Groceries and home cooking are in Emma Barbieri’s blood
Emma Ackerman Barbieri is a scion of the Ackerman retailing family but a food force to be reckoned with in her own right.
It is only the second time Emma Barbieri has made this chocolate pear cake so she’s had to cast her mind back to how she came up with it in the first place. “I have a habit of making things up as I go,” she says.
The cake made its debut at a Pick n Pay board meeting lunch. The retail chain founded by her grandfather, the late Raymond Ackerman, is the second largest in South Africa. As Emma was setting everything up, the chocolate sauce she had made to go with the cake splattered all over the back wall of the boardroom.
This time there’s no sauce, which is just as well. The average boardroom wall could probably do with a splash or two of liquid chocolate. The picture-perfect Nancy Meyers-style kitchen at home where Emma is setting things up this time, not so much.
“Richard (former Pick n Pay chief executive Richard Brasher) very kindly offered for me to cook for the company. My dad had said, Emma’s started catering, and he had said, why don’t we get her to cater? So it was very kind of Richard. I mean, I was a start-up. I had a few loyal people who used me a lot for cocktail parties and dinners. I did twenty-firsts and I did a wedding.”
Emma’s dad is Pick n Pay chairman, Gareth Ackerman, who is the eldest of Pick n Pay founder Raymond and Wendy Ackerman’s four children.
“Every now and then, Joy (Joy Trout, PA to current CEO Pieter Boone) will send me a message and say, let’s have beef this time. But, literally, it’s just as vague as ‘let’s have beef’. They’re trusting, so I can just do what I want. I typically do a DIY sort of spread to cater for all the dietaries: fish, meat, chicken and salads to make your own, or have a bit of this and a bit of that. There’s always a cheese board and a pudding. Just because it’s in a boardroom doesn’t mean it needs to be a corporate meal. It’ll be the same sort of love and passion that goes into it.”
Emma, 35, is the middle child of three. Both of her brothers “know how to cook and can cook quite well”. Their grandmother on their mother’s side, Rosalie, is “a very good cook” while their other grandmother, Wendy, is “not the best cook in the world but she makes the best chicken soup in the world. But that’s about it that she can make, I joke with her.” Emma uses Wendy’s recipe for chicken soup and her great grandmother’s recipe for matzo balls and combines them.
“On Saturday mornings, sometimes my dad would take us with him into the office and then we’d go do store visits and it was always the highlight because he’d buy us a sausage roll and my mum wouldn’t let us have sausage rolls.”
When she wasn’t on store visits, childhood weekends were spent helping her mom, Mandy, at the kitchen counter with the preparation of “delicious, simple, homestyle” family meals.
One of Emma’s early sous-chef forays for her mom was mixing the eggs for scrambling. “I think when I was about eight, I was making the scrambled eggs for Sunday breakfast with the family. So I’ve loved cooking always.”
Now Emma’s elder daughter helps out, choosing the flour as her prized ingredient — or “powder”, as she calls it — as much going on her body as in the baking.
The stand mixer on Emma’s kitchen counter has been droning on for an inordinately long time — a kitchen aid that is certainly no friend to the interview recording device. “So that’s one of the biggest mistakes people make when they mix butter and sugar. You need to beat it until light and fluffy and doubled in size and it really makes a big difference to your cake.
“Often recipes will say ‘cream your butter and sugar’ and then people just sort of mix it till it’s mixed together. But ideally what you should be doing is actually mixing until you can’t even feel the sugar grains in it any more. In South Africa, our sugar is much coarser than it is in France, so it’s very difficult to get that texture. And then the other thing is when you’re adding your eggs in, you have to put the eggs in one at a time and beat it, and that really, really helps with the texture of your cake.”
During Emma’s undergraduate degree studies at Stellenbosch University, politics, history and international relations didn’t quite capture her imagination to the same extent as catering. So during exam time, instead of studying, she’d be whipping up frozen meals and selling them. “I called myself ‘Hungry Maties’. I would make tubs of soup and lasagnas, pasta bakes. I had a lot of farmer friends and they would tell their mums and their mums would phone me and say, get my son 10 meals!”
Not wanting to do another multi-year academic programme, such as the three-year qualification offered at local cookery school Silwood, she enrolled simultaneously in the basic, intermediate and superior courses in cuisine and patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. “I was lucky enough that my father helped me do that, so I did the full thing. They call it the Grand Diplôme.”
During the first class, she and her classmates only chopped vegetables. In fact, they weren’t allowed to use any sort of electrical equipment until the last two months of the course: all in the pursuit of understanding how the food is supposed to look and feel.
“So that’s one of the things you learn about the texture of the butter and the sugar,” she notes. Certainly knowing how to do things by hand comes in useful during South Africa’s frequent and ongoing power cuts.
Her first kitchen job in London after graduating was at famed celebrity magnet The Ivy, where she worked in the pastry team.
“I wasn’t there for very long, stupidly. There was an opportunity that came up to go and do an internship at this cake company called Peggy Porschen. It’s a very famous cake shop; I think they did Princess Catherine’s wedding cake.
“So this internship position came up and I applied for it and basically I got the wrong end of the stick. I thought I’d got it, so I left the job at The Ivy and actually I didn’t get it, so then I was out of a job and out of the internship. But because I’d had The Ivy on my CV, I was able to get another job and I worked at this really cool Italian restaurant called Zucca. Because it was a smaller kitchen, there was a lot more responsibility. When you’re commis chef, you’re at the bottom of the pile in those big restaurants so you don’t do much. But, at Zucca, I was able to do a bit of everything so I learned a lot there.”
After that, she went to a start-up Mexican-fusion eatery called Peyote, run by an Israeli head chef and her Slovakian husband sous-chef.
“They had a lot of trust in me and I never understood how, why. I went from being at a very basic entry level to helping run the kitchen, and run the pass, in a very short space of time. So I learned a lot about the runnings of kitchens.”
Following that was a stint as a pastry sous-chef at one of Jamie Oliver’s premium restaurants, Barbecoa, where she also helped out on the magazines and a couple of the books.
“It was also a lovely place to work but at that stage I was absolutely shattered. I would open the kitchen and basically close the kitchen if I was on a double shift, and it was mostly double shifts. And then it was an hour on the bus home. So I was just broken; I was so exhausted.”
Feeling “done” with restaurants, she enlisted to cook during peak week ski seasons in Switzerland and in a castle in Scotland “in the middle of nowhere”.
The latter job was for a family in their summer home, where she worked alongside a South African friend she had met at Le Cordon Bleu. During one of her stints in Switzerland, she worked with her now husband: she as chalet chef, he as chalet manager.
In London, she did dinner parties for clients who wanted multi-course meals. “It was very difficult because I didn’t have a car, so I had to prep everything in my kitchen and at that stage my kitchen was literally this size,” she says, spanning her arms just wider than the length of her Smeg oven.
“In order to open the fridge, I had to close the door. So I was cooking for 30 people in this tiny little kitchen and then I would cart it all off in a taxi or in an Uber to the function and then pack it all up and Uber home.”
When she and her Italian husband, Domenico Barbieri, got engaged and subsequently settled in Cape Town, she started catering parties under the moniker of Emma’s Dillemma (spelt with two l’s like the herb dill).
“But with the girls it’s so difficult, so now I’m trying to push into the food styling/social media side of it. It’s just because the hours are better.” To that end, she’s been assisting a food stylist friend on shoots to “learn the ropes” and doing some content creation for social media.
Since Dom, as she calls him, grew up helping out in the kitchen too, he and Emma share cooking duties at home.
“He forbade me from cooking pasta. I once overcooked the pasta and it was like the world had come to an end.”
She relays another anecdote of a cooking fail, this time about one of their daughters: “The other day she says to me: ‘mum, I really want tomato soup’. So I made her roasted tomatoes and olive oil and basil and I stuck a carrot in there. ‘No, mum. Don’t like this one. I want the one in the packet’. All she likes is Pick n Pay packet tomato soup.”
Ninety-eight per cent of the time, Emma says, she shops at Pick n Pay. “I will only go to…” she says, pausing, “…the W shop — can’t even say it in our house — if I’m absolutely desperate. I’ve never in my life bought anything from Checkers or stepped into a Checkers. I walked into the Checkers at the (Constantia) Emporium for the first time the other day because there’s a Kauai in there, and I stopped to get a smoothie for my daughter. My card was declined and I thought, they’re watching me!”
She has relayed to her father the items she feels are missing from the stores, such as convenience meals for kids.
“My point is I get upset when I can buy things at other shops and why is it not at Pick n Pay? So I’ll go and do some secret shopping and I’ll take photos and I’ll send them to my dad: look, they’ve got it here.”
Despite her many culinary accomplishments, having a South African business icon for a grandfather and belonging to a family that’s become a household name in the country can be a double-edged sword.
“I was definitely aware of it,” she says of Raymond Ackerman’s reputation while she was growing up. “And people would always say, oh my gosh, do you know who that is? That’s Emma Ackerman, Raymond Ackerman’s granddaughter.” And even still today, which I find very annoying.
“I mean, yes, it’s amazing having the name because it can get you places but also people, the minute they hear, you can see it, people’s perceptions. The way they treat you, the way they talk to you changes, and I find it very, very frustrating.”
She credits Raymond and Wendy for cultivating an ethos of family togetherness. Before Raymond died, she would spend much of their weekend visits asking him questions, describing him as “a fountain of knowledge and information”. One of the things he, in turn, asked her was whether young people were staying or going. He was “so passionate about standing strong because he fought so hard in apartheid. When everyone was leaving he was, like, no, we are staying, we believe in our country.”
Before Emma and Dom decided to set up home in South Africa, not wanting to stay in London any more and unsure whether to relocate to Italy, she had suggested they give it five years in Cape Town and then reassess. For him, as a wine commercial operations manager at Pick n Pay, the Western Cape’s highly developed wine industry is one draw. For her, as a professional chef and avid home cook, it’s the availability of glorious local produce.
As an example, she mentions one of her farmer friends from Stellenbosch experimenting with recently award-winning new and different varieties of stone fruit that have never before been seen in South Africa.
“You look at the economy in the UK. In America and Europe, there are big issues. We have big issues but I think the life you live here makes up for the issues.”
To wrap up this story on a sweet note, Emma shared with us her recipe for that cake she was making while we chatted…
Pear & Almond Chocolate Cake
120 g butter
120 g castor sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
200 g self-raising flour
100 g ground almonds
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
20 ml milk
2 pears, peeled and sliced
Grease and line a loaf tin with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180℃.
In an electric mixer or with a whisk, beat the sugar, butter and vanilla together until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until well incorporated before adding the next one.
Sieve the cocoa, flour and almonds together; then add into the egg and butter mixture, with the milk. Beat slowly until it just comes together.
Pour into the lined baking tin and smooth the surface, stick the sliced pears in all the way along the length of the cake.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean when poked and pulled out.
Allow to cool before removing from the tin and serve with ice cream, cream or yoghurt and some chocolate sauce. DM
A longer version of this story appeared on Substack shortly before Raymond Ackerman died on September 6. Comments Emma made about her grandfather in that story have been edited here to reflect that.