A labour of love, a labour of lovers
In 2015, this couple packed and left Joburg for a semi-rural life in the Amathole Mountains where they created a life entirely of their own imagining.
The Touraco Table, built and owned by Hogsback-based Laurent Chauvet and his partner Angus Park, is not exactly the typical eatery setup. The restaurant, with five tables ranging from a two- to a 10-seater, is built into their house, as an extension of their lounge and kitchen. They do not keep regular hours nor do they have staff – they do everything, from cooking to washing dishes to serving customers, themselves.
In the two years since they opened they have done no major marketing except on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups where they announce the menu and what day – or days – they will be opening each week. Then patrons have to place their orders the day before, to give the couple time to prepare.
“We open whenever there is a need,” says Chauvet. “So if people call us and say, ‘we would like to book and there are four of us’, we open. Angus always says we should open only for bookings of six people and upwards, but I think four is fine. And we usually open on a Friday or a Saturday evening, or both, anyway.”
Although they’ve owned this property since 2004, they only made the permanent move from Johannesburg to the semi-rural Eastern Cape hamlet of Hogsback in 2015, and the style of the restaurant is very much inspired by, and an extension of, their dinners back in Joburg.
Explains Chauvet: “We first lived in Parktown, next to Hillbrow, before we bought a place in Kensington. And there we hosted a lot of dinner parties with lots of friends in our 102-square-metre flat. You know how sometimes you invite people and many can’t make it? Well, one time I invited 50 friends, thinking that would be the case, but all 50 actually came, and we fed all of them in our small space; soups, rice, dhal and all kinds of usual and exotic foods I like to make. So when we came here we decided to transpose this whole concept of our dinner parties from Kensington, except this time we had more space, a bigger garden and that sort of thing. And it didn’t have to be strictly friends, we opened it up to customers, kind of like opening our kitchen to the public.”
Chauvet does all the cooking, while Park does everything else, and he describes the menu as authentic world cuisine: “Yeah, that’s my thing, authentic food. I like to stick to original recipes from around the world, and I work with authentic ingredients. That’s the major thing, it has to be the real ingredients. And no reinventing anything, I don’t do nouvelle cuisine. If it’s a beef bourguignon, it has to be that; if it’s a Moroccan chicken tagine, it has to be cooked properly in a tagine with the authentic ingredients.”
Their regularly updated menu is a fairly simple one-page affair, with three starters, three or four mains and three or four desserts. One month you might spot a bouillabaisse, or a vegetarian cashew nut ball curry, and on another month a chocolate and orange oxtail pie.
The walls are covered in the couple’s art collection. “Most of the artworks you see here didn’t cost that much. But they mean a lot to me. A lot of them are from local artists in the Eastern Cape, many of them Hogsback-based artists actually. And artists from Johannesburg, Myanmar, Thailand and France. They mean something to me because I have a connection with the painters, whether I know them personally or there’s a story or there’s a trip behind the art,” says Chauvet.
When we meet the couple at their home-cum-restaurant it’s a few days before Christmas 2020. Angus’s ex-wife and long-time friend of Chauvet, Michelle, is visiting for the holidays with her husband as well as hers and Angus’s kids and their friends. The mood is jolly, not only because 2020 is almost over and everyone here is getting to spend the last few days with loved ones, but also because of the idyllic Afromontane setting of the surrounding forest, deep in the Amathole mountain range, in a village with no more than 50 properties, mostly no less than 1.7 hectares each – that’s approximately two rugby fields – and many with large established gardens.
While none can escape the realities of 2020, here – surrounded by the trees, the sounds of cicadas and birds such as the striking touraco, after which their restaurant and property are named – one can temporarily suspend reality.
“I came to South Africa when I was 18 years old in 1983 to visit my dad for a three-month holiday, and it ended up being a 37-year journey,” says French-born Chauvet. “I’ve lived between Johannesburg and Hogsback for most of my life. I have a love-hate relationship with Johannesburg, and a love relationship with Hogsback. Yes, love only.”
After that initial visit he completed his studies in South Africa, followed by a two-and-a-half-year stint working at a bank before enrolling in the French army for a year, where he was stationed on Réunion Island. “When I came out of the army, at 23 years old, my first partner lived in Hogsback and he worked at the University of Fort Hare in Alice as a lecturer. I came here to stay with him and I just fell in love with the place. Two years later when he left, I stayed on, for a total of 10 years.
“Back then in Hogsback we had no electricity, and the water was from the rivers, you had to pump it with generators; we had paraffin fridges, that sort of thing. And we had party lines for the telephone, you know, when you have 10 people on one line, and you had a special ring which you had to remember to know if the call was for you or another house. I learnt many years later that the lady who was at the switchboard exchange used to listen to every conversation,” he laughs.
Before that first decade-long stay in Hogsback, in 1985, Chauvet met and became friends with Park. “My ex-wife Michelle and Laurent were at school together and that’s how we met. I actually met both of them on the same day,” says Park. He would go on to marry Michelle in 1990 and start a family with her.
Like Chauvet, Park was not born in South Africa. “I was born in Scotland, and when I was five years old my folks immigrated to South Africa. And then in 1979 they moved to Botswana and lived there for 25 years. I went to boarding school in a town called Wartburg in KZN, there was a little German community there. And then after school I went back to Botswana for a while, before coming back to Johannesburg to look for work. It was those days… you know… you just had to find a job and work, so I found a job at an insurance company.” He spent the next 35 years in the insurance industry, making his way up the corporate ladder. “It was the worst job in my entire life. I hated every single day of it,” Park says of his last management years.
In 2002 he finally came to terms with his sexuality, and he and Michelle divorced: “Sometime later, after I came out of the closet, I called Laurent, because we had been friends since he and my ex-wife were at school together. One of the times I phoned him, in 2004, just to say, ‘Hey, how you doing? It’s been a long time, what you’re up to?’. He was having a dinner party and he invited me. When I got there that evening there were 20, 30 people. And that was it, we got together, and here we are 16 years later.”
The same year, the pair, then based in Parktown, visited Hogsback to do the famous six-day hike through the Amathole mountain forests. Chauvet took Park around Hogsback to show him where he used to live, and then they found out that a nearby property was up for sale, and decided to put in an offer. The garden was unkept, the house derelict. Over the following decade the couple visited their property, at first camping in the garden in a four-man tent because the house was not fit to sleep in. And then slowly, year after year, when they could afford to, they started building. “We started by fixing a big shed and turned it into a cottage and then we moved in there during our visits.”
In 2015, they decided to make the move permanent. “Just a few months before my 50th,” says Chauvet. Over the next three years they focused on the house and restaurant. Building teams often lived on the property for months since it can be a challenge to get builders to commute daily up and down the mountain.
While they’ve completed much of the work – building their dream house and two cottages, which they maintain and rent out to tourists, as well as opening the restaurant – the work and home improvements continue.
“It’s a labour of love, because the day it’s all done then you’re going to say to yourself, ‘oh, what am I going to do now’. It’s a good thing to keep busy all the time, and there’s always maintenance to be done… yeah, that’s a typical Hogsback thing, there’s always something that needs fixing on the property. And if you want any specialised stuff, like electricians or plumbers or window installers or door installers and that sort of thing, it’s a bit of mission. When you discover one, then you treasure those people,” says Chauvet.
Up next for the couple is to go a bit deeper into their large garden, clearing areas they haven’t had a chance to attend to, while running the increasingly popular restaurant.
“In the first year of this restaurant I think we were almost 90% supported by the local community of Hogsback. And as we’ve been growing like in the past year or so, because of word of mouth there are more people from outside Hogsback. Recently we had two evenings, one of 16 people and another with 18, and not one person was local, which is a good sign that more people are recommending the restaurant to outsiders. So we’re getting to meet more people, chat to them and hear their stories, which is really great,” says Angus.
In 2020, the pair marked 35 years of friendship and 16 years as a couple, and for Chauvet a passionate love affair with Hogsback that spans more than three decades. He continues to work remotely as a French translator, and is involved in Hogsback community projects working on the upkeep of the village, as well as sharing their home and his love for cooking and socialising.
On every night when the restaurant is open, once Park has placed the plates in front of the guests, Chauvet goes to each table and describes the ingredients and the details of the recipe to each patron. After dessert and coffee you will see both of them seated at one of the tables, chatting and enjoying the evening with their customers – often old friends and occasionally newly made ones.
“Laurent also goes hiking a lot and is much more of a social butterfly. I’m more of a homebody,” says Park. “I’ve also got the two cottages which I fully maintain, from the bookings to cleaning, washing, ironing, flower arrangements and everything like that, so I’m very busy. I love for people to walk into a space I’ve created and feel comfortable, relaxed and at home. That’s what I love doing, creating a space for people to walk into. I suppose I’ve always been into service-oriented environments my entire life. And I think that’s really what I get out of it – other people’s enjoyment and satisfaction; people walking out and saying, ‘oh, that was a fantastic evening. The food was amazing. The place is wonderful’.” ML/DM
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