TGIFOOD

A PERSONAL TRIBUTE

Honouring culinary legend Peter Veldsman — one of the greatest of the 44

Honouring culinary legend Peter Veldsman — one of the greatest of the 44
Legend and mentor: Peter Veldsman at Mynhardt Joubert’s Station Street Kitchen in Paarl, in 2017. (Photo: Ian du Toit | Collage: Tony Jackman)

Charlize Theron landed herself in hot water in 2022 with her rash comments about the Afrikaans language on an American podcast. But guess who had the last word…

Peter Veldsman, the doyen of Afrikaans food writers, mentor to generations, and noted restaurateur, was in my thoughts only on Monday evening, with no idea that it was his last night in this life. The next morning, I referred to him in a story I was writing, still unaware.

I had chatted about Veldsman to a chef I’d met on Monday evening. Around midday on Tuesday, I saw on Facebook that he had died. This is a small insight into how this legend of a man’s influence was so pervasive that his name came up as a matter of course.

I had been at Die Blou Nartjie in Calvinia, where chef Herman Fick had told me that in the 1990s he studied at Veldsman’s culinary school in Roodebloem Road, Woodstock, and we swapped a few anecdotes about Peter.

I had known Peter Veldsman since I was Editor of Top of the Times in The Cape Times in 1992. Journalists were flown up to a food event at the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City, and Peter was holding court that night. He was undeniably the doyen of the group, and of this class of gourmet in this country, the breed of journalists who write about food, both as an occupation and as a passion. 

It was a bit like meeting C Louis Leipoldt, a legend in our own time. At a certain point whenever food writers had gathered at an event they’d all been invited to, he (Veldsman, not Leipoldt, obviously) would stand up towards the end and make a speech, in that languid purr of a voice of his, and in that refined Afrikaans accent; an accent redolent of voorkamers filled with family heirlooms and the dominee popping in for tea. Not just any old speech, but one that was erudite, deeply informed, and laced with his charming but wry wit, a bit of a wink and a knowing smile, a half-cocked eyebrow. 

Once he and Johan Odendaal had opened Emily’s in Woodstock around about that time, we became regular customers and got to know Peter well. His own food was based in the formal sphere of continental cuisine, but he and Johan, who had been chef to a Scandi South African ambassador, created a cooking style at Emily’s that blended this with a kind of inventive African flair. It was all a bit camp, slightly outrageous, exactly what you would expect and hope for from Veldsman.

When democracy dawned, they started a cooking school on-site with the suitably over-the-top name of the Culinary Art Institute of Africa. It was here that chef Herman Fick from Calvinia studied back in the day, and I wish, right now, that I could tell Peter that Fick happens to cook the very finest lamb chops I have ever eaten in my life, and this is what I wrote about it this week.

Once the V&A Waterfront was well established, they relocated Emily’s to the Clock Tower district, a massive space, especially when compared with the small but charming confines of the Woodstock iteration. They ran for 10 years there, and we remained regular customers, even though a cavernous Waterfront space could never compete with the endearing eccentricities of the original. Then, to our great delight, they moved Emily’s to a site within walking distance of our home, on a corner of Kloof Street, Gardens, and the old appeal of the original Emily’s returned. 

I have not had a great deal of contact with Peter since he relocated to Barrydale, though we did exchange the odd email and, two years ago, I sent him an email inviting him to write for my food platform in Daily Maverick. He replied:

“How strange that you are looking for me at the same time as I was looking for you. I consider it an honour to be asked to write for you and the Daily Maverick. I am very tempted to say yes, but I am 80 years old… (redacted) … and can no longer write without a magnifying glass.”

We exchanged more emails and a day later he wrote, “The leaves are falling and in the early hours, before daybreak, sporadic bits of drizzle. A somewhat tired sun rises over the garden as if to warn me to prepare for a cold and wet winter.”

He added, apologetically: “I need time to complete the projects I am busy with. Tony, I am very hesitant. I think in Afrikaans … (redacted) … Let’s make a deal: I will send you at some future time a piece which you must rip apart. I shall then try to rewrite it and only if you feel that it is good enough will I agree to continue. The old Jewish proverb ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ applies.”

That was the end of that road, and I was never to have the honour of his words in my pages, though I deeply appreciated his generosity towards me in even considering it. 

Despite Peter Veldsman’s standing in our profession, he remained the courteous and modest man he insisted on being. 

The only time I saw him and spoke to him after that was at the Eat Out Awards function in Cape Town in November 2022. Peter was there, and we chatted, and later on he was called up to the stage to present an award. Memorably. 

It was around that time that Charlize Theron had attracted the ire of the entire Afrikaans-speaking nation (and that’s not only white people, by the way) when she was quoted as saying in an American podcast,  SmartLess, hosted by Sean Hayes, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, on the subject of Afrikaans:

“There’s about 44 people still speaking it. It’s definitely a dying language; it’s not a very helpful language.”

Oh dear. Not very helpful, Charlize. There are more than 44 Afrikaans speakers just in my street, in one small town. And even more in Peter’s neck of the woods in Barrydale.

So, I’m delighted to have an opportunity to air that graceless remark again. And Theron may not know this, but it was Peter Veldsman who had the last word.

In November 2022, Veldsman moves slowly to the microphone at the centre of a massive stage, and says, in his husky tones:

“Ek is een van die vier-en-veertig.”

I, and the 43 remaining Afrikaans speakers, will never forget you, Peter Veldsman, doyen of us all. DM

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