Chris Harvie visits a cherished SA chef in her blustery home town and cooks his own dinner.
Chefs are renowned for being tricky. Some pretend to be naked and turn out to be fully clothed, some swear a lot and some aren’t really chefs at all but TV presenters.
Suzi Holtzhausen is one of South Africa’s great chefs. She is utterly unpretentious, exceptionally talented, and unusual in that she is a food fundi who still cooks. Every day. She doesn’t order about a bunch of arbitrarily-titled sous- chefs and under-chefs-de-partie. She steps into her kitchen and she gets herself dirty. And she currently has two kitchens, both in Paternoster on the West Coast, a 90- minute drive from Cape Town.
Suzi’s Fine Food Eatery is her signature restaurant, set back on a dune next to Pam Golding, above the sand-blown road that leads past the hotel and on to Cape Columbine. It’s an open secret, written up, most impressively, in the New York Times. Googling turns up any number of delighted holidaymakers whose break in the village was made by its discovery.
Paternoster is not everyone’s cup of tea or, in Suzi’s case, glass of healthy Jannie Verjaar or homemade lemonade. It’s growing inexplicably quickly, estate agents can’t keep up with demand.
But surely the insistence on white houses is insufficient for an authentic fishing-village atmosphere? Don’t you need authentic fishermen’s cottages and a few authentic fishermen for that? Apparently, they were hiding from the incessant wind. Either way, Paternoster may be Latin, but it is looking more and more Greek. It’s turning into another Mykonos.
So it needs good eateries, out of the teeth of the gale. It has but a few and the most original of these, by a long shot, is Suzi’s. It’s slightly surreal. Bright white walls. Silver tables and chairs. Abalone shells and mirrors. Peach pips and proteas. A view of the sea over the rooftops but not close enough to suffer the rank smell of seaweed.
As I walked in, a woman at a verandah table told me I had to have the “awesome” honey-and- mustard mussels. She spent the rest of her meal on a cellphone, telling her friends where she was and ignoring her fellow lunch guest.
I dislike being told what to do, especially by people who use the word “awesome” and talk into phones at mealtimes, so I had the chilled potato-and-fennel soup with a crayfish mayo toastie. Yup. As simple as it sounds and utterly delicious, it was dreamt up by a genius and presented with her usual flair for the unusual.
The next day’s breakfast of fishcakes, spinach and poached egg was equally scrummy. I couldn’t get enough of Suzi’s own-style menu but I wasn’t there only to eat and be blown away by the weather, the house-prices and the colonies of CY plates. I was there to learn.
Suzi’s second Paternoster kitchen is at Salt Coast, her home- cum-guesthouse, where housekeeper Thombelina Williams and black Scottish Terrier Angus keep watch while Suzi is out cooking during the day. In fact, Angus keeps watch all the time, dour and somewhat suspicious hound that he is.
I had been told to bring my own apron, it was cookery school time. Paired in teams of two with hitherto unmet cooking partners, we were to prepare, with a hint of a competitive edge, our own dinner of baby- marrow soup with loaves of brown- and-white bread, chicken-and- prawn curry with a fresh peach raita and a hot date-and-banana chutney and, finally, galaktaboureko, a Greek milk tart, for pudding (again the Hellenic influence).
It’s clever. You don’t follow notes or recipes. Suzi sends you the recipes when you get back home but on site she gives instructions as you go along so you can’t be distracted or get ahead of yourself. You learn all sorts of tricks and talents. How to get the dough off your fingers when you’ve prepared your bread mix. How to get a deep green colour to your soup. How to divide your herbs and spices by strength and then mix your own masala according to the power and flavours you like. How to cook just the right quantity of rice. And how to cut every imaginable corner when making pudding. All culinary revelations.
As the sun went down over the ocean and the wind dropped at last, Suzi created a table worthy of our new-found prowess. She must have the most eclectic collection of crockery, napkins, tablecloths, candles, pieces of raffia and dry flowers in the cooking world.
There was much slurping and crunching as we nervously awaited the judge’s verdict but, at last, our dinner was declared a rampant success. Each pair had cooked identical dishes and each pair thought theirs was the best, so we were happy chef-diners all round, and we had been drinking wine while we cooked, so we were hungry.
Of course. The perfect combination. Suzi on Food with a little touch of wine-while-you-work Floyd. No nakedness (except Angus). No swearing (except when Suzi dropped the sugar bowl). No helpers (except with the washing-up).
I had Suzi’s bacon-and-egg sarmie for breakfast the next morning but I never got round to her mussels. I’m sure they were genuinely awesome. I shall certainly go back to find out before Paternoster joins up along the coast with Langebaan long before. As soon as the wind stops, in fact. Suzi says this is always before Easter so I’ll keep praying. Pater Noster, qui es in Western Capis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.