- set Afrikaner would crouch down in the bushes at home time and jump out as the ladies/mothers boarded the minibus demanding a random bag search- No wonder they hated him as they hummed protest songs under their breaths.
On one occasion Kim a Cape coloured from Athlone and strict Muslim, employed as the hotel maintenance man was up a ladder so Brian decided to follow him up, laying a bacon rasher on each runner knowing full well that Kim wouldn’t be able to climb down – ‘Help he cried, get me down Jou foken poes‘
Constantia being a wealthy suburb attracted groups of vagabonds (beggar, drifter) who lived in the woods and bushes. Brian being the lovely man he was liked to gather their belongings and pour petrol over them before setting a light with a match. Brian really was a complete bastard and wasn’t about to win any awards for world peace.
I loved my time spent in Cape Town, South Africa, still to this day its one of the most beautiful places I have seen. However, the election was now imminent, and excitement bubbled over into isolated unrest. The home office refused to re- stamp my passport, advising that I should leave and return when the dust had settled.
Taking the governments official’s advice and having had a ball, I fled before the proverbial shit hit the fan.
Tune in next time for the African overlanding experience of a lifetime – TSC