The Extraordinary Journey of Steve Clements
We ring up the curtain on an original. Passionate palate. Culinary alchemist. Nurseryman. Surfer. Adventurer. Chief cook and bottle-washer at St Clements restaurant where you go for Thai food, Lao food, bistro food, soirees, garden supplies, to write, to meet, to eat the best cream scones. So what’s cooking with this cool dude and his hot Durban spot?
The aroma does it. Meaty, fiery, smokey, sticky, infused with fresh chilli: the heavy-light invisible marinade permeates the cool early evening air. Seducing. Enticing.
“A nose that can see is worth two that sniff.”
Eugene Ionesco, I have read, penned this thought – not that I’ve been able to establish in what context. But the words surface as my nose takes me to the night food market in Luang Prabang. I see the barbecued meats and fish and sausage; the pigs’ heads and other porky bits; the exotic delights with these same smells that, two years ago, enticed me on a few hot and steamy nights in Laos.
It’s not what one might expect in a Durban residential neighbourhood. To be led by the nose to visions of, and cravings for, Lao and northern Thai street food.
But, then, this is St Clements.
It is where Steve Clements lights the fire out back four nights a week and cooks the speciality dishes he’s passionate about. Prepares the type of food that, along with his enthusiasm for the culture, the colour and the friendliness of the people, physically pulls him back to Southeast Asia year after year.
The culinary offerings for which he grows the Thai chillies, the Thai basil and many other fresh essential ingredients. These in the bountiful St Clements nursery, profuse with greenery and colour, seedlings and succulents, edibles and better-for-bees plants, popular with gardeners from all over Durban.
Bonsai too, given that Clements has been interested in these and cultivating them since he was a child.
The nursery is out front and down the side of the cool and airy old Musgrave Road house, once the manse for the church next door, with its decorative Vietnamese propaganda posters, Andrew Verster prints, wood, colour, book-lined shelves – a funding initiative for TAFTA – and super-friendly “family” of wait staff. This is the place where many gather regularly for soirees, music evenings, writing meet-ups, romantic dates, dinners with friends, long lunches in the garden with its fountain and night-time fairy-lights.
During the day to eat from the café menu. Fresh food. Good food. “Exotic” favourites such as Italian-Thai fusion lime-seared prawns on rice noodles. And staples: what some rate as the best toasted sarmies, crispy golden potato chips and burgers in Durban.
In the evening, the speciality night menu sees the open-to-the-elements outdoor grill fired up.
This is where Clements and his fellow cooks get going with the Southeast Asian dishes. At least, those not simmering in the kitchen over a gas flame in the wok.
His personal favourite is the laab menu selection, representing north-east Thailand and Laos. Some of these dishes would traditionally be eaten with the meat uncooked; cured in lemon. At St Clements they are not served raw, “but there is very little cooking”. Minced chicken, duck or pork. The salad assembled for flavour. The sticky rice dry-roasted then crushed, giving it an earthy flavour.
It is the only place in Durban I’ve found sticky rice like I had in Laos.
Then there is the crowd-pleasing red duck curry. And the Vietnamese-style crab curry people return for again and again. And his Cambodian beef lok lak, of which Clements says: “I guarantee you won’t find on any other menu in Africa.” The grilled pork skewers he learned to make from “a lady on the roadside in Cambodia”.
The prawn and lime cakes, which I have heard people describe as “superb”, “are my own recipe, with Indian and Southeast Asian influences,” he says. The distinctive calamari dishes are another treat. And there’s more.
The food is the beating heart of St Clements. Having said that, the food cannot be separated from Steve Clements. So – how’s this for a story?
Rewind quite a few years. To Clements as a much younger pre-craggy surfer-dude adventurer.
(You’ll still find him riding waves any time surf’s up; the surfing supplemented these days with yoga. With in-between time spent building a treehouse in a slice of forest north of Durban where, instead of cutting and clearing, he’s building a house with loft rooms up in the branches.)
To wind back, he’s completed high school in Swakopmund, Namibia, his family’s base during his teen years. They’ve returned to Durban, where life for him started. He’s done the necessary to qualify as a textile technologist at what is now the Durban University of Technology.
Along the way he has seen many movies set in the United States. Road movies. Think long stretches of highway; tumbleweed rolling across parched earth; coyotes howling at the moon. That sort of thing.
He buys a ticket to the US. Purchases a car in LA. He and the girlfriend he’s travelling with get in. And he drives. And drives. Just like in the movies. “For 20,000 miles.” Which you can do, given the vastness of the US. And I won’t convert the figure, given that there they still talk miles.
Finally, after living the adventure, he reaches the border with Canada. They jettison the car, switch to a canoe and paddle: “a lot”, he notes, giving one of his wry idiosyncratic half-laughs.
The 600km trip takes him through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota – “a massive area between Canada and the US. Lakes the Native American Indians used to traverse in their canoes. There are outfits that set you up with whatever you need”.
Up until then while on the journey, food had been “fast” or made from basic provisions bought in supermarkets. The kind of chow you’re likely to eat when you’re on a budget and often sleeping in your vehicle and intent on surviving for as long as you can to see as much as possible before funds run out.
Now, in the canoe, it’s a case of sleeping in nature and eating from the land and the water. Pulling out fresh fish every day and cooking them over the fire at night.
And then – the money runs out.
So Clements heads for England. To family friends in Chiswick. And now the food angle gets interesting.
“With my last £10, I went to the restaurant across the road to get dinner. It was a Thai restaurant. (The Bedlington.) I ordered their green curry chicken.”
It was love at first bite and he was instantly hooked. He had liked to cook from when he was a kid, inspired by his mom, a Robert Carrier fan who prepared meals with flair.
Until then he had not thought of cooking as a life path; let alone of opening a restaurant. And even now, he wasn’t formally thinking “career”.
The path has been circuitous that brings us to Steve Clements today – owner, proprietor, executive chef. Which he wouldn’t call himself, but which he is at St Clements.
Then, he just instantly knew: “This is the food I want to learn to cook.”
The next morning he went knocking. Told the woman proprietor he wanted to work for her. Learn from her. She said she would speak to her husband and told the eager blond-haired youth to come back the next day.
He dutifully returned to hear: “Okay. You can work here. We will teach you. But you won’t get paid. And you won’t get food.”
For the next eight months he worked in the kitchen the six days a week the restaurant was open. Sundays he went with the Thai restaurant family to the Buddhist temple. “That was part of the training.”
For the first six months, in the evenings he headed to the West End to wait tables – for money. After six months he gave up his West End job so he could work evenings, too, at the Thai place. Essentially, by now, doing all the cooking.
And then – his visa ran out.
There was no question about the next step. He knew Thailand would be his destination to learn first-hand about the food, the spices, the ingredients, the techniques.
His employer-cum-teacher gave him an address in Bangkok of a place where he could stay. She followed him a couple of months later and “spent a full month taking me around the country”.
“We ate in all sorts of out-of-the-way areas. She introduced me to many flavours and cooking styles. Gave me an on-the-ground guided culinary tour.”
From there, Clements spent time in Malaysia, mainly sampling the food, before returning to Durban.
He found a space near the beachfront to open a small restaurant. A couple of months later his Thai mentor came to Durban to help with the set-up. “She arrived from Bangkok with everything. Literally, everything I needed.” From equipment to spices.
He was overwhelmed. He asked how much he owed her. “She said ‘nothing’. She wouldn’t let me pay a cent.” She was adamant that for everything she brought, he had already paid.
Following the beachfront spot, Clements had a much-loved Thai bistro on Ninth Avenue. Then he lived in Chile for three years. Before returning to Durban and opening, for a time, at the now-closed Green with Envy café and nursery on the Berea.
Then, going on 10 years ago, he moved into what would become St Clements. “It was for rent. I went there with my brother. He looked out the back door into the garden, saw a lemon tree – and then he saw the church.” The rhyme: “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements” came to mind. And that was it.
At first he did all the cooking. But now, in the kitchen – and firing up the outdoor stove when Clements isn’t around – are skilled chefs Tubby Madlala and Glynis Khawula. Both started as dishwashers, showed interest and promise, and Clements taught them everything he could transfer.
“Then I became the dishwasher,” he laughs. “Now I keep out of the kitchen as much as I can – unless I’m teaching them new stuff – as I just irritate them.”
They and the waitstaff feel like a team; like family. “There’s no staff turn-over,” he confirms.
Clements, most years for the past 10, has travelled to Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos; to eat, to explore, to learn and to visit his former teacher/mentor in Bangkok, where she has retired.
In 2018 he went to India for the first time. Mainly to surf, but also to explore flavours.
“You refine your tastes while travelling,” he says. “I speak to people. (His Thai is pretty good.) “I sometimes go into the kitchen and ask if I can cook.” He has never been refused.
He has introduced some subtle Indian flavours since last year’s trip. And is adapting and evolving the menu to include some smaller tapas-style items in the evening, cooked on the fire outside, given the challenges and the current economy.
You just know, whatever he does, that St Clements will remain an understated gem. An oasis with fun happenings, consistently fine food and well-nurtured plants. And Steve Clements will keep ringing in new changes. DM