Jules Mercer spares no expense in curating her marvellous feasts in the most unlikely venues.
‘There is no dress code but please don’t wear high heels,” reads the ticket to the Outlandish Kitchen. And that’s about as pretentious as this pop-up eating experience gets. But how were we to know that, peering into the Kalk Bay Community Centre at two laden banquet tables, wondering whether we’d gate-crashed someone’s wedding?
We were expecting a five-course meal with wines and all the typical social aplomb that would go with it. Quite the opposite. A stack of serviettes was passed around on the balcony before we ate the snoek aperitifs (pâté with bread, fish balls with Malay mayonnaise and baked with apricot butter glaze) with our fingers; rather messy to say the least.
It did make for general ice-breaking, in which I met a couple from Australia who had seen the event on Facebook, figured that they would be in Cape Town at the time, and booked tickets.
The balcony’s waterproofing was the reason for no high heels. Built in 1906 and originally a sewage pump station, the Kalk Bay Community Centre was converted in 1935. It still plays an active role in the social life of the area, hosting markets, yoga, dance and other classes. Historically, it has functioned as a World War II entertainment centre, a municipal library and a council cash office.
We entered the hall and found our name cards; the “tablecloths” were newsprint, laid with mismatching plates and stock-standard tumblers, and decorated with unwashed potatoes, paper straws and glass paraffin lanterns.
“We’ve wanted it to be all about the food,” says organiser Jules Mercer, a trained chef-turned-food writer and stylist, who has leveraged her connections with local farmers to curate feasts served in unlikely venues.
“Once you’ve paid, I tell you where it is. That’s it. Otherwise people come with too many expectations,” she says, explaining the unpolished charm of the venture, still marvelling that complete strangers (from Australia even) are happy to put R550 a head into her bank account without even asking who she is.
Trust is the key to this story and it goes back to trusting our food, what’s in it and where it comes from — something all South Africans can identify with after the recent donkey meat scare.
“Are we happy to buy poor quality meat?” asks Mercer. “As long as it’s cheap, we don’t complain. But how much water is in that mince? And the addition of brine and meat extracts to chicken and other meats — is that okay with you?”
Local and lekker
The concept of the Outlandish Kitchen builds on the locavore principle (eating food grown within a 160km radius of your home) by adding that, not only is the produce reared in the immediate proximity and artisanally treated, it also has a person and a story attached to it.
By introducing the farmers and their fare and sometimes even their farms when they are used as venues, Mercer hopes to make diners more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.
As special guest of the event, Janine Basson of the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, casually chatted to us about responsible fish eating, over courses of farmed Saldanha oysters, followed by trout boards from the Streams Fisheries in Franschhoek. The trout is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an environmental standard) and “by using it in the menu we wanted to show how smoked trout can be just as delicious — local and lekker — as its Norwegian salmon counterpart,” says Mercer.
“Oh no, I’m not the chef; you must be crazy,” Mercer laughs boisterously as she hoists the huge mussel pots of the next course on to the table. Served with baked angelfish, potato salad and a garden salad with such unusual delights as zucchini flowers, the mussels were one of the two unanimous highlights.
Chef Rina van Velden studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and has worked at Le Quartier Francais, Welbedacht Wines and Mamma Mac’s Bakery. With her emphasis on the produce itself, however, Van Velden’s style seems closer to Babylonstoren’s. “Rina is an alchemist in the kitchen — and ridiculously humble!” says Mercer.
All the while the food was served with wines from Usana Farming Estate where “brothers JP and Pierre Winshaw work hard to produce a range of delicious wines, along with pasture-reared eggs, lamb and beef,” explains Mercer, who has a similar anecdote for just about everything on the menu. The bread, for instance, is from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch and the exquisite salted-caramel and fig ice cream — the other unanimous highlight — is by the baker’s wife, Chanelle.
How does one really put a price on this word-of-mouth food network? “We all need to get it into our heads that we need to pay more for our food. Full stop.” Mercer puts her wine glass down and gets serious. “If something lands on my plate and it’s really cheap, it worries me.”
In an effort to make this type of food more accessible, Mercer has now also launched the Outlandish Kitchen food boxes — and we’re not talking limp, sandy, malnourished-looking vegetables, if the treasure-filled salad was anything to go by. A basic box includes seasonal organic veg from Naturally Organic and properly free-range eggs from the Winshaws. Two variations on the basic box include exotic mushrooms, wine and pork cured by the renowned Richard Bosman. Prices range from R150 to R500 and can be ordered online (delivery is extra).
Mercer talks about everyone as a personal friend and struggles to quantify the value of the venture. Deals and bartering, word-of-mouth connections, and new friends through the producers and the guests who come to the event … trust is the currency. Like the packet of heirloom seeds that each guest received as a take-home gift, the investment is more than money and the antithesis of the instantaneous gratification of our contemporary food culture.
“If I look at the amount of time that I put into each event, I’m not doing it for the money, and as soon as it stops being fun I’m going to throw the towel in,” Mercer says. “Although I very nearly reached that point when the hot water gave in on Saturday night and at 1am we had to put every drippy fishy plate in my car and drive them home to be washed!”