A CHEFFY FESTIVE SEASON
A peek inside top chefs’ private Christmas Day
Chefs and their kitchen teams slave over hot stoves to feed their guests over the festive season, but what happens on their day off?
It’s the time of the year we’re given carte blanche to eat ourselves into food comas – or at the very least, encouraged to do so with the supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of seasonal treats for the table, and foodie magazines filled with page after page of delectable dishes to cook at home.
There are many ways to do Christmas in South Africa. Some opt for the Northern Hemisphere traditions with massive stuffed turkeys (and other crimes against nature like turduckens – as I typed that I realised I will never unsee the “turd”); others go for a more suitably southern summer menu of braai and cold dishes.
The chefs at some of our top restaurants spend their lives cooking for paying guests, often over the festive season. We asked some of them how they will be spending December 25, and what it’s like to be sweating over the stove while the rest of us are whooping it up and having fat parties.
It can be a tricky time, says Ryan Cole of Salsify at The Roundhouse in Cape Town. “It’s sort of a double-edged sword because you are making people happy and creating experience and a jovial time of year for them with their loved ones, but it can also be quite demanding on the team.
“We value family though so we will be closed from the 22nd until the 25th of December to give everyone some time to enjoy the festive season with their loved ones.”
Cole will still be cooking, but for his family. “We normally eat an early lunch and braai, then later enjoy gammon and corned beef tongue. The best part is always the leftovers to be enjoyed the next day,” he says.
“We wake up early around 7am and enjoy a glass of bubbles and then we start the cooking. I love that the kitchen really becomes the heart of the household on Christmas day. And I love all the glorious food and our family trifle!”
Amber-May Deetlefs is the executive group chef for the Kove Collection. “I love working this time of year,” she enthuses. “It’s my passion to serve great food and what a great time of year to do so, people are happy, relaxed and feeling festive.”
Come Christmas Day, Deetlefs plans to do as little as possible. She has a love for all things botanical so days off are spent visiting garden centres, taking her dog to the park, and cooking something delicious for dinner. “Off days close to Christmas are few and far between, but our family celebrates Christmas eve, so I always take the evening off,” she says.
“We always put up the Christmas tree together as a family. My dad always makes my grandmother’s traditional fruit pudding for Christmas Eve, with old silver five-cent coins.”
Deetlefs’s mom does most of the cooking but everyone pitches in and helps out. “Her roast potatoes are life-changing,” says Deetlefs.
“I spend this time with my family, surf, and eat good food,” says Wesley Randles of The Shortmarket Club and The Commissary. “As it’s the first Christmas with my son, Jack, I have taken a little extra time off to go away. New traditions will be made; we want it to be the most relaxing Christmas ever, with quality family time.”
You have to have a gammon on Christmas Day, asserts Randles. “I brine and smoke it myself over a couple of days. We have this with a tart and a few salads. My wife and I cook together – I cook the gammon and duck, Jules makes the desserts and we make the accompaniments together.”
Charné Sampson, head chef of Epice, admits she quite likes working at this time of the year. “The restaurant is fully booked and all the staff get excited and cheerful in the spirit of the season. The kitchen can get hectic and busy at times but we love it.”
On her day off, Sampson will spend time with her family, as they all get together on Christmas Eve and stay up all night until Christmas Day. They do a Secret Santa on the 24th and open the gifts at noon on the 25th. “I could also be found shopping for Christmas gifts on my day off,” she smiles.
Everyone gets involved with the cooking. “It’s usually all the extended family invited, and each family makes something, from the salads to the meats, and our family usually bakes and takes care of the sweet treats. I love my mom’s trifle. It’s the only time of the year she makes it.”
After a decade in the business, Jason Kosmas of Pot Luck Club says working at this time of the year is pretty normal. “Sure, I miss having family time over Christmas and New Year’s but it’s become the norm to be busy during the December period.”
Kosmas decompresses by going to the beach, fishing and getting into nature. “Alternatively, putting my feet up on my couch and smashing some series.”
Growing up in a big Italian family, Christmas – and every other holiday – was packed with food. “We always had turkey and gammon with the most amazing roast potatoes, peas and pancetta and a bunch of other delicious dishes,” Kosmas recalls. “So those are my general go-to items I like to indulge in as it reminds me of home and my grandmother.
“I don’t particularly follow Christmas traditions apart from making sure I get some serious eating in, followed by an afternoon nap, then back to leftovers for dinner to finish off the day.”
Peech Boutique Hotel in Joburg is open 365 days a year so even when locals are leaving town for coastal vacations, chef Freddie Dias of the hotel’s restaurant, Basalt, likes to ensure it’s the ideal place for international guests and locals to celebrate special meals and memorable occasions.
“My team will be preparing a special lunch for our hotel guests on Christmas Day, while I will be in my own kitchen preparing our big family meal on Christmas Day itself,” he says.
“We enjoy a traditional turkey lunch with light salads and sides dishes, which suit our warmer South African climate this time of year.”
Sadly, Dias’s mother is no longer with him. “She was an incredible cook; this year it’s all down to me, but my brothers and sisters-in-law usually help out, and this year is special because we have family from Portugal spending time with us.”
The “Consoada” dinner on Christmas Eve includes Bacalhau (salted cod), potatoes, turnips, Portuguese kale and chickpeas. “It’s a very simple, humble meal, but it’s a Portuguese tradition and very special time to spend time together as a family, and give thanks while enjoying each other’s company,” says Dias.
Nic van Wyk
It’s always manic at work, says Nic van Wyk of Haute Cabrière, but it’s rewarding to see so many people enjoying their food… and wine. “The days are long, but there is a magic in the air,” he says.
Van Wyk has had just four Christmas days off in the past 20 years so in 2019 he’s planning to take some well-deserved time off and spend it with his family. He’ll probably still pop his head into the kitchen on the 24th to check the prep, and to taste, he confesses.
“Christmas is always warm in Cape Town, so I prefer lighter dishes. Any fish or seafood dish is a winner for me. Cold or room temp dishes tend to win my heart; I do think a paella is on the cards this year,” he says. “My mother-in-law will be doing her famous Bar One chocolate pudding, and there is always a watermelon in there somewhere – my granddad always used to have a watermelon somewhere around Christmas.”
Because Van Wyk has worked so many Christmas Days, it’s only now he’s getting used to it, and building family traditions.
“My wife and daughter like to make gingerbread decorations after the ‘real’ tree shopping, then it’s a daily laugh to see how many decorations actually make it to Christmas day. This year it has been decided to make an eating batch and a decoration batch. But I don’t think that will alleviate the problem,” he muses.
Chef Mynhardt Joubert of Mynhardt’s Kitchen in Paarl has spent many Christmases tending to the needs of others, with his sparkling, glam Festive Tables. “But in the end, there is a rich reward in making other people happy and creating environments where families can get together and create special memories,” he says. “I love Christmas, full stop. It is my best time of the year and to get to share it with other people gives me a big thrill.”
With events at the Stasie Street Kitchen, and on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the KWV Cathedral Cellar Kitchen, Joubert and his staff will get to celebrate on the Day Of Goodwill on the 26th. “I envision a lot of cold bubbly on ice and some serious braaivleis vure (fires),” he laughs.
“Pre-prepared cold foods have always been a huge tradition in our family, and I adore it. Large platters filled to the brim with a sliced leg of lamb, gammon, beef tongue with special mustard sauce, moulded salads, trifles, huge chilled watermelons and Christmas fruitcake. Traditional food made with loads of love.”
Mynhardt makes the best fruitcake I’ve had (and I’m not a fan). They’re big and heavy and rich, and need to be fed with brandy for at least two months. Mine usually is so sodden it won’t hold a drop more, and it leaks out the bottom. This ensures a bowl of wonderfully moist cake, best topped with too much whipped cream.
“We have fruitcake ‘on tap’ all day long,” shares Joubert. “Beginning with fruitcake with coffee in bed, for tea-time with homemade brandy butter as a dessert, and with some chilled fortified wines as the sun sets.”
With special menus for one or two services, and careful planning around suppliers being closed, Glen Williams from Foxcroft, Constantia, will also be celebrating on the 26th; his senior sous gets the 25th to be with his wife and children.
“In the kitchen we always go all out on Christmas for staff food. Usually two different roasts, gravy, a few vegetable sides and a homely dessert like a Malva pudding or Peppermint Crisp tart, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It makes running service a little harder but it’s worth it to all sit down together and have a meal on Christmas,” he says.
This is a team effort, but at home Williams does the braai and a fresh snack like a ceviche with corn chips while the fire gets going. Salads and sides are delegated.
“It’s not Christmas without braai and bubbly,” he says.
“We are open for Christmas Day so the team and I will be there for lunch service,” says La Petite Colombe head chef, John Norris-Rogers. The restaurant has a Secret Santa tradition which results in some “interesting” gifts, and a lunch as a team where everyone will have a hand in preparing something.
“It’s a fantastic time where we all get to have a chance to experience Christmas as a family of our own,” he says.
“However, on my off days, which will usually be before Christmas week, I’ll either be fishing, braaing, spending time with family and friends and, realistically, some last-minute Christmas shopping.”
For the table, gammon – the answer is always gammon. “It’s a firm favourite for my girlfriend, Andrea, and me,” says Norris-Rogers.
Cooking is a team effort. “The Weber will no doubt be alight, and usually we will have something light and fresh to go along with that, seeing that it’s usually about 40 degrees Celsius in Franschhoek around that time.”
Jess van Dyk
Next door to La Petite Colombe is Protégé, where Jess van Dyk is head chef.
“I’m usually am not fussed about New Year’s Eve, so when my family is around, I always try have Christmas Day itself off,” she says. “I usually end up cooking a bit too, and have a nice chilled meal with loved ones, laze by the pool in the sun, and just share in some of the holiday spirit. Nothing too big, as it’s always back to the grind straight after.”
Van Dyk says she is a big pork fan, so whether it’s a gammon or pork belly roast, that would usually be her first choice, “with delicious potatoes of some sort and vegetable salads. But I mean, I’m never opposed to a lamb chop on the braai either.”
La Colombe’s executive chef James Gaag’s Christmas feast is “pretty traditional” he says, and being German, the family celebrates on Christmas Eve.
“Think turkey, gammon, leg of lamb, trifle and Christmas cake, although my mom does an ice cream Christmas cake which is killer, instead of the steamed one. I usually go dive for crayfish and we have those on the braai as well.”
For Gaag it’s a family orientated day and a rare occasion he has with his entire family.
“We are used to working over the festive season by now, and it is lekker to see other people enjoying themselves in our restaurants,” says Bertus Basson of Overture, Eike, Spek & Bone and De Vrije Burger – all of which are closed on Christmas Day to allow everyone to spend the day with families and friends.
“I’m definitely not a turkey guy so Christmas is always gammon and lamb with cold sides. Both of these make excellent left-over sandwiches, especially with sweet mustards,” says Basson. “Cooking is usually a shared effort. Mareli, my wife, does homey puddings better than I do.”
Basson is a great believer that Christmas lunches in South Africa don’t always have to be hot. “You can get away with delicious cold fare,” he says.
Jason Whitehead, author and consultant chef, says this is, without a doubt, his favourite time of the year. “Everyone is winding down and starting to get into the festivities of Christmas. Being a chef it is obviously the busiest time of the year for me with companies hosting year-end functions and Christmas parties, as well as having an influx of international visitors looking for private chefs to cater for them while on holiday.”
It’s big for the family too, so Whitehead usually doesn’t work on the 24th and 25th.
“Every year we contemplate doing something different for our Christmas lunch, and every year we decide not to mess with tradition and just go the full hog and eat ourselves into a food coma,” he laughs.
“On Christmas day we almost always have three proteins, such as a whole gammon (which my aunt always makes), crispy roasted and stuffed chickens and a deboned leg of lamb.
“Then with ALL the usual sides, and a ridiculous amount of duck-fat-roasted potatoes with enough gravy to feed a small army. For dessert there is always a trifle, which I usually play with different variations of, a favourite being salted caramel and pear trifle – a real winner.”
This is probably why Whitehead does most of the cooking. He does delegate the boring prep like peeling potatoes, and other family members will focus on decorating the table.
“It gives me so much joy to be able to cook for my family Christmas Day, so it never seems like a chore, but more of a pleasure,” he says.
“As a family, we like to do a wide variety of canapés for Christmas eve, with loads of bubbly and not an eggnog in sight! We generally open half our presents on Christmas Eve and the rest are left until Christmas morning.”
Whatever you’re up to this holiday season, I wish you a happy one and may your bubbly never go flat. DM