TGIFOOD

QUENTIN SPICKERNELL

Taking stock of a true Cape restaurant veteran

Taking stock of a true Cape restaurant veteran
Quentin Spickernell in action at his Hout Bay restaurant, Quentin at Oakhurst. ‘The cooking is a relief. It’s something that we know we’re in control of, it’s something we can identify with and it’s really rewarding for us. But everything else is uncontrollable, it’s wracked with uncertainty. But when I cook everything is certain, predictable and it comes out the way I want it to come out.’ (Photo: Dominique Herman)

Quentin Spickernell doesn’t do marketing or enter awards contests. There are no gimmicks at Quentin at Oakhurst. This isn’t fine dining, it’s fine eating. Could this be the most underrated first-rate restaurant in Cape Town?

Quentin Spickernell salts his food the way a fly fisherman casts for fish: “throwing the salt” as his restaurant right hand, René Staub, puts it. But the swashbuckling behaviour in his kitchen ends there. There is no bellowing or hurling of pans. Red-hot spoons aren’t left on counters and nobody is forced to chop a kilogram of peppercorns as some sort of hazing kitchen ritual, even though those things epitomised the working-class apprenticeship culture he endured – the “hard knocks period” of his chef’s training – “where you had guys kicking your ass”.

“You worked and you took all the abuse because that was your future. And eventually you would then become that guy.” And although he did become that guy, “eventually I learned that the best way is the tender way. In the long run, it is more effective. It’s not that I don’t snap sometimes but I’ve got to curtail myself, and I don’t swear ever”.

Isaac Mxolo, sous chef, with commis chef Bernardo Chikalenda behind him to his left. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

Having grown up “in the back passages of a busy hotel operation”, as a teen Quentin was frying the eggs for the guests at Hotel Elizabeth on the Sea Point beachfront (where the block of flats Milton Manor is located now). It was his father’s business and his grandfather’s property. When Quentin wasn’t on short order cook duty, he was bicycling there from the Southern Suburbs with his mates for fish and chips and passion fruit and lemonades.

After his army service and before his first full-time chef’s apprenticeship with Southern Sun at the Bantry Bay Hotel, The President, he had tried “the management thing” at the Protea Hotel group in Umhlanga Rocks. He was put in the kitchen there for nine months and liked it. 

“I used to go to work when it was dark. I used to operate under a neon light ceiling and I used to come out when it was dark, and I did that six days a week,” he recalls, referring to The President, where the food ranged from nouvelle cuisine to big banqueting. 

“There was no labour relations act. You worked. And you worked till it was done. You’d come in at 7 in the morning and it’s now 10 at night and the head chef comes in and he says you must now scour the copper gas pipes till 12.

“I was pushed to a point where I thought I couldn’t go on any further, and then I was pushed a little bit more. I was so determined not to give up because that was my only way ahead. And I knew if I just kept on going that the others would fall out because it was agony.”

The kitchen was artisanal, but not in the hipster way with which that word has become associated. One guy had been kicked out of the navy, others didn’t make it into the plumbing course, some were mechanics. “I call them ‘fitters and turners’. They fitted it in the pot and turned it.”

In the early ’90s he emerged “industrialised” from the Southern Sun, blinking into the light, and crossed Sea Point’s Queens Road into John Jackson’s kitchen at The Peninsula Hotel. “John was known to be one of Cape Town’s top chefs; he was a trailblazer at the time. I’ve got stuff that I still do that John did. His tomato and ricotta tart was legendary.”

At the same time, Quentin’s developing profile led to catering gigs on his night off for society soirées. One dinner party led to the next and eventually he figured he could do private events full-time. So, in mid-1995, he took his leave money and made a few calls to say he was available. His father had since sold the Hotel Elizabeth and now had a smaller establishment in Green Point called The Carnaby Hotel. It had a tiny kitchen but there was a walk-in cold room, a big gas oven and a gas cooker where Quentin could prep. 

The first few months he booked sufficiently to make it work, but then December came around and all the people he’d usually cook for went out of town. “I had nothing. I had my head in my hands thinking what the hell am I going to do. I’ve made a mistake.

“Then the phone rang and it was Flower Walker. She runs Petals and she was one of the doyennes in town. She knew me through (interior designer) Jay Smith and the catering game; the town was small. In those circles it was always the decorator, the party organiser, the couturier – people who were in the forefront for those sorts of lifestyle services at the top end – they all knew each other.

“She said, what are you doing, and I said, well, not a lot, and she said, I’m calling you from Sol Kerzner’s estate. How soon can you get here?” Quentin replied that he could get there in 40 minutes. Ten minutes later she rang again: “Quentin, get here now!” When Quentin arrived, the estate staff was sitting around looking “pale and shivery”. Sol walked in “looking grumpy”.

The word was that Kerzner had chased out a handful of caterers within a period of eight days and he had 150 people coming over for lunch the next day. It was agreed Quentin would cater the lunch. “And then he said, ‘Before you go, can you make the kids’ supper?’”

The summer Sunday starter and sides buffet includes giant platters of salads, roasted vegetables, game fish ceviche, fritters and patés.

That evening Quentin rattled down to Sea Point in an old surfer Kombi to get to Pick n Pay before it closed. Back at the Carnaby he cooked through the night, loaded everything into the Kombi in the morning and hurtled back to Hout Bay. When he arrived on the lawn ready to put out “big, over the top salads and whole poached fish”, he was presented with three standard trestle tables. “I said, this is not enough. And the estate manager says, what do you mean? And I said, I need at least 13.”

That lunch changed his life. “Within a week, boom, the phone went off the hook.” Quentin went on to cook for Kerzner for 16 years during which time he took over the organisation of Kerzner’s hot ticket New Year’s Eve bash. “He used to have 80 of his mates there. It was classy, it was smart and spectacular. There were no limits. There was no budget. I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted.” 

When Quentin wasn’t cooking for the Sun King, he was cooking for actual kings, heads of state, celebrities and holidaying Joburgers jockeying for position with their mates. Cape Town summers filled with banquets and crayfish braais were followed by multi-month stints in the Bahamas working his little black book there. “The money was crazy. I was paid in briefcases. There were big, bottomless budgets and endless extravagance.

By the time he was in his early 40s, he was divorced, with three kids, “burned out, tired, lonely and frustrated”. 

“When I came out of the hotel thing and I got into the Sol scene, my eyes popped out. I’d never seen so many beautiful women in my life because I’d just been living in this dark, neon space. And then of course I was getting all their acknowledgement; I was like a star. And I was earning lots of money and it just went to my head. But that’s all in the past fortunately.”

The daily wood-fired-oven-baked seed loaf served with smoked snoek paté is a highly satisfying meal on its own. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

Returning to Cape Town, he opened his first eatery, a 20-seater spot tucked behind Kronendal Homestead in Hout Bay serving contemporary Cape country cooking, bistro style. It was called Cape Courtyard and it lasted for four years before the estate was sold. “I wanted that grounding. I wanted that consistency.”

A four-year stint running the nearby beach restaurant Dunes followed – “from Dom Perignon to cream soda” – during which time he was approached to run the food and beverage operation at the Shimmy Beach Club when that first opened. After two months, in 2013, he left that to focus on making pizzas and salads at the Bay Harbour Market. He had been operating there for about six years but not in a hands-on capacity.

When the 19th-century barn at Oakhurst became available, fellow Hout Bay resident and chef Peter Goffe-Wood told Quentin about it. “This has got to be mine,” Quentin decided, when he saw it. Although the space was five times the size of his first restaurant, it had the same farm-style appeal. “Then I had to jump through a hundred and one hoops to convince the guy to take a chance on me.”

The subsequent lunches, suppers and New Year’s Eve celebrations of his own he would characterise as grand dining, not fine dining: the sumptuousness and the ritualisation around service, yes, but not the fancy, fussy food. 

“The pitch is, we’re on the farm. It’s about beautiful linen, lovely leather chairs, it’s about hospitality, good service, attention to detail and just honest, fairly simple, country-inspired cooking. It’s not foam and mousse and blob and dot and smear.”

He’s not interested in “arty food”, food trends, reading recipe books or seeing what other people in the food world are doing. His two-ingredient recipe for a good restaurant is service and stock. It’s down to the work of administrative controls and procedures, costings, infrastructure. 

“You can be a great, immensely talented cook, but that’s one thing.You need to understand service, you need to have the ability to get things out and you’ve got to have the stuff in the fridge.”

Quentin’s three children live in the UK now and he got married again last year, to Mel, with whom he’s been for 20 years. The couple lives on the property, enabling Quentin to pop in and out several times during the day to meet with suppliers and answer the phone before service starts. From that moment he is constantly present, cooking in the kitchen and charming in the dining room. 

This has given me such an incredible return spiritually and it gives me and everyone else here a good livelihood. It’s my nirvana. This is absolutely what I wanted all my life.” DM/TGIFood

Quentin at Oakhurst, Oakhurst Farm, Main Road, Hout Bay. Tel. 021 790 4888. [email protected]

From this week, the restaurant will also be open for breakfast and lunch. Walk-ins welcome for breakfast, lunch, coffee and cake between 9am and 3pm Tuesday to Saturday. For dinner Tuesday to Saturday, and for the Sunday buffet lunch, it’s best to make a reservation.  

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