TFF takes a seat at Mondiall’s private dining table to have a few South African words with the restaurant’s Head chef, Stephen Mandes.
I’ve been told that the universe works its magic in mysterious ways. Personally, I do believe in this theory wholeheartedly. Call me a delusional optimist if you will, but this scheduled interview with Chef Stephen was no coincidence to me. You see, Saturday the 24th of September marks the South African celebration of “Heritage Day”. And what do all South Africans do on this special day? Why, we braai of course!
So what does this have to do with the enigmatic Chef Stephen, who arrives late (and rather apologetically, which I found amusing) to our meeting?
Well, Chef Stephen belongs to the team that won the third season of The Ultimate Braaimaster, an exceptionally South African television series about – you guessed it – people who can braai! So, do you see what I’m getting at here?
By the end of it, I not only walked away with an interview from a respected executive chef, but I also scored his recipe for the most divine, creamy peri-peri sauce to knock the socks off your braai stand! How’s that for lekker?
Let’s be totally frank. Stephen is the kind of friendly guy who assists you to pick up that two-shelves-too-high can of cream at the grocer. He is that person who offers to give you a lift home and thinks nothing of it. He is the buddy you can rely on, just as long as your requests don’t interfere with his family obligations. “He’s the good guy,” as we say to refer to the protagonist of films and novels.
I’ve spent a grand total of an hour or two with him, and I already pick up on his sincerity. He talks freely about how much he loves his wife, child and parents. He mentions how he first decided on chef school for a career pathway. He even delves into his thoughts about the current South African political arena (which I promised not to share – sorry!). In an industry plagued by pretentiousness and arrogance, it’s invigorating to encounter somebody this organic; somebody who has actually achieved a great deal, but doesn’t seem to be cognisant of that fact.
“After I won The Ultimate Braaimaster, it was like life just went back to normal for me. It wasn’t like people stopped in the streets to take a photograph with me – nothing like that. But it has been very good for business,” Stephen nods politely and surveys the restaurant below us. This is no doubt a veiled gesture to his fairly recent gig at the breathtakingly spectacular, Mondiall.
But life has been almost set in stone for him, given his preceding stints which include the likes of the Belmond Mount Nelson & De Grendel Restaurant.
“It’s been a different experience working at hotels, also in Hermanus and then coming back to Cape Town. Hermanus was a bit difficult. The people wanted fish and chips, or burgers. Myself, and my partner (Yusuf, who was also Stephen’s winning partner for The Ultimate Braaimaster) had so much more to offer them. I guess you can never really tell what people are going to like,” Stephen exhales a sigh reminiscent of disappointment. He is talking about his previous career stop at La Vierge restaurant, situated along the isolated Hemel-en-Aarde valley.
I step a little out of my comfort zone and point out that I can empathize with Chef Stephen’s woes. I too understand and relate to the frustration that comes with being an ambitious mind in a narrow-minded town setup.
“I went to school in a little town, myself. The economy can best be described as receding, and the people are a different kettle of fish altogether. I really hated it there,” as I say this, I bite my tongue for having ventured into conversation about myself – an absolute no-no when interviewing somebody – but Stephen looks genuinely interested.
“What can we do?” he remarks with concern, “It’s crazy. People are crazy!”
I try to lift the mood (and get back on topic) by asking him about how he incorporates some of his life experiences into the menu at Mondiall. He grins boyishly and then speaks in a tone similar to that which my Father uses whenever he harks back to his favourite car.
“Well, we’ve got the two green eggs in the Mondiall kitchen!” Green eggs?! Is this some kind of playful Dr Seuss reference???
Stephen recognizes the confused frown planted on my forehead and adds some clarity to the situation, “They’re like these beautiful grills that we use in the kitchen. The food comes out unbelievably! We use the one for meat and the other for our seafood that needs to be grilled.”
Ohhhhh… Having tasted the grilled prawns at Mondiall, I must say I’m officially a fan of this peculiar green egg! What a delicious and juicy meal it was, indeed. Incidentally, these prawns are served with Chef Stephen’s creamy peri-peri sauce, and I coaxed him into allowing me to publish the recipe with this article! (Just an aside)…
We get onto the subject of the go-to ingredient that Stephen must have in his kitchen. Without flinching, he responds, “Onions! I must have onions with me. You can do without the rest,” he pauses for a moment of contemplation, and then continues, “But maybe, I’ll also need ginger and garlic.” He sounds just like a typically Indian woman. I refrain from being so bold as to tell him this, though.
I find myself curious about Mondiall’s summer menu, so we chat about what Cape Town’s foodies can be looking forward to in the hotter months. Stephen’s detailed response is one filled with explosive descriptions of flavour and exciting ingredients, “For my spring/summer menu I am concentrating on fresh, locally sourced products. I will be doing a few items off the Big Green Eggs, barbeque baby chicken with smoked apple aioli potatoes, char grilled sirloin with mushroom ragout and red wine butter. I am doing a duo of lamb, using lamb neck and lamb loins with fresh summer vegetables and caramelised onion puree.
For the desserts, I opted to keep it simple and ‘take it back home’ with some favourites: a deconstructed lime meringue, with coconut crumble and fresh berries; a peppermint crisp parfait with roasted white chocolate ganache; a truly South African rooibos and honey crème brulée, with peach textures and shortbread fingers. Also, the cheese platter is making a comeback at Mondiall! I am doing some research as to find really good local cheeses. South Africa has so much to offer in terms of cheese… Apart from all of this, we are also redoing the terrace area and this means big tables and platters. Charcuterie and cheese, tempura seafood and my favourite – a barbeque platter…”
I am intrigued, salivating and ravenous all at once. This would’ve been the perfect way to end off, but for the fact that I really want to know what the Chef would prepare for his darling wife on a romantic dinner date.
The poor man is overtaken by fits of shyness while he answers, “I’d start off with something we can prepare together, get some sushi and we can do our own thing. She loves a good lamb shank, so I would ask the butcher to give me a female portion, and I would slow roast it with tomato chutney and roast cauliflower. A bowl of Ferrero Rocher would do the trick for dessert,” his smile widens, “she loves that stuff. Some nice berries, dark chocolate…Something like that.”
Chef Stephen’s Creamy Peri-peri Sauce Recipe
5 bird’s eye red chillies
1 large red pepper
1 large onion (chopped)
7g Coriander seeds
4 cloves garlic
5g cayenne pepper
3g smoked paprika
300ml fresh cream
Olive oil for cooking
1. Roast the chillies and the peppers @ 190°C for approximately 20 minutes.
2. Sautee the chopped onions in olive oil until soft, and then add the coriander seeds and garlic.
3. Throw in the cayenne, paprika and smoked paprika and cook until fragrant.
4. Lastly, add the cream and simmer gently.
5. Transfer the contents to a blender. Blend until the sauce is smooth. You can choose whether or not you would like to strain the sauce to have an even smoother finish.