DURBAN’S BEST-KEPT SECRET
The Chairman strikes a culinary chord with café CC
No signage, no marketing hype, positioned among dereliction and decay, the success and badass awesomeness of The Chairman is a tribute to visionary founder-creator Ndabo Langa. And the eccentricities of Durban.
The Chairman has something of a cult following. Not to invoke weird religious connotations — and by design (not chance, given an architect is at the helm) a number of pews from old churches have found their way inside — let’s make that “classic cult”. As in The Chairman being significant and influential, specifically among a kind-of interesting, sophisticated, eclectic, devoted, cosmopolitan, consequential fan base.
To illustrate my point, when a post popped up on Instagram last month showing a basic black and white image featuring the “Hot Beverages” corner of a menu along with an announcement that The CC, the new Chairman café, would soon open, the post pretty quickly garnered 1,383 “likes” and 96 comments. The CC is the venue’s new eatery, which has an all-day menu curated to match the jazz bar’s singular late-night vibe.
Let me share this one, which in a nutshell captures something of an essence of the jazz bar. Opened in 2014, it was shuttered by Covid, and is now re-emerging, reimagined: “Disneyland for the grown, mature, sexy, the gifted, the unpretentious, the lovers, the fighters, the ones that change the world, the dreamers who see the invisible and birth the impossible.”
We will get to the food.
But first, for those who don’t know The Chairman, a CliffsNotes introduction.
Meet Ndabo Langa, the visionary founder-creator. Award-winning architect, unpretentious urban regeneration champion, promotor of The Arts, Renaissance man. Recycler, creative repurposer and collector of objets d’art and things that speak to him.
From the Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier chairs, the art on the walls and points of interest everywhere you look, what you see at The Chairman, The CC — the entire place with all its nooks and crannies, creative and working spaces — reflects his taste and come from “a bit of an obsession” that started about 20 years ago, collecting “things I see that I love”.
His vision, since he set up DGIT Architects, his multidisciplinary design firm, in this grungy part of town — DGIT being the acronym for Diverse Group of Independent Thinkers — has been to stimulate the transformation of this wedge of Durban’s Point Precinct where the description “urban decay” is an understatement.
Langa believes thoughtfully designed buildings can make a statement and instil community pride. He also believes culture can play a big part in stimulating and developing communities and “unlocking potential”. Urban regeneration is his mission.
“The model for DGIT is to activate spaces like these. We want to be seen as at the forefront of rejuvenation; walking the talk. That is the passion driving and sustaining what we do.”
South Africa’s first steam train track, dating back to 1860, is buried beneath the asphalt along the section of Mahatma Gandhi Road out front. “Our fear is that the history of this precinct will get lost. We in South Africa are pioneers. This heritage is something we need to flaunt. There are so many historic treasures down here,” Langa points out.
The Chairman has also been a key rekindler of the city’s music scene. “Keeping artists here who would otherwise have left for greener pastures.” Not to forget the many rest of SA and international musicians drawn to Durban by the existence of The Chairman.
The jazz bar’s vibe and late-night music scene, bands from 11pm, became a magnet from the get-go for well-heeled locals and tourists, many of them people one would not have imagined venturing to what was, back in 2014, this dodgy no-man’s-land part of Durban. Which in fact has better security than almost any other part of the city. More so now that the new Nelson Mandela Cruise Terminal has opened just down the drag.
If not your planned destination, you can drive right on past The Chairman, which has no sign — never has had — to tell you it’s there. Just last week, after I told a friend who has never been there that I was writing this story, he said he drove down Mahatma Gandhi, formerly Point Road, looking for it in the vicinity of what, in the bad old days, was an infamous place called Smuggler’s Inn where seamen and exotic dancers hung out and where one could go on Friday lunchtime for steak, egg and strips.
Now he might go any lunchtime, bar Monday when they are closed, and have his tastebuds seduced by, if he’s not too hungry, their version of a Benedict: a perfectly steamed and toasted dombolo bread bun topped with mfino, as in sautéed Swiss chard with a hint of fresh chilli, cream cheese, Parmigiano and a perfectly poached egg. Or The CC burger, which has a venison patty, Cheddar, red onion, gherkin and toasted tomato between light and crispy flatbread.
If he were medium-hungry he might choose the pear and gorgonzola pizza, made with mozzarella, feta, Parmigiano and walnuts. Or if hungrier or sharing, the shisanyama pizza, which has a chakalaka base, beef brisket, spicy lamb sausage and Parmigiano.
Right in the centre of the café is a bar and he might ask maestro mixologist Mandla Gumede to shake him up a gin espresso, which has orange juice and a dash of sugar syrup and lots of ice. I think I could be mellow and happy every day if I were to start with one of these, it dawns on me when I sample what I’ve photographed and can’t stop drinking it.
I challenge anyone to find anything clichéd, predictable — or not “real food” — on the CC menu. I, in turn, had not challenged my friend to find The Chairman, this place that, going back several years, set a new benchmark in Durban all the way from sophistication and innovation to service and diversity of clientele.
“I never saw it,” he lamented. Missed it among the neighbourhood grunge, sandwiched as the place is (including its soon-to-open art gallery) between the historic once-grand decaying Seaman’s Institute eyesore of abandonment on one side and a pile of rubble with barely a facade on the other.
“The model for DGIT,” says Langa, “is to activate spaces like these; to stimulate an area. We want to be seen as at the forefront of rejuvenation.”
Bandile Mbuli is Langa’s partner, both “romantic” and in the business. While both are involved in the food and Langa is often in the kitchen, talking with the team, testing and tasting, it is Mbuli who curates the menu, inspired by recipes from both of their families. And who is there when Langa is in Cape Town every other week? He built the new Pixley Ka Seme hospital at Bridge City, KwaMashu. Now he’s building, “almost like a twin”, a similar hospital in Manenberg.
Mbuli, warm, friendly, down-to-earth and with a wonderfully romantic story to tell about how she and Langa finally connected after a fleeting meeting at The Chairman years before.
“In 2014, I was here for the Durban Film Festival and kind of found this hole in the wall, this world behind the ruins.” A couple of years later while shooting a movie at the Wild Coast she and a friend borrowed a vehicle and drove to Durban after an 18-hour workday “just so we could go to The Chairman. When we got here Madala Kunene was playing so we felt the risk of coming all the way had paid off. And then we had the most beautiful conversation with a gentleman who it turned out was the owner. He told us about his dreams and his expansion. And that was the last time we spoke…”
Until the story that unfolded over the past few months. Involving a young trumpet player, Ndabo Zulu, Mbuli’s former Johannesburg neighbour; a conversation Mbuli had about The Chairman with Zulu; this followed by a message relayed to her by Zulu that Langa would “pay cows” for her. Some twists and turns. Then two people from different cities, each living their own full lives, finally meeting in the lobby of a hotel in Durban, where Mbuli had come for a work project.
When, “the moment I saw him, my world shifted and I think the same kind of happened for him and I spent the rest of the night trying to remind myself to be cautious. We ended up waist-deep in the sea just talking for an hour. There was this massive full moon. And that was it. He was in my life. Literally a month later, I moved down to Durban. It was a beautiful experience.”
Mbuli comes from a theatre background. “I just did costume design for a series called King Shaka for CBS that’s not out yet. I used to do art direction, commercials, styling.”
During the Covid lockdown, she opened a kitchen in Maboneng, “channelling” her grandmother. “I really love food. It’s a passion of mine.”
It was an intuitive kitchen, she says. Alone in the space, she had the opportunity to play around, come up with dishes. “I never really did get to spend time with my gran, who was a domestic worker. I only knew about her passion for food and cooking from stories my mother told me. The lockdown cooking experience made me feel like I was having conversations with her; brought me closer to her.”
Mbuli would cook, let people know “what” via WhatsApp, and they would order…
When things opened up, she and her sister — “she’s an actress, Bonnie Mbuli” — cooked together and did some pop-ups. “We had a beautiful lemon and lavender roasted chicken, a great pork belly dish, a burger with a really beautiful purple cucumber, cabbage and ginger slaw of sorts where the burger bun was made with dombolo as opposed to a brioche bun.”
With The CC, same as with The Chairman, says Langa, “What we want when people walk through our doors is to have it feel like you’re stepping into somebody’s home. Someone who has been gracious enough to open their doors and invite you in. Where, inside, everyone around you is a friend or someone you don’t mind rubbing shoulders with. It’s about building community, creating a sense of belonging that is never intimidating.”
The food, the menu, he says, had to talk to this too.
“Something you would actually find at home. But more than that, because what we have here is a creative space where everything you see, we’ve thought through and it is well considered, the food needed to say the same thing.”
Conceptually, says Langa, “what you’re basically surrounded with here, what you see, are simple materials and a lot of repurposing of these materials.” Bar stools converted to tables, for instance. Drawers to shelves. Old windows to screens. Shutter board used for the cool and clean coffee bar facade.
I look up and see imbuia doors. They could have come directly off my mother’s old bedroom suite wardrobe. They are used as a decorative feature high on the wall.
“With the food, similar concept. Basically, for example, for our breakfast we have a section of our menu that is food served on dombolo. We’ve been exploring, establishing, creating the right dumpling so our bread is basically a dumpling.”
“Steamed bread like your grandmother used to make,” Mbuli says.
“So,” she adds, “like the materials of the space, the food is also reimagined. Nobody really thinks of toasting a dumpling and then presenting it as your eggs Benedict, for example.
“And the mfino also is something that your grandma used to make. But it’s not just Swiss chard or baby spinach. It’s wilted, it’s got tomato in it, it’s got onion in it…”
“It’s got peppers in it,” adds Langa, who insists I try it, “and let the egg run through the mfino and into the dombolo.” Which I do, and it is truly one of the most moreish, textured, sensual and flavourful food experiences I’ve had in ages.
“What we’re doing with the food isn’t how it’s generally presented,” says Mbuli. True. “So the concept aesthetically may be familiar.” But the taste, the experience, comes as a surprise.
“Anyone who decides to be here (Langa is talking about the physical location) knows they have to do something a little differently compared to how they would do it somewhere else. So it creates unique opportunities. The challenges are way different to someone who is in Durban North or Kloof or Morningside let alone Umhlanga.”
The CC had been scheduled to open for quite some time. I look back through my Instagram posts and see it was a year ago that Ndabo invited me to the third of three pizza tastings. He had been in the kitchen experimenting with dough and creating “pizzas for the Durban palate”. The small tasting group reflected Durban’s diversity.
The pizza dough and toppings have changed and evolved since then, he says. Much as The Chairman has and what he is now calling “the campus”. In part transitioning “from what I call the Dark Ages to what I am calling The Renaissance as letting in the light in.”
No outside signage? “Our strategy is that we’ll be discovered versus creating hype. There is beauty in being discovered because people tend to be more attracted to things they discover and to value and cherish them more. And they tell other people.”
And come to think of it, I remember exactly who it was who told me about The Chairman, way back, when I was still living in California and in Durban for a visit. Does that define one as a Durbanite? More hype, less interest? Maybe so.
“There’s power in word-of-mouth,” says Langa. And then he gets the twinkly-eye look, which comes when something amuses him and you hear the throaty giggle. “But there’s that downside, you know. The guy who says, don’t tell those ones because I don’t want to see them at my place.”
“Do you know what our most popular dish was pre-Covid?” Ndabo asks.
“It was a goat stew and I think that laid the foundation for our menu. Our menu back then was quite minimal, outside of the pizzas. To put goat meat on it was quite daring. In many African traditions, you have goat when it’s ceremonial. So people tend to shy away from eating goat at other times. We call it ‘a telephone’ because it’s associated with talking to the ancestors.
“There was some resistance initially. Everyone was saying, I don’t want to eat this because it’s against the culture and tradition. But that wasn’t really a well-informed decision and people came to see this and then it became our most popular dish.”
The experience with goat laid the foundation. It gave them the daring, he says, that’s transferred into a lot of what is on the menu. Many things “with a twist”.
“And we’ve got — what do you call a Zulu chicken, a real farm chicken, in English?
“Hardbody chickens,” she says. They come from a supplier at the Victoria Street Market who specialises in goats and chickens.
“So there’s chicken loaf. And being in the coastal part of KZN, we have redfish. Red snapper.”
And because Langa is inspired by and has a fascination with Japan, there are honey-glazed Japanese sake-soaked drumsticks on the menu served with Japanese cucumber salad. And bangers and mash “that brings in not so much a sausage but like the typical wors one would find at a shisanyama,” served with mash that is a recipe from Mbuli’s home.
And that affogato for dessert? “Italian cooking is very close to African cooking, actually, when you look at the palate,” she says. “So we borrow from many places, which is also like coming into a friend’s home.”
All the while we talk, on both days I am there, it is to a background of sax, of trumpet, the strains of jazz. A mood carried back home with me when I listen to recorded parts of the conversation.
“Food is not just sustenance, it is a love story on a plate.” I see this quote on the Facebook page of Aslina wines winemaker Ntsiki Biyela when I drop into Facebook while writing this piece. It seems the perfect quote, the perfect note, for this story. The food, the vibe, the people, The Chairman, The CC. So I ask her if I can use it. DM
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