If you had asked me at age five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would immediately have replied “a Cookerman!” (shades of a superhero complex). Despite such a clear sense of vocation at so tender an age, I spent most of my youth doing my best to avoid it. It wasn’t until I turned thirty-three that I began working in a restaurant kitchen.
Savoy Cabbage was opened in August 1998 by two friends, Caroline Bagley and Janet Telian. Caroline had recently returned to South Africa from London, where she had immigrated as a young woman to escape the apartheid policies then in force. Back in the country to try to “do some good and make a difference,” as well as to follow her dream of owning a first-class restaurant, she teamed up with one of South Africa’s top chefs, Janet Telian. They brought in Frank Winter—front-of-the-house wunderkind, wine and whiskey buff, and all-around nice guy—to consult for six months, and we haven’t managed to get rid of him yet. I joined a year and a half later as sous chef because I desperately wanted to work for Janet. And who can blame me? Among other things, Janet put Savoy Cabbage’s famous Tomato Tart on the map.
A year later, Janet took a sabbatical to write the Savoy Cabbage Cookbook, leaving me to hold down the fort. I had to be very disciplined, especially since I had a wife and two children to consider. Nearly a decade later, I am still here.
Above: Awards decorate an old brick wall at Savoy Cabbage. Photograph by Caroline Bagley © 2005
The restaurant is located in Cape Town’s central business district in one of the oldest surviving blocks of buildings that have, at various times, been residential accommodation, a boarding house, warehousing, and even slave quarters. Parts of our building date back to 1771. To turn it into a restaurant, the original brickwork was left exposed, and a very modern concrete and glass mezzanine level housing a small champagne bar was installed. An open kitchen—too small and under equipped—is my domain. We seat ninety people, but our record for a single night is 135. Not bad for six cooks and seven waitstaff.
I believe that cooks can generally be divided into two camps, namely, men and women. Men are usually the type of cook who says, “Wow, check out how good I am. I can do anything with food. You are in for an amazing experience.” Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be the “Welcome, let me nourish and feed you” type of culinary artist. Of course, the boundaries are not fixed. The best chefs balance the two styles of cooking pretty well. I hope I am one of them.
My main obligation as a chef, as I see it, is to provide a product (food, service, atmosphere) that allows guests to engage more fully with one another. Maybe because I have very little time to spend with my wife and children, I fail to see the point in going out with them in order to concentrate on someone else, on the person who cooked our food. I want to be able to focus on the people I’m there with. I imagine the same is true of my customers. I want to see a long-married couple leave our restaurant more in love than when they came in. In other words, I respond to food that appeals more to my heart than to my head.
It’s no surprise, then, that I am really bored by foams and froths and alginate dibs and dabs. I like cassoulet and bollito misto and classic dishes like Imam Bayaldi and a lot of other now-unfashionable stuff. In fact, I have even put on our new menu a fish velouté made with a roux, no less, from my much-loved CIA Professional Chef cookbook. It is very good. Such dishes, when done well, make for very good eating, as opposed to those that announce novelty for its own sake. I find that self-indulgent and pompous. I am not unaware of new developments in cooking, but I prefer to use methods such as slow roasting and cold-oven braising to prepare the kind of foods that I like to eat.
Our menu is of necessity small, but we try to individualize each dish as much as possible. We offer a selection of variety meats—if we’re going to kill an animal for food, then we need to eat the entire beast, not just the steaks. We cure a lot of charcuterie and also offer local game and seafood, and we smoke our own salmon. I love vegetables and try to include as many as I can on each plate, as well as always offering a vegetarian entrée. My approach is to take something basic and work it into something fantastic, but my labor should not necessarily be obvious. An example is my warthog loin. Warthog is a local type of wild pig (think of Pumbaa in The Lion King). The meat is very dense and, if poorly cooked, it can be dry, tough, and rather boring. We cure the meat in a brine flavored with juniper, garlic, and sage for three to five days. To further enhance the flavor, we coat one side of the loin with ground raw fennel seed. We grill the loin, then slice it thin and serve it on top of a neep and tattie cake, my take on the Scottish mashed turnips and potatoes that accompany haggis. My version is crisp because I like crisp. To make a nonsweet, syrupy sauce I use sour fig, a small, local fruit from an indigenous succulent that tastes like a combination of tamarind and rose hips. The warthog comes out moist and tender, and the interplay of flavors is complex without being overwhelming. Diners can’t imagine how much work goes into this dish, but that’s fine with me. I want them to focus on its textures and flavors.
At Savoy Cabbage we make as much as possible in-house, because that’s where you find real honesty in cooking. Small food and slow food, fresh and organic‚—that is what I want and believe in. I find it ironic that the very same people who scrutinize package labels for the tiniest trace of additives like MSG will happily eat any of today’s modern “molecular” concoctions without even considering what chemical adjustments have been made in the transformations of foods. These meals are apparently safe to eat, but then again, we once thought that chlorofluorocarbons were cool. As for me, I’ll take cassoulet any day.