Dinners with Moonyeenn: High times with an early dining mentor

Dinners with Moonyeenn: High times with an early dining mentor
(Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)

One of Joburg’s great characters has left us, and the city’s lights must seem dimmed this week. How ironic that a woman for whom dining in restaurants was a daily and nightly thing should succumb to complications caused by a virus that is keeping us all away from those very places.

Without Moonyeenn Lee, I wouldn’t have had half the movie and television scoops I had during my years as a television reporter for the Argus Group in the Eighties; and I had them almost daily. She was my Numero Uno contact. We were on the phone several times a week, skinnering about this or that film so-and-so was making, who’d been cast in what, and, in the early part of the decade, her ultimately thwarted attempts to get her own movie made, Sky Blue. She got so close to it. Eventually, it was in production, heading towards completion. But the money wasn’t enough. And Sky Blue never did become the Great South African Movie she believed it could have been.

I met Moonyeenn at a party in Cape Town in 1980. She was on her way out the door when someone said, but you haven’t met Tony yet. She turned, beamed ear to ear, shut the door, came over and poured herself a drink. It was the start of a journey in food for me, and in life and living it large.

She was always a fount of stuff other people hadn’t yet cottoned on to. One day in 1980 she said to me, “Tony, have you heard Johnny Clegg and Juluka yet?” They weren’t yet widely known, but were about to take off. We know what happened next. But at that point, nope, I said. And, “You haven’t? Tony! My darling, you must listen to them, they are going to be huuuuuge.”

Archive Photo:South African casting director Moonyeenn Lee. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Thys Dullaart)

At Hildebrand restaurant in Cape Town, she taught me how to twirl pasta with a fork. At some or other Chinese establishment which has faded in memory, she sighed, fixed me with that look, and showed me how to use chopsticks correctly.

Mostly, knowing Moonyeenn in those years was all about hours and hours spent in restaurants. We’d end up having many long, gregarious dinners together over many years, usually in Joburg, sometimes in Cape Town. I was pretty green behind the ears in the restaurant department when I first met her. Not that I didn’t know my way around eating out, but my experience had mostly tended towards the steakhouse and lots of onion rings, please. She put me right on all sorts of things. I was still in my twenties, and a very fortunate youth, I see now. Looking back, those many nights of dining out with Moon must have contributed greatly to my growing knowledge of and interest in writing about food.

Hildebrand, by then long an institution of longstanding in Cape Town and which was then in lower St George’s Street, was to become a favoured haunt of my family, and maitre-d’hotel Tony Yates a firm friend and reliable beacon of how things should happen in a properly run restaurant. The legendary Aldo Girolo was then co-owner and I would, a decade later, persuade him to move Hildebrand to the then young V&A Waterfront, once it had become clear that downtown was no longer viable for them, but back in 1980 I was just a greenhorn needing some lessons in twirling pasta. Moonyeenn was firm but patient as I messed it up at first, but insisted: You want to write about food, you have to know how to deal with pasta. Which was her approach to everything in life: don’t shy off what intimidates you, face it down and learn to deal with it.

Joburg was then and would remain her home, mine was Cape Town, but as part of my job in the Argus Tonight arts department for the whole of the Eighties I arranged to visit Joburg twice a year to visit Auckland Park to chat to all the SABC department heads about what was happening in their areas. Gerry Bosman was in charge of music productions, the actress Sandra Kotzé was head of Afrikaans drama (Sandra once introduced me to Coenie de Villers at a National Arts Festival in Grahamstown as “the new David Kramer”… even though David was himself rather “new” at that stage), while later Roy Sargeant became head of English drama. Roy, too, became a great table companion in Joburg restaurants later in the decade, and later still in Cape Town at the venerable Floris Smit Huijs and at his then home in Franschhoek, where he and partner Paul Regenass had a lovely restaurant called Polfyntjies, decked out with wall to wall artworks Roy and Paul had bought every year when the Young Artist award-winners for art were announced at the festival. Floris Smit Huijs was also the scene of some bonhomous lunches with impresario Pieter Toerien, another great contact in that era. It was the best kind of Cape Town restaurant, brimful of ancient character yet with a contemporary menu of impeccable standards. Far better than the ostentation and pretentiousness that too often defines a good Mother City restaurant today.

On my regular Joburg trips, days would be spent wandering from office to office at the TV headquarters, but in the evening Moonyeenn would pick me up at my hotel in her black Eighties-era BMW and whisk me off to another great Joburg restaurant for a fine old time of much splendid gossip with plenty of fine wine and all the courses available. And no skimping. Moonyeenn Lee lived life large with all the trimmings. At the end of the meal there’d be liqueur or Cognac and her inevitable cigar which she’d take out of her handbag and light with flair before savouring it like a Cuban patriarch. She was politely contemptuous of my John Player Special habit (I gave up in March ’88 and never smoked again).

Decades have a way of blurring all of the nights into four or five but I remember the somewhat intimidating confines of the Three Ships at the Carlton Hotel in the earlier years, Linger Longer, Ma Cuisine, various Italian places including Frank Swainston’s formidably wonderful ristorante, where I appreciated that a pasta sauce can be something greater than itself, and Ken Forrester’s unmatchable Gatriles, where I remember dining with both Roy and Moonyeenn on different occasions. Oh, the pies at Gatriles! They could wipe a great English pub pie clean off the map, that’s how good they were. Marie-Lais Emond reminded me this week of their duck and cherry pie.

Before we went to Gatriles the first time, it had been, “You haven’t eaten Ken’s pies? Tony!” Ken, of course, shipped to the Cape Winelands where he has run his 96 Winery Road for decades, always a great place. The first time I met him, at a Winelands lunch at Chamonix in Franschhoek, I leaned on the back of a chair opposite him when he introduced himself, whereupon Harry Hands, the man sitting on that chair, collapsed over backwards to the floor. While I blushed and stammered an apology and helped Harry up, Ken was hosing himself, throwing his head back with mirth.

With Frank Swainston, in Joburg, it had been the by-then familiar, almost pitying, “You haven’t eaten Frank’s food? Tony! You must eat at Frank’s! The best Italian food anywhere. Come, we’re going…” Once he’d moved to Constantia Uitsig in the decade that followed, Frank became my greatest fan, and his support for my food writing greatly boosted my confidence in my own way with a pen. I can say the same of Michael Olivier, in the Nineties at the helm of his wonderful Parks restaurant in Wynberg/Constantia, still one of the best of all Cape restaurants of my decades.

But the Johannesburg restaurant I remember most fondly was a brilliant Eastern dining palace called Perfumed Garden, in Joubert Park. 

Perfumed Garden was an extraordinary place. Massive, and full of colour and style, with an upper level where you sat on cushions with an aperitif, and colourful tented cubicles in the vastness below. We’d sit beneath a little tent and feel like we were exotic guests in an Arabian palace. The menu, and I am indebted to my friend André Hattingh here for many memory jogs this week, was broadly Middle Eastern and Indian. André’s then-husband, owner Peter Noel-Barham (she is now married to the playwright Anthony Akerman), “was mad about Middle Eastern cuisine and Indian cuisine and therefore chose the umbrella of Islamic cuisine which kind of covered both”, she reminded me this week.

André herself was a force to be reckoned with in South African theatre in the Eighties and at one stage had her own TV show. I interviewed her many times at the Fairmead Hotel (where Pieter Toerien put up all his actors performing at the Baxter) whenever she flew down from Joburg to star in one of Pieter’s shows, not least her magnificent, hilarious turns in the massively successful production of Tomfoolery, in which she delivered Tom Lehrer’s wickedly funny, saucy lyrics with aplomb. I was always struck by the shy demeanour, in person, of a woman who, once the lights were on her on stage, was a commanding presence entirely at ease in her professional space. In recent years, after having lost touch seemingly forever, life has conspired to make friends of us.

André must have been in their flat upstairs at Perfumed Garden, with husband Peter, or maybe at a nearby table, when Moon and I dined in a tented cubicle in the vast space below, breaking off pieces of pita to scrape up the garlicky Middle Eastern patés of brinjal, liver and hummus. There were kofta kebabs and tandoori chicken and a baked chicken dish “which was a whole baby chicken cooked in honey and dates”, brilliant curries, cinnamony Persian delights, and “a delicious prawn curry cooked with crispy baby marrows”.

The one thing everyone remembers most fondly, when I canvassed Joburg friends this week, was the famous “Wishy-Washy”, with a waiter dressed in Arabian gear coming to wishy-washy your hands before you ate. Oddly appropriate for our own times. And a timely reminder that, no Cape Town, you did not have all of the great restaurants.

Moonyeenn could be intimidating, though I don’t think she ever set out to be. There was something about her stature, her presence, her eyes that seemed to look right through you. And there was a bigness about her, physically, by which I do not mean weight. She was hung on a large frame, and she loved designer gowns, which evidently she could afford, and which gave the impression of her filling more space than she really did.

She’d inevitably join me for the annual Star Tonight! television awards lunch at one or other Joburg venue. They were organised by Janine (Greanleaf) Walker, my counterpart at the Star Tonight! Department, and those of us judging it could take a companion. Moonyeenn would have a story about everyone in the room, whether actor, director or film producer. Not unkindly. But ears must have been burning all over the room. Half of them were probably “on my books”, and everyone who wanted to act wanted to be on them. I always suspected that many who were on the books of Penny Charteris and others secretly wanted to go with Moonyeeen Lee & Associates (some even told me so), because she just knew how to sew up everything that needed sewing up. There was no messing about with Moonyeenn. 

As for myself, we drifted apart at some point and, other than a brief meeting in the Nineties, never saw each other again until I bumped into her at an event at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town about eight years ago. But it’s memories she gave me, and they’ve stayed, as well as a good portion of food knowledge, masses of gossipy intrigue, and some eye-opening times behind a knife and fork.

I did, once in the early days, misspell Moonyeenn’s name in a story I’d written. I never did it again. I’d had the misfortune to leave an “n” out of her name. You don’t want to do that. Trust me, the phone will ring. And so will your ears. DM/TGIFood


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