Maverick Life

SEMIGRATION DIARIES

The Karoo kitchen — where humble comfort food is deliciously king

The Karoo kitchen — where humble comfort food is deliciously king
Roosterkoek — griddle-baked bread — has become a staple in platteland eateries. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Ever dreamt of opening a restaurant in a dorp? Ever wondered why you waited so long for your food at a platteland eatery? Read on.

The successful country restaurateur deserves a big round of applause, followed perhaps by a standing ovation; maybe a medal or two for good measure.

They are a multi-tasking master, who often has to deal with:

  • Fickle clients;
  • Seasonal holidaymakers who say they want to chill out but expect the latest, trendiest food delivered at top speed;
  • Locals who crave novelty but by the third month are delivering amateur advice and by the fourth month have moved on to the next new thing;
  • Unpredictable staff and the fact that the best ones generally leave for the big city;
  • Erratic access to fresh ingredients, or suppliers who only come once there is a full load for your area;
  • Local supermarkets that don’t stock the things you need, or do so at high prices;
  • The freeze on income over winter;
  • Clients who don’t put a value on your time and expertise;
  • Copycat competitors;
  • The blessings and curses of TripAdvisor and other social media;
  • The need for constant marketing and ongoing innovation; and
  • Power failures and water cut-offs at inopportune moments.

Most of all, cooking for a living in the platteland demands the ability to cope with manic amounts of work at times, interspersed with zero customers and stupefying boredom at others.

Potbrood, Karoo

Potbrood (or bread baked in an outside oven) is a rare and irresistible treat in the Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Comfort food is king

Chef Camilla Comins and writer and photographer Russel Wasserfall have spent a long time in the food industry, published cookbooks and run restaurants in the Western Cape Winelands and for a few vivid years, in Prince Albert.

Here are some of their tips.

“It’s not all Jamie Oliver fame and glory. It’s very hard work, often involving burns, sore feet, aching backs and poor returns on investments of energy and capital.

“The trick is to keep the menu small and manageable. Telephone book menus are crippling to prepare and hold stock for. If you source locally and seasonally, you make friends in the town and manage food waste, which is one of the biggest killers in the restaurant game.

Russel Wasserfall says comfort food is king.

If you want to become a country chef, Russel Wasserfall says comfort food is king. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Camilla Comins,

Camilla Comins, with long experience in the food industry, advises that aspiring country chefs develop good relationships with local suppliers and gear for seasonal produce. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“Copycatting is a real thing. People in small towns tend not to go out into the wider world for fresh insights and ideas. They pinch from nearby.

“You also need to know your customer. We moved to Prince Albert with a background in Stellenbosch restaurants. We understood seasonality of trade — or so we thought. But winter is hard-core at the edge of civilisation.

“People passing through are generally not looking for edgy, hip dining. If you’re lucky enough to have a trickle of foreign tourists, you can spruce up the offering, but they are fleeting customers. Give the people what they want. It’s simple: comfort food is king.

“Be aware that the reason many locals are living in the countryside is not because it’s quaint and beautiful — it’s because it’s cheaper. They seldom go out. They might do so for a special occasion like a partner’s birthday, but certainly not once a week.”

Study your prey

Simon Kerr has run restaurants in Curry’s Post in the Midlands, in Clarens, and most recently, The Phatt Chef Roadside Diner at the top of Oliviershoek Pass near Harrismith.

Here are a few of his trenchant observations about small towns in general, and running eateries in particular.

“Firstly, sitting watching a full tourist town buzzing over a long weekend does not mean it’s like this every day of the year. And just because you can braai and your wife can pour a decent G&T, it does not follow that you should be a professional restaurateur.

“If you’re thinking of moving to the platteland, don’t do it late one night in a restaurant you’ve fallen in love with, on a weekend away from Jo’burg — 16 Jagerbombs to the good! You will live to regret it once the hangover wears off.

“Rather spend time getting to know the locals over several months. Visit regularly and soon you’ll be taken for one yourself. It will ease your entry into the habitat.”

Simon Kerr, Karoo

Simon Kerr has owned and run restaurants in Curry’s Post, Clarens and Oliviershoek in the Drakensberg. For sanity and insight, country chefs need to take regular trips to cities, he says. (Photo: Chris Marais)

When it comes to running a restaurant in a small town:

“One needs to keep marketing, innovating and changing with the times. That’s why frequent trips to the big city are a necessity, not just to regain your sanity and sense of humour but to keep up with trends and to buy supplies you can’t source locally.

“Also, it helps you to study your ‘prey’ in its natural habitat so you can better learn to understand its foibles.”

Social media, used correctly, can be a huge boon in terms of marketing, he adds. But apps like TripAdvisor can be treacherous.

“Most closet critics don’t have the courage to complain to the restaurant owner’s face. Also, they like to be seen as sarcastic and critical when they actually can’t tell a dead fish from a soggy poppadom.”

The spaza shop that could 

Lizzy Snoek, who used to be a domestic worker in Port Elizabeth, travelled through the Karoo on holiday in 1997 and explored the village of Steytlerville, in the shadow of the Baviaans Mountains.

She decided to move here. Her employer (and catering mentor) wondered whether Lizzy would make it in the Karoo. But she had no fear.

“I will survive. I am a child of the dust,” she replied.

In fact, Lizzy had grown up at nearby Mount Stewart, which consisted of a railway station, a trading store and a church.

Restaurateur Lizzy Snoek

Restaurateur Lizzy Snoek of Steytlerville is a woman who knows how to make a plan under pressure. (Photo: Chris Marais)

In Steytlerville, Lizzy found a house and established a spaza shop at the side of the building. But she dreamed of opening a restaurant and feeding people. She increased the size of her house, furnished a section with tables and chairs, and with encouragement from the local tourism association, began catering for the odd party of drive-through guests, mostly foreigners.

Word of her cooking and bubbly personality spread. A Japanese overlanding company discovered Lizzy and started bringing busloads of clients. Travel bloggers were charmed, and publicised her efforts.

Lizzy’s scariest catering moment was on a very quiet day when she decided since there was nothing going on she’d have a friend over to help colour her hair. It was just when her head was irrevocably wrapped in plastic that she heard the slam of a door.

In marched 18 hungry people, apologising as they entered.

“Well, they didn’t leave here hungry,” says Lizzy proudly. She threw on a doek, got them going with hot roosterkoek, butter and jam, and just ad-libbed from there.

The man-alone step-out breakfast

Thinking on your feet is a national sport out here in the platteland.

Sometime during 1999, a certain guest came to stay in Smithfield in the Free State. He or she breakfasted at The Colony restaurant owned by Kelvin and Eileen Young who had moved from England to Johannesburg and then to Smithfield in 1998.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, the Youngs had run out of many breakfast ingredients that very morning, so they improvised.

Years later, with no warning, guest after guest began ordering the Smithfield omelette, not an item on their breakfast menu. The couple were absolutely baffled until a guest showed them their entry in the Lonely Planet South Africa.

Then Kelvin remembered that they had once made an open, grilled cheesy omelette with random ingredients, and on presenting it to the lone guest, he’d announced jokingly that this was the very special ‘Smithfield Omelette’.

Running out of food in a place with few shops is an ever-present risk. Erika and Frans de Klerk, originally of Fochville in Gauteng, were expecting a quiet day at their restaurant shop in their newly adopted village of Vosburg in the Northern Cape.

In fact, Frans was banking on it. They had run out of provisions, and Erika had gone to shop at their nearest ‘city’ of De Aar.

Also, Frans, a financial journalist and advisor, had a live interview scheduled with Radio Namaqualand at 8.45am.

So his heart sank when a very hungry tourist came in for breakfast and refused to settle for coffee and a few rusks. In desperation, Frans said the first thing that came into his head:

“Okay. I will make you a Man-Alone Step-Out breakfast. But only if you keep absolutely quiet and you make sure no one else comes through that door.”

So he made his guest toast and scrambled eggs with cheese and tomato sauce on the side.

“He kept his word. I could talk about cyber currencies on the radio without being disturbed.”

Homemade pies, Karoo

Homemade pies for sale are always popular if well made. Remember that in a small town, word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing. (Poto: Chris Marais)

Karoo lamb

In 1999, Daily Maverick’s Tony Jackman and Diane Cassere bought two houses in Sutherland, in part because the properties were so irresistibly cheap. At the time, they were both journalists in Cape Town.

In 2002, they went to live and work in England. On their return in 2006, they decided to turn one dwelling into a restaurant (called Perlman House after the original owner, a Jewish smous) and to live in the other.

Read in Daily Maverick: The Big Move to the Deep Karoo and what happens next

“City people assume everything is cheaper in small towns. Not so. In a place like Sutherland, everything green has to be brought in and bread has to baked. There are no delis, Woolies or even a Pick n Pay in a place like that. The nearest shopping mall was 270km away in Worcester.”

But Tony did love the quality of the lamb and mutton he sourced from the surrounding farms. One abiding memory of their time in Sutherland is writing the daily specials on a blackboard.

Daily Maverick food writer Tony Jackman with ‘The Foodie’s Wife’ Di Cassere

Daily Maverick food writer Tony Jackman with ‘The Foodie’s Wife’ Di Cassere, outside their home, guesthouse and occasional pop-up restaurant in Cradock in the Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“One day I had this eerie feeling I was being watched. I turned around, and there was this sheep truck and all the sheep were looking at me. I put down the chalk and couldn’t write another word until the truck pulled off again.”

Later, they relocated to Cradock and in mid-2017, Tony launched his first book, foodStuff. He and Di love to entertain and sometimes host an occasional pop-up restaurant in their home.

Nearly two decades on, Tony often thinks back to his days in that little kitchen in Sutherland.

“There were so many who loved our speciality Karoo lamb pies and shanks. There was a coterie of locals who became good friends and supported Perlman House again and again. Oh and the boules. I miss the endless rounds of boules in our mates’ backyard.”

He notes wryly that he’s become a much better cook in recent years than he was then, because of the five recipes a week he’s turned out for Daily Maverick’s Thank God It’s Food over the past five years.

“If only I’d had this repertoire in the Sutherland days.” DM

This is an extract from Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. For an insider’s view on semigration and small town life in South Africa, get Moving to the Platteland and Road Tripper Eastern Cape Karoo (illustrated in black and white) by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

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