THE FOOD YEAR #3

Weathering the pandemic in Durban and KZN

By Wanda Hennig 18 December 2020

Mathew Armbruster at work in the Chef’s Table kitchen. (Photo: Sebastian Nico)

Innovation, devastation, resourcefulness, new ideas, new directions, surprises. Some restaurants have survived. Many have gone for good. And still the only certainty is uncertainty.

Some have survived. A few are thriving. Many have gone for good. Others are limping along. There are the optimists, the risk-takers, the resourceful, the resilient, the innovative and chefs with Covid-19. New ideas. New directions. New restaurants springing up. All this when the closest anyone can get to a new normal is the hunger for it. The only certainty: uncertainty.  

So, who would have imagined this scenario? 

On Thursday 20 February 2020 I meet US friends from near Chicago at 9th Avenue Waterside. It is their first visit to Durban. I make the reservation when they say: “We want to take you for dinner somewhere really special. You choose.” 

The next evening I suggest supper at my favourite Durban neighbourhood spot. A pavement table outside The Glenwood Bakery where the menu offers whatever chef-baker Adam Robinson feels like putting on it, from Armenian pizza to feather-light gnocchi with oyster mushrooms to Vietnamese pork belly salad. Whatever it is, think flavour. 

On Sunday morning, before they fly out, I introduce them to the KZNSA Gallery café. Art with coffee and conversation under the trees. 

Five weeks later, 27 March 2020: our first day of lockdown. Incarceration. Isolation. Devastation. 

Just dessert at 9th Avenue Waterside. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Fast-forward to the present. December 2020.

Graham and Gina Neilson, the chef and front-of-house team synonymous with 9th Avenue – their original bistro overlooked a 9th Avenue parking lot in Greyville before their waterside-at-the-harbour move – have relocated to Australia. There is a new head chef, Wesley Aucamp. And the transition, it would seem, has been seamless. Beautiful food. Beautiful setting. A friend tried to make a reservation last week. They were fully booked. 

Give us this day Adam Robinson’s bread. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Supper on the pavement outside The Glenwood Bakery has been relegated to the realm of desire and memory. But the bakery, which as an essential service became a hub during lockdown, is open for brekker and lunch and Robinson has transferred his taste wizardry to deli offerings. And is in the process of launching his Book About Bread. Not inspired by, but completed during lockdown. Not because he had time, but because photographer Roger Jardine, his partner in the project, had time.

“With the differing natures of the lockdowns, we managed to be quite inventive and flexible,” says Robinson. “Interestingly we sold more bread from our shop than before lockdown. I feel almost uniquely privileged among my peer group that I could actually carry on making a living.”

The KZNSA café reopened in stages. From coffee-while-standing to full service, including evenings. The perfect outdoor venue for times of Covid-19. They have lots of catch-up to do as they battle on valiantly, like most of the survivors. 

Three success stories, all things considered, given that for all, jobs and livelihoods have been impacted.

Having said that, we are lucky in Durban and along the KZN coast to have weather conducive to outdoor living and dining. 

Going back to late August, Ballito with its plethora of eateries was already buzzing. Our place of choice to eat was Nikos Greek restaurant. A balcony table with moon and breeze over waves. The food? Who cared, given the setting. 

Back to the present. Umhlanga Village hummed last weekend. Too much hum for my comfort. 

I pop in to say hi to Mathew Armbruster, new head chef at Chef’s Table. Upstairs from the main drag, tables well-spaced, it feels safe and Armbruster says customer support has been heartening. Another fluid transition, given that uber-talented Kayla-Ann Osborn, who “opened” Chef’s Table, up-and-moved to Delaire Graff Restaurant in the Cape.

“I resigned about three weeks before lockdown,” says Osborn when I call her to check in. “They were great at Chef’s Table. Very supportive. Then lockdown obviously threw a spanner in the works.” 

Everything shut down. Chef’s Table. The Delaire Graff Estate. 

“Then my mom just said, come home (to Scottburgh). So I did.” 

Which in turn lead to the door-to-door bread deliveries. By Osborn. Wonderful plump loaves of malted sourdough and of potato and curry leaf or rosemary sourdough. Voluptuous. Chewy. And the flavour… 

“The bread started out of boredom. It was a long four months. It’s hard to move back in with your mother and there is only so much you can do before you get bored, especially when you’re a chef and you’re busy all day. I did 10 loaves. Scottburgh is not necessarily the gourmet capital of SA, but I sold all 10. I started advertising and the next thing I was doing 40 loaves a day in my mom’s kitchen in her old home gas oven. That was a nightmare. But there were people all over asking, can you deliver? And I really enjoyed it. Got to know my bread so much better than before.”

When lockdown cracked open, Osborn made the physical move to Stellenbosch. “And for me personally, 2020 has been an amazing year but not for any of the reasons I would have expected. It didn’t bring huge awards or anything else I thought was important to me.” 

Starting with the time spent at home. “I’m so grateful for that now.” Then, “I have a great job. I have a company that looks after me. I am very fulfilled at work. I love my staff. I love how Delaire has the right amount of class along with the human touch along with, for me, it’s just so well set up. And I am expecting a child and that is not something I thought I would ever say. It’s a huge life changer.” 

Dining in the round at the Legacy Yard food court, Umhlanga. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back to Umhlanga, we wrote in TGIFood November 2020 about dining options and the return to life with flavour at the new Legacy Yard food hall. 

Even newer, at Gateway, is The Boulevard wine bar and grill where veteran Chef Themba Mngoma has created a knockout menu, which includes aged steaks from Farm to Fork Umdloti, Scott Mackenzie’s specialist deli-butchery. 

Mngoma, who weathered a mild bout of Covid-19 when the hotels were still closed and he was on enforced time out from the Elangeni Hotel, and being ultra-careful, recently took voluntary retrenchment to stride out on his own.

Talking Covid-19, I was in Umhlanga to experience the new menu devised by Marco Nico – renowned restaurateur, forager, charcutier, food alchemist – for a new six-bar venue opening that night where legendary Ile Maurice shut during lockdown. 

“He’s not here? Why on earth?” I ask when I arrive, early as a Covid-19 precaution, to suss the place and take pictures of Nico, his food and the new owners.

“He’s just the consultant,” I am told when I attempt to set up my shot.

Next day, I WhatsApp Nico. Ask him about the menu and for year-in-retrospect comments for this story. 

“No luck,” he replies. “On a ventilator. Covid kicked me in the arse. In hospital. That’s why you never saw me. Sorry.” 

Geez. I feel heartsore for Nico. Glad I was one of the unfashionable few who wore my mask and distanced.

Bartho Brothers fish for locked down home cooking. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

A nearby new Umhlanga restaurant that looks good from a view, menu and protocols perspective is Grimaldi’s, from the Jack Salmon team, which has replaced Casa Bella at The Pearls. 

Some other “times of Covid-19” inspiration:

The Bartho Brothers who fished themselves silly, expanded their business and turned me into a passable fish cook during lockdown.

“2020 has been challenging and stressful but I think it was also a good opportunity for businesses to look back and deeper and see what was working, where they could do things better, where they needed to perhaps cut back. So I think some people have come out a lot stronger,” says Brett Bartho. 

“We had amazing support at our retail store. We moved in July and it’s been absolutely awesome. Our loyal customers have kept supporting us and we’ve had a lot of new customers. And we have big plans for 2021. We’re looking at doing sushi, an oyster bar and upgrading our retail store again to something very modern and cutting edge for a fish shop in South Africa.”

Durban dining stalwart Steve Clements who grew his St Clements garden dining options along with his plant nursery, creating a haven for folks trying to keep safe and sane in this crazy new world. 

And farmer Neil Purves adapted by switching crops and “selling door to door in order to survive” – including my door – when all his commercial clients, Lupa, Mugg & Bean, Circus Circus and the like, were forced to close. 

“The year obviously has been tough for all of us. It brought about a whole bunch of new dimensions. And the irony is our turnover this year will be slightly better than the turnover from last year.”

Among other things, he launched a website, Assagay Multi Farms, for orders. “And we’ve actually managed to acquire another farm in the Midlands as a result of Covid-19 because people are worried about how they were going to make ends meet. They looked us up and asked us if we would farm their property. We won’t own but we have a 15 year lease in place. So the year of Covid has presented opportunities that wouldn’t have been there previously.”

Dalene Joubert and her Scottburgh team take a seat for survival. (Photo: Angelo Bender)

TGIFood ran a #JOBSSAVELIVES feature in late July 2020. At the time barely surviving restaurateurs around South Africa were calling on our President to lift alcohol restrictions and extend the curfew to save jobs and lives. For this piece, we caught up with three of the folks we spoke to back then. Asked them how the restaurant scene has changed for them. Lessons learned. Where to now.

Scottburgh’s Dalene Joubert, proprietor at the Beach Bar Bell and Anchor pub and grill, has hung in. With difficulty. Fuelled by energy and a sense of humour. “We’ve been sticking to all the protocols. Taking temperatures. People are signing in, keeping their distance, being very respectful.” 

There are the exceptions who whinge. “But people generally work with you and it’s been great.”

But how hectically folk have been hit in the wallet is a nightly reality. “People don’t drink as much. They don’t eat as much. Not even cheaper food or happy hours or things like that draw them. Many have become used to cooking for themselves. Drinking their own alcohol is a lot cheaper and I understand that. 

“People are going out, they are enjoying themselves, but eating out, going to a pub, has definitely become a huge luxury so there is a cloud hanging over everything. I hope we are going to pull through but I’m not holding my breath for December.”

Planning for Christmas with restrictions and uncertainty, she says, is sort of like inviting 100 people to a sit-down dinner, no one RSVPs, but you have to prepare for 100, have staff to serve 100. “Then only 10 pitch up. That is the reality.” 

Ciara Cassidy, in the same story, chronicled the Howick restaurant scene. She lamented back then that “the devastation for this town has been heartbreaking. The restaurant closures, the job losses. We’re at the start of the Midlands Meander, which previously buzzed with life and tourism”.

Following up last week she said, with 2020 almost done, most of the restaurants that survived back then are still open. “Mostly with huge debt. Taking a lot of strain. Operating not at full capacity has hit them incredibly hard. People’s spending has changed drastically. Some are going out but many just don’t have the money any more.”

Conversely, there has been a lot of out-the-box thinking. Black Olive owner-chef Lance Mostert, who built a screen and opened a drive-in at his restaurant after initial heavy lockdown, has now opened a section of his shop as a deli: “Where locals can take their hand-crafted stuff and sell it.

“And we decided to have a market outside the coffee shop I’m associated with, to give locals somewhere to sell their goods.” 

What, she says, has been inspiring and heartwarming is “the incredible amount of community spirit this year has exposed. People looking after each other. So much kindness.”

A Firehouse pizza from Graham Bennett. (Photo: Kirsty Holpert)

“Today marks the third day in the history of The Firehouse where we sold zero pizzas.” I quote Graham Bennett, back in July 2020, talking about his Florida Road pizzeria.

Last week he remarked on how things have changed. “It was quite an experience being on Florida then. Like a graveyard. A scary time because things were in darkness and there wasn’t much activity. 

“It’s been a wild time just getting through it all but we’re still here. And it’s been amazing to see the support from our regulars. It’s really been a blessing.”

When things started to open up, “we were well-placed for deliveries, because that’s what we did”. 

They also made some internal changes. Launched frozen pizzas, which they got into several outlets. Also a range of frozen five-minute-cooking-time Firehouse pizzas, with “how to” instructions. “We launched some little campaigns. Had some good marketing strategies. That kind of got us through.”

Momentum is growing now. But with Covid-19, “we don’t know what next year will bring. 

“So I think it’s good for us right now to not make any sudden movements or do anything extravagant that’s going to be risky. It’s still daunting and 2021 is an unknown. 

“I think the first six months of next year will give an idea where things will go. Now there is just uncertainty.” 

Membership of the Locked Down Cookbook has topped 10,000. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Many a time one of my favourite escapes from politics and misery this year has been the Locked Down Cookbook, the Facebook group started the first night of lockdown by Hanno Schultz, his wife and dad, initially for family to connect, kitchen to kitchen, around what they were cooking and their passion for food. 

The group opened up, took off, and membership now stands at 10,000-plus. Chef-restaurateur Schultz, who has a food science degree and an Institute of Culinary Arts diploma, lost his business at the start of lockdown when the brewery, where he had a small restaurant, shut down. 

“My year was thrown on its head. I was actually jobless for a while.” 

Now he’s farming. Cattle production. 

“We went from the one extreme, preparing food, to producing the raw ingredients, which is quite cool.” 

Meanwhile, getting into the swing of being a dad. “She’s healthy and a lot smaller than I anticipated: her mother’s build. She is absolutely the love of our lives.” 

And in between, the Locked Down Cookbook continues to give pleasure and community to fans who share pictures, sometimes recipes, ask questions and bond around food. DM/TGIFood

Coda

Marco Nico: RIP. With sadness, I add this note to say the legendary and much-loved chef — mentor and inspiration to so many — died of Covid complications yesterday, December 17, 2020. He was still in hospital. On December 6 he Whatsapped: “It’s a long marathon. Still on ventilator. I can see why the world took it seriously. Covid units are full. Recovering, but a slow haul.” On December 11: “Fighting the fight. Off ventilator. This is a marathon.” On December 14: “Not out the woods till I’m signed out with a clean bill of health. Day by day with not a promise from a doctor. But I will survive.” It was not to be. RIP dear Marco. Deep condolences to your sons and family. So many people will miss so much about you. Another remarkable never-to-be-forgotten person gone. — Wanda

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