THE SNYMAN LEGACY
Tamsin Snyman steps out of her mother Lannice’s shadow
On Lannice Snyman’s deathbed, she made her younger daughter Tamsin pledge: ‘Never, ever open a restaurant. Promise me.’ But life, and time, and massive heartache, have been ventured by the intrepid daughter since that sad day. And just look at her now.
Tamsin Snyman went through hell and back three times from the moment her mother Lannice, the doyenne of food writing in South Africa for two decades, died, followed barely months later by the sudden death of her dad Mike. Then, the universe threw a giant arrow at Tamsin when her husband Chris also died after fighting a gargantuan battle, with Tamsin literally lengthening his life and comfort with her adventurous take on palliative care.
That Tamsin conquered all of that, that she took over the reins of the publishing business her mother had left in her hands, that she has brought up her daughter alone, played a massive role in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, and so, so much more, says precisely this: Tamsin is Lannice Snyman’s daughter, and the granddaughter of the great Cape character Lynette Barling. And she has the guts and spirit of both of them.
Picture the scene, as “Ma” Sophia Petrillo would say in The Golden Girls, and the Snyman girls are golden. It’s 2010, and in the darkest of ironies, the standard bearer for food writing in South Africa is being taken from us by stomach cancer. At her bedside, Tamsin, now a mum thanks to Trinity, the youngest golden girl, having been born. If you knew Lannice Snyman, you knew that look. Her big, round eyes could fix you to the wall. She had supreme confidence. And she was commanding, if in the nicest way. So you might imagine those eyes piercing Tamsin’s soul when she said, “Promise me you will never open a restaurant.”
Which she now has.
Lannice did have a restaurant once. It was in Hout Bay and called Chardonnay, a name which is not remotely surprising if you knew Lannice Snyman. It would be a stylish name, it would be succinct, it would be a single, beautiful word that said, “This is a place you’re going to want to be.” That this name was chosen in the days before any chardonnay had even been produced at the Cape is perhaps surprising, but Lannice was always ahead of the game of life, until that great and ironic cruelty befell her.
Tamsin and I had an online chat when I heard about her new restaurant venture. What was that all about, I had to know? It’s actually a story that has been coming for some years. The Clay Café in Paarl marks her first foray into co-ownership of a restaurant, though she has consulted in the past.
“Okay, so the Clay Café is an existing family-run company or business that’s been going for 15 years,” she told me. “It’s owned by Christine Irving, who lives in Hout Bay. She started the first Clay Café 15 years ago on an old dairy farm. It’s all about painting clay. We have a factory in Paarden Island that produces all these beautiful shapes of different clay pottery, and then you can come to us and get to choose whatever you like to paint. And then we glaze it and fire it here on site. And then you come back to collect your masterpiece.”
The Hout Bay original (there are now eight throughout South Africa) began life about 15 years ago “when Trinity was only just born”.
“She started asking, ‘mama, please can we go paint the clay?’ because it was a well-known activity for children in the Hout Bay valley, where I lived for 40 years.” There was no food offered at the original venue, whose owner Christine Irving had been a client of Tamsin’s dad.
“Working under mom’s umbrella in the publishing world, I would always do dad’s quotes and invoices and deal with his clients. So that’s where I got to know Chris [Irving]. Whenever she needed a new kitchen built, dad would be there. And my dad and Chris had a wonderful working relationship. So that was the connection back to my folks. They knew each other well in the past, when I was a kid.”
Mike Snyman ran his Snyman Construction and Kitchens company for 40 years.
“So that’s how Christine Irving and I met. And she said to me, ‘Tam, don’t you want to just come and introduce some food to the offering at the Clay Café?’ And that’s how my involvement has been over the years where, as a food consultant, she called me in to start growing a delicious easy-eating café style menu.”
Back in Hout Bay, that was down the road from home. “So I was always around the corner, and I’ve always been a food consultant in her space and helped her take it from more than just a pottery painting space to obviously having a captured market. You’re sitting for three hours painting, so why not feed them delicious food?
“I officially came on board about eight years ago.”
When Covid struck, Tamsin and Christine Irving were part of a massive scheme to feed local people during the pandemic crisis. More recently, Christine knew that Tam was looking for something in the wake of the pandemic.
“So you know how life’s journey goes in a million directions? About a year ago, the Clay Café had been looking for a venue in the Cape Winelands. They’d been searching for about five years to find the perfect location, knowing that there was a market because we get so many Winelands customers coming to the Hout Bay base, and they’ve been begging Chris for years to please open something up this side.
“Then eventually we found this beautiful manor house in Paarl on this wine farm called Groot Parys. And Chris said to me, ‘Tam, I’d love you to just take a drive with me to Paarl. I think I might have found a perfect property for a Clay Café, Winelands’.
“And I just hopped in the car, took the drive up for the day, and it was absolutely magnificent. And I just said to her: absolutely, I think you should definitely take it. I was not thinking of any involvement whatsoever. I’ve got my own businesses, and I had no thoughts of being involved.” [Tam runs her plant-based creative business, which she started “because I was bored”.]
“And next-door to this beautiful, big manor house, there’s a little old school and the landlord, when they were negotiating the lease, said, ‘We’ve got this little building on the side. Would you like me to include it in the lease? Or would you be interested in taking it over?’”
Serendipity struck again. “And Chris called me that night and said, ‘Tamsin, there’s a little beautiful old building alongside. I think we need a food deli alongside the café. How about curating a deli?’ She knew that I’ve always had a bit of an obsession, or a dream to curate a hyper-local food space.
“I’d seen it when we came to see the Clay Café Paarl, and it’s a building that’s even more dear to my heart than the building I’m sitting in now, talking to you from an upstairs room. I said I would love to. So I was going to sublet the daily space from her, and then create this beautiful deli.
“And then I put my house on the market in Hout Bay, not thinking it would sell in 24 hours, which it did. It then left me in the middle of 2022, needing to find a new home. So Tam, in a midlife crisis – not that anything’s ever a crisis – needing to make a change, I decided… well, I’d been in Hout Bay for 40 years; Trinity was ready for a new school because she’s obviously moving towards high school. I thought: why don’t I look for a property to rent, and then come and be close to the deli and curate the deli space.
“So I did find a beautiful little cottage to rent in Franschhoek. So I signed the lease and I moved lock, stock and barrel to Franschhoek, after 40 years in Hout Bay. And then Chris just kind of did a little hijack and said, ‘Well, seeing as you’re wanting to open a deli, why don’t you help me open the Clay Café Paarl?’ So here I am, no half measures, opening both.”
Tamsin is a one-third partner in the Clay Café in Paarl, with Christine and her son Mike, who own the Clay Café group. This marks the first time they have allowed a third partner.
“I was quite honoured that they’ve trusted me to run with this baby and, two or three days after opening, I got a call from both of them saying, ‘Tam, I think we’ve made the best decision of our life bringing you on board, and we think that Paarl’s gonna be our flagship, there’s absolutely no doubt.’
Dreaming a little bigger
“I’ve only ever worked for mom and myself. So I’ve only ever been self-employed. Having partners is a new navigating space for me. And I’m enjoying that space, but also it’s quite lovely to have the backing. We’ve all put in equally to get this baby off the ground, and it’s lovely to be able to dream a little bigger.”
This is a single mom speaking, a mother and wife, now widow, who, after enduring her mother and then father’s deaths, then facing the slow demise of her husband, was herself struck by breast cancer.
“Mom was diagnosed with stomach cancer 12 years ago. I kept it super quiet because mom was in the industry, and it was stomach cancer-related. You know, things have moved on from there and then dad passed away so soon, four months after mom. And that was a heart-related issue. And then about a year after both my mom and dad died, my late husband, Chris, was diagnosed with cancer. And that was stage four, lung, colon and brain. So that really was a radical journey for me. And that’s when Trinity was two. And he managed to make it a couple of years, not a couple of months, which was his prognosis.
“I did everything. I smuggled stuff into the hospitals to feed him food that wasn’t necessarily what you would normally feed a patient in the hospital, because I was consulting with nutritionists and dietitians all over the country, trying to get the best possible nutrients into Chris to help him alkalise the effects of the toxicity of chemo and radiation.
“So I started learning quite a few things that I didn’t realise would become such a fundamental part of my future, and then once the dust had settled, not that it ever does, of the death of three hugely important people in my life, I was about to jump on a plane in 2019 to go to Monaco for the Chefs World Summit.
“I went for an annual mammogram and she picked up something on the scan and said to me, you need a biopsy immediately. And I said, absolutely not! There’s definitely not gonna be anything wrong. I’ve had my fill of cancer. So I’m gonna hop on the plane and go all around Europe and do my thing, you know?
“That’s what I do. And she said to me, okay, well, promise me today that when you get back, you will have this biopsy. And of course I said, sure. I didn’t even give it two thoughts until I got back, and had the mammogram and within a couple of hours I had the diagnosis of breast cancer. So yeah, and then we went into lockdown…
Radical surgery and radiation
“I had radical surgery and I had radiation, and I checked myself into a wellness clinic in Somerset West for three months and that’s where I honed my skills in working with their dietitians who are all plant-based because they believe it is very much the future. I worked with them right until just before lockdown and said to them, “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to my old life of gluttony, eating all over the world and doing restaurant reviewing. And they winked at me and said, “No, but you’re not going to go back to that crazy life because it hasn’t served you and your body. And I was like, ‘Funny, ha ha. That’s what pays the bills. I’ve got to stick to my day job.’”
Once lockdown struck, she devoured information about wellness and nutrition. “I had the time to delve deeper into personal wellness through nutrition and keeping dread disease at bay. So that’s when I birthed my plant-based creative business because I was bored. That was three years ago.
“I have regular bloodwork. My diet is completely plant-based, and the other 20% is allowing myself to actually live life. And I believe that is the way it works on human beings. I believe in balance.
‘The breast cancer is gone’
“The breast cancer is completely gone. Yes, completely gone. I’m okay and I will have my regular annual checkups.”
For the menu at Clay Café Paarl, she investigated what the best sellers were at their other cafés. “You’re sitting at a table and you’re painting a teapot or a beautiful vase or a dinosaur or a unicorn. So you’ve got one hand for paint, you need a glass of wine if you’re a mom, or a gin and tonic, and the kids are having a milkshake. So you need to have very easy-eating food. So I’ve taken all their best sellers, brought them here. And around that I’ve curated more of a Cape Winelands offering so that it’s localised. I’ve knocked off things that I just don’t agree with fundamentally.
“I’ve put in things like charcuterie boards, using Neil Jewell, who’s up the road, because I think he’s the finest charcuterie master in the Western Cape. So we’re celebrating his talent on a beautiful big board, doing lovely local cheeses. But this type of market is here to quaff a bottle of wine late afternoon. They’re not necessarily wanting a toasted chicken mayonnaise sandwich or a pizza – even though we do incredible pizzas – because that’s easy to eat while you’re painting.
“I have introduced lots of plant-based and vegan menu options where one is able to switch out or just turn the menu around, so it’s definitely by far the most progressive plant-based menu in the entire Clay Café group.” She also carries her own plant-based products and they will be in the deli, when it opens later in 2023.
Looming in the background
Looming in the deep background of the contemporary Snyman clan is Lynette Barling, a great character of Cape Town of the seventies and beyond. She was gran to Tamsin and sister Courtney, a playwright and dress designer, who was involved in the theatre and would swan in to our newspaper offices in her voluminous self-designed kaftans with a headband swirled around her long, piled hair.
But she was a lousy cook. The Snyman family have a long lineage of St Cyprian’s old girls, including her grandmother Lynette, and mom Lannice, whose funeral was held in a school hall.
“I remember growing up in her (Barling’s) triple-storey mansion in Fish Hoek, when she was curating and celebrating the annual Mardi Gras. She was one of the most creative, crazy humans I’ve ever known. She had three daughters, my mom was the middle. The older sisters passed away, but the younger, Vanessa, lives in Johannesburg. That’s my aunty Vanessa, and I love her to bits.
A shocking cook
“Growing up in the Lynette Barling household in Fish Hoek as a little child, we ate the weirdest, craziest things. And my granny was a shocking cook. Lynette Barling was an absolutely terrible cook, and she would have these dinner parties where she would invite guests around at this long, 14-seater dining room table. She would open a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup to match her suit.”
She colour-coded her meals and caftans?
“She would warm it up and pour it into bowls, or get somebody to do that, and then she’d boil eggs. So she’d put a hard-boiled egg in the middle of the bowl, and then she wouldn’t give anybody a knife or fork. She would give them a spoon so they’d have to chase this hard-boiled egg around the soup. Like, chase the egg around with the spoon…
“My first food memory as a five-year-old was seeing these guests totally perplexed because they were trying to be polite in the company of my grandparents, but they didn’t know what the hell to do. But it was a little bit of a joke because my granny couldn’t cook.
“She would just greet people at the front door in her caftans, and she would get the Malawian housekeepers to do the cooking: ‘Just go cook some chickens’.
“I still have her homemade dresses and her homemade carousels in my garage, and I still hang them up on New Year’s Eve, and we celebrate my gran because she was a drama queen but a wonderful playwright, and had an amazing life.
“Courtney and I were thrown onto the stage as young kids and trekked around on weekends to old age homes to perform, you know, My Boy Lollipop. And I had all the headdresses made of feathers, and I’d have all the dresses made.”
Did Lannice perform as well? “Mom?! No. She was busy, furiously. That’s why we were with gran at weekends. Mom was, like me, a proper workaholic.”
The family spirit is as strong as ever in the generation now residing in Franschhoek, and stirring the food scene in Paarl. Lannice, there is no doubt, would be proud at how Tamsin Snyman has coped with massive odds and soared out of the other side like a Phoenix finding its wings.
I had to ask: “If, in a dream, Lannice appeared and said, ‘And this? You promised me!’… what would you say to her?” Emotion was audible in Tamsin’s reply.
“Well, that’s a tricky one, it’s an emotional one as well and I would say, ‘I can do it.’ And I think it’s because I’ve always worked in her shadow and I’ve tried to fill very big shoes.
“It’s my first very brave moment of saying, ‘Actually, Mom, I need to be me. I need to do something for me and not be guided by so many because I have been guided through my many years of tragedy of what I’ve lost.
“I’ve been so supported, and people are just so good with wanting to protect me. That is very much what my mom did. She wanted to protect me and I don’t really want to be protected. I don’t believe I’m living if I’m fully protected by everybody. So I’m feeling it’s a little bit of a rebellious side of me.
“And I’ve never been a rebel. I’ve always been super-cautious. And I’m just so grateful that I’ve found the balls to do this.”
Lannice Snyman, daughter of Lynette Barling, could only be impressed by the daughter and granddaughter’s resolute reply. DM/TGIFood