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The rediscovery of a French food legend in Jozi

TGIFOOD

TIME TRIP

The rediscovery of a French food legend in Jozi

She was a remarkably creative cook and entertainer. Prawn shooters were a Le Canard invention. (Photo: Supplied)

Down a rabbit hole and into a world of rediscovery of French food, ducks and the grande dame who once ruled Golden City palates.

When a trusted food friend, Ken Heart, is asked where a few friends can eat the most delicious lunch in Fourways, he comes up with two places he loves. One is the Buitengeluk venue restaurant “for eating outside on a sunny day”, the other a French bistro or café with the unlikely name of the Old Ducky. 

Ah, French food, we decide. There’s not a lot of that in Jozi any more. But from the moment I look it up, I start going down a rabbit hole of my own excavation.

It turns out that the so-called old ducky is none other than Freda Appelbaum, she who, for 25 years, had Le Canard, the legendary Jozi restaurant with an Eiffel tower in lights, in Morningside, Sandton. The younger ducky appears to be her daughter-in-law, Marina Appelbaum.

A little time has elapsed since the Tale of Two Duckies was first printed on the Old Ducky menu. Then it was foreseen that Freda would oversee the kitchen, run by her own Le Canard award-winning chefs and staff. The front-of-house would be Marina.

So the last part of the tale is just like that, when I go out to Fourways for an exploratory breakfast. Marina is a stunning and super-stylish hostess. Still, I desperately want to meet her mother-in-law, Freda Appelbaum.

During the whole quarter century in which Freda Applebaum reigned at Le Canard and during all the duck a l’orange, aux figues and au piment chocolat I ate there, among other French and French inspired delights, I did not ever introduce myself to her or, as in my rabbit hole, re-introduce myself. 

Eating fabulous dinners at Le Canard did not automatically qualify you for an audience with the lauded Freda Appelbaum. At least I didn’t, or ever pluck up enough courage to ask for one. To be fair, she was an egalitarian as I now know, and though people like Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, the Queen of Denmark, Cyril Ramaphosa and all the embassies ate there and generally returned, she was no autograph collector.

People were in awe of Freda Appelbaum. Lesser restaurateurs would grumble that she wasn’t a qualified chef. And Freda Applelbaum was not. The chefs that worked for her were. She was a remarkably able and creative cook and betook herself with her husband, whose family was French, to Paris every December to eat and experience all, yes all, the Michelin three-starred restaurants. Some of these were in Belgium, some in Italy but most were in France. Freda Appelbaum ate at their restaurants but also met and conversed with the chefs, and was friends with many. She was not silly about these things, as I was then. 

Breakfast at the Old Ducky is an experience in itself. Meeting Marina Appelbaum at the door is the first evidence of the class act she runs. She symbolises it in a beautifully ruffled white shirt and tailored black pants, pony-tailed hair in rippling dark waves. I do recognise her, probably from her other restaurants.

Jacques Lagess ‘from Paris, nogal!’ pitched up as a surprise earlier this morning. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

She says a Frenchman “from Paris, nogal!” pitched up as a surprise earlier this morning to play his acoustic guitar and sing French songs, Yves Montand and the like. At this moment he’s singing a troubadour version of the Beatles’ Michelle while I break open an almond marzipan croissant next to my breakfast coffee.

‘Our croissants are from France.’ Mine is an almond marzipan one. (Photo: Supplied)

“Our croissants are from France,” says Marina. I think fleetingly of the excellent locally made ones by the head patissiere at Proud Mary for instance but somehow these seem right, even charming. It is, after all, a very good and buttery croissant that I have under my fingers, while being serenaded in dreamy, old-style French languor.

The view from the balcony is quite extraordinary. The turrets peering from behind a huge umbrella acacia is really part of the embarrassingly named Montecasino but who would know? On the tables are bath and toy ducks of all sorts.

The view from the balcony. (Photo: Supplied)

It is clear that Freda Appelbaum is not here today. But what am I thinking? She was 83 when she closed Le Canard.

When Marina, having married the youngest of Freda’s children, Robert, talks to me about her mum-in-law, who merely pops in for meals every now and then, I tell her about my rabbit hole quest.

Meanwhile, I follow my French croissant with beautifully made and presented duck paté (not Foie Gras as it says on this menu and as Freda Appelbaum always insisted at Le Canard) with a cranberry gelle, to round off my breakfast. The person next to me orders an Eggs Benedict. It is an excellent one.

What I tell Marina is that very long ago, I must have waitressed for her mother-in-law. On Greenmarket Square in Cape Town was a place called Appelbaum, I’m pretty sure. The stern woman who ran this quite posh little restaurant had surprised me when I’d said I didn’t know a lot about waitressing but that I was good at organising events and public relations. She was much more interested in my being “well-dressed and presentable”.

My own mother had fired me as a schoolgirl waitress when I’d “helped” her with a charity place she’d run at the Botanic Gardens in Grahamstown. The well-dressed part was largely due to my having access to my best friend’s wardrobe since I was staying with her in Cape Town then. She was and still is a designer. 

The de rigueur Le Canard, its skin crisped in honey and pepper, served with perfect and trad potato gratin. (Photo: Supplied)

Marina looks doubtful. “I’m sure I would know about a previous restaurant she had. I think it was always just Le Canard.” However, she was arranging for me to meet Freda Appelbaum anyway, the woman whose French style restaurant in Morningside had a lot to do with changing the way Johannesburg people ate out and appreciated then-modern food. Finally I would meet the grande dame who might also have been my employer.

This day of the meeting is when I also go to have lunch at the Old Ducky.

I make sure I have the dishes on the Old Ducky menu that Freda Appelbaum used to have on the Le Canard menu. Some I don’t remember, like the Prawn Shooters, four shooter glasses on a plate, each with a grilled prawn tail up, in a yummy lemongrass, balsamic and tomato cream. The lemongrass is a clever addition to what looks interestingly retro in a 90s sort of way.

The table shares a snails-and-prawns dish, both snails and prawns served on mushrooms in a delectably tarragon and maybe thyme buttery sauce instead of the usual full-on garlic and with the baguette slices for mopping.

The table shares a snails-and-prawns dish in a herby buttery sauce. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I do a half-half swop with someone who orders the de rigueur Le Canard, its skin crisped in honey and pepper, served with perfect and trad potato gratin. He ordered his duck with fresh orange and Grand Marnier though I might have done so with the apple, cinnamon, ginger and Calvados version.

My half of the swop is another Le Canard classic, Steak Tartare. It’s the grandest treat to have Elina Chibanda skilfully mix into the freshly chopped fillet my selected chopped onions, anchovies, capers, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and olive oil at the table. I’m reminded of the old table theatre of Crêpes Suzette flaming wildly in Grand Marnier and lo, here that is too, on the menu. I just never get to have it today. 

I make sure I have dishes that used to be on the Le Canard menu, like the steak tartare. (Photo: Supplied)

For I am meeting the grande dame herself, Freda Appelbaum, at home today. And here she is, at the top of a short flight of stairs when I arrive. She seems ageless, quite beautiful in a more pastel way than at Le Canard, beautifully dressed as ever. She had always wanted to be a clothing designer and was one, commercially, for many years in Johannesburg.

From an early age, Freda was food conscious, understanding well, within her own family, the cuisine differences between Polish and Lithuanian Jewish cooking. As an early teen she was thrown in at the deep end of the kitchen, catering for a huge family event. That’s the sort of thing that hooks cooks and chefs for evermore. It certainly does away with culinary fears. 

Freda, especially after marrying, threw wonderful parties and dinners, so good that the well-known chefs of the time, who were often German or Austrian, suggested she start her own restaurant. It wasn’t only her cooking skills but her innate creativity and the culinary confidence to update food styles. She was wonderful with people and with managing. All she needed was a venue and name. The venue suggested itself, big enough and with the right address. Morningside has also always been where the French of Jozi have lived.

For the name, she was at home and one of the great chefs of the time (was it Walter Ulz of Linger Longer?) was talking to her about the new place and the name. He looked through to the kitchen from where he was sitting and noticed the design on the curtains.

“There it is! The fucking duck!” Le Canard was born that afternoon.

Freda Appelbaum seems ageless, beautiful in a more pastel way than at Le Canard. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I tell her how I’d hoped she’d been my boss at the restaurant in Greenmarket Square and she’s interested that I think it was called Appelbaum but knows of no relative that would have been involved in it. I told her about the terribly foodie Fairlady magazine lunches on Fridays, about the dumbwaiter that hauled the food down and the dishes up to the kitchen on the first floor.

We talk and talk and talk. The real Freda Appelbaum is enchanting. After my tumbling about in my rabbit hole of memory and imagination, I’ve emerged to meet the actual grande dame of Jozi’s food transformation, the unforgettable Freda Appelbaum of Le Canard.

Still, I WhatsApp that designer best friend of mine, now living in Toronto, asking if she remembers if the restaurant on Greenmarket Square where I’d waitressed was really called Appelbaum and who the owner was. She answers:

“… too far away and long ago… am loitering on the sofa, eating a lemon macaron.”

It’s what happens last in my Appelbaum chronicle. DM/TGIFood

Old Ducky French Cafe, Pineslopes Shopping Centre, cnr The Straights Ave and Witkoppen Rd, Fourways. 011 568 5378 

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.

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