TGIFOOD

GAIL BEHR’S GIFT TO CAPE TOWN

The hotel ‘village’ in Cape Town that guards its architect’s legacy

The hotel ‘village’ in Cape Town that guards its architect’s legacy
Clockwise from top left: Gail Behr on the stoep of her Gardens home (image by Jac de Villers); her famous roast chicken, and (below) a wallpaper detail from Dorp Hotel. (Hotel and chicken images supplied; Collage: Tony Jackman)

Dorp Hotel, high up in Schotsche Kloof, took two years to build, but like all great works, it had played in the mind of its creator over most of her lifetime, over numerous houses she had renovated, rebuilt, designed; old barns, suburban villas, tumbledown ruins. Her gift to the Mother City: Dorp Hotel, and her extraordinary roast chicken.

The extraordinary creative force that was Gail Behr died too young but she left a legacy: Dorp Hotel at the top of the Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. It is her autobiography which we can all share.

When it comes to hotels, she has form. She always ran her own houses like hotels but her first venture in commercial hotels was The Grand in Plettenberg Bay, a jewel with high beds overlooking the sea, large jars of Liquorice All Sorts, a lot of sucked peppermint pink and chamomile greens and footstools covered in fuchsia velvet.

I once met a man in a hotel in London. He became incoherent trying to explain his amazement at finding this small hotel at the bottom of Africa. “And can you believe it, it was called The Grand? I always wanted to meet the mind behind this extraordinary place.”

Dorp – the name alone is genius. The definite article is soon dropped. Dorp, the word flames through Cape Town. People ask, who is Gail Behr? Where is Dorp?

People say, goodness, I have never been here before, is it very old?

No, darling, it is very new but it has been built and decorated so as not to leave the smallest wrinkle in its surroundings.

Behr’s idea of this hotel was to have it disappear into the landscape, to become a lot more than a hotel but an object of beauty that would not disturb the environment.

There are too many examples of brightly coloured blocks, hideous renderings of mid-century artistry, too big, too bright, all around the Bo-Kaap.

Half Palladian with a bit of Karoo town thrown in

Dorp Hotel. (Photo: DOOK for Visi magazine)

Architecturally, Dorp is half Palladian with a bit of Karoo town thrown in with wide vistas, lots of pillars and banks of windows.  

Behr paid particular attention to windows and floors. There are black and white tiles, wooden floors and a scattering of ancient carpets. The super-views are framed with multipaned Lutyens-style windows.

There is a repository of lush sofas, filled with the soft bellies of cushions, piles of towels, never just one. She became an authority on fabrics which are audacious, Osborne and Little, Sanderson, Lulu Lytle, Soane and more.

She researched wallpapers with wild scenes, three dimensional classical gardens with almond blossom and topiary and jungly scenes with mad-looking wild animals.

There is always a choice selection of the best reading matter – Truman Capote, Milan Kundera, Karen Blixen, The Spectator piled on tables.

She filled rooms with oversized glossy plants with elephanty leaves and lots of palm trees and always something to crack open the eye like a bowl of midnight-black velvet violets.

Part of the hotel essays a whole different concept. Called the Onderdorp, it is a separate wing of the hotel which is a malleable content-mix of self-catering accommodation, ideal for film crews, events and the like. It houses a long meeting table that can seat 30 people and a huge fireplace and television.

A voluptuary with a fastidious eye

The pink stalk bedroom with its unique layered luxury and wall stencils. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

Behr was a voluptuary with a fastidious eye. There was something in the way she walked, the motion of her fast-moving legs, hips and back that was very agreeable and gave one a sense that she would get things done.

She loved luxury and comfort and nearly every piece of furniture can be sunk into; there are high-pile velvets, scattered carpets, piles of cushions. Everything is just a little overdone.

The look of the whole hotel is slightly subversive, a guard against naffness. The colours are fugitive with a lot of high-gloss enamel, friezes of greens and blues splattered with gold.

Behr’s preference was always for secondary colours, “greenery yallery”, as a friend calls them. Colours taken from nature; the colour of a lizard on a hot rock, shades of wine and blood.

Also read: Cooking with Faeeza in her Bo-Kaap kitchen

The garden is a stroke of true brilliance. With the help of garden designer Leon Kluge, Behr created a romantic wildness that looks as if it has been cut out of Table Mountain.

When I discussed the project with her before it was built, it was the garden she had firmly in her mind’s eye, worn gravel pathways, bush, old trees, each one costing more than a house in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.

The standard bearer of style in Cape Town

It was not long before Behr became the standard bearer of style in Cape Town. The hotel attracted celebrities local and from abroad; Ruby Wax, Penelope Chilvers, Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, Li Edelkoort all stayed at Dorp.

“If I could go anywhere tomorrow I’d go to… Dorp in Cape Town,” wrote Penelope Chilvers, Barcelona-based footwear and homeware designer.

But few locals even knew about it.

Behr was always a rule breaker and she really cracked open the book with Dorp.

A lot of people ask me about Gail Behr; most want to know about her roast chicken.

‘But it is a secret, it always has been’

The famous Behr roast chicken with its nest of soft in the centre onions. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

The manager at Dorp sounded quite shocked that I would even try to write about it. “But it is a secret, it always has been,” she insists. That is ridiculous, a roast chicken is a roast chicken at the end of the day.

The food was vintage Behr, plentiful, simple; having fed three husbands she was familiar with “’n bord kos”. The first thing she did when moving into a house was build a pizza oven, sometimes even two. She cooked as many foods as possible on fire.

Although the recipe was a tight secret, I am one of the few people who often saw her making her roast chicken and although it might not be without fault, this is what I recall. 

She would work at the skin like a masseur, rubbing spices, fresh rosemary, chutney (Mrs B), tomato sauce and weapon-strength garlic plus a thick mixture of olive oil and butter. A friend swears she also added a tin of condensed milk. She certainly had a deep understanding of the seduction of sugar.

In a preheated oven, she would slather the chicken in butter, cook for 30 to 35 minutes until it was pliant but still too raw to eat, before removing.

She then loosened the skin and lifted it from breasts, thighs and legs with her fingers, not totally detaching it, and spread the mixture of spices and sauces (you can select your own) evenly beneath the loosened skin before carefully replacing the skin, an acute semi-surgical operation, before reheating the oven and roasting for another 35 to 40 minutes. The insides were stuffed with lemon, onion, and garlic, whole, unpeeled, and the legs tied together with kitchen twine.

The final dish is super crisp on the outside but inside it has a rich, milky, buttery flavour (well, a pound of butter has been slathered on to it).

The many Dorp rave reviews on the internet all mention the breakfasts. It is fast becoming the place to breakfast in Cape Town with its signature dish, Shakshuka, a classic North African and Middle Eastern recipe, a delicious mess of tomatoes, onions, spices and poached eggs.

When it comes to a project like Dorp, rebelliousness and extravagance are excellent bedfellows. Behr was caught up in a succession of moods, to each of which she surrendered totally. She loved surprises. Although she lived through terrible tragedy, she completed this dream hotel and it remains testament to her genius and a gift to the people of Cape Town.

A demon of disguise

Gail Behr was a demon of disguise. She could make a piece of glass look like a diamond. Once I recall she had on a pair of earrings which I flashed on immediately, Where did you get those? “Oh, they came out of an old trunk that belonged to my late husband (Baron Nicholas Behr), Russian I think, belonged to a Tsarina.” Turned out they were bought off the ’net for tuppence.

But the thing she achieved beyond aesthetics was a lack of pettiness. She didn’t run her hotels, she let them stream. They seemed to trickle, then rush, and then pool in serenity, and she has done the same with Dorp. She always treated the staff better than the guests.

She was a stylish trickster. Writer Rian Malan always used to say about writing, “You need to trick the reader.” The same applies to styling. Her energy needed to be bolted down.

CODA

Lin Sampson wrote this on Facebook when she heard that her friend Gail Behr had died:

Gail Behr is dead.

When I heard, I went into the streets, into the malls and shopping centres, saying to people, Gail Behr is dead.

They just stared at me.

I could not understand why the whole city had not stopped. She was the most extraordinary, imaginative, intuitive, super brave, cruel, kind, generous – okay, thesaurus you have let me down) – just not enough words to describe Gail Behr. Every word I consider just stares back like the people in the mall. DM/TGIFood

Dorp Hotel: +27 21 422 1676 | +27 21 612 0298 | [email protected] | 273 Longmarket St, Schotsche Kloof, Cape Town

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  • Jason Pearce says:

    Thank you for this, Lin. Describing Gail in column inches is catching lightning in a bottle – an impossible task, made infinitely more impossible when you’re mourning. I adored Gail and we got to do some great work together on her HOMEWORK store in Plett. I caught up with my Plett family over December and raised a glass to this once in lifetime force of nature. Love, you Gail. Thanks again Lin

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