Lockdown makes chef Mynhardt Joubert throw open the doors of his nostalgic home restaurant
The woman in her early 30s grumbles on Facebook: she is fed up with the lockdown – in fact, it makes her sick to her stomach – but she feels even more strongly about the neverending stream of recipes on her news feed: Granny Gertie’s miracle venison pie, Aunty Anne’s roly-poly pudding with a twist, Uncle Fred’s tangy sourdough bread… The rest of Planet Facebook seems to be in raptures over these recipes – clearly a way to block out thoughts of lockdown. But why, oh why, must every precious recipe drip with nostalgia, she complains (and gets three likes). Can one really not put a single thing in one’s mouth without a yearning kicking in for a time when everything was supposedly so much rosier? (Two likes.)
This nostalgia simply creates unrealistic expectations, she drones on, and, what’s worse, it paints an inaccurate picture of the past. Is there really no other remedy for this sick, bitter-sweet emotion? (Her reward for this remark is a single crying emoji.) SITTING AT the cheerfully laid long table of his home restaurant Stasie Street Kitchen, Mynhardt Joubert nods his head at every quote read out to him and washes it all down with a glass of ice-cold water.
In The New York Times a few years ago, John Tierney quoted several experts saying that the main reason for food triggering such a tsunami of memories and emotions is the fact that all five of our senses work together to create and cement those memories.
“Nostalgia makes us human and has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” says Prof Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, the institution where the Southampton Nostalgia Scale was developed. “Research shows that it makes people more generous and hospitable towards strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. People also literally feel warmer, happier and more cared for when they think back on wonderful things that happened in the past. The food they ate, prepared or shared with others forms part of that mental image. Nostalgic thoughts ultimately make life more meaningful and death less frightening.
“When people think and speak about the past, when they call up memories of their family, friends, holidays, celebrations, dinners, weddings, music or sunsets, they typically feel more optimistic about the future. It is >
important to remember that nostalgic stories are not simply exercises in cheeriness; in fact, many of them start badly, with some kind of sadness or loss or problem, but they tend to end well.”
A final nod of the head, and then Mynhardt says: “Well, for me it is as if nostalgia adds texture to life. It reminds you that you have roots and are part of something much larger… a greater whole.”
Long before Mynhardt won the first season of the kykNET reality show
Kokkedoor in July 2013 (together with his cooking partner, Tiaan Langenegger), he ran his first restaurant, Bar Bar Black Sheep, in the Swartland town of Riebeek-Kasteel. Gourmands from the Boland and Cape Town flocked there to enjoy his authentic home-style food. It was the type of food on which he was raised, on his grandfather Jan Joubert’s farm, Tempelhof, between Ficksburg and Rosendal in the Eastern Free State – food that was made using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients: cherries, mielies and yellow-gold maizemeal, lamb, asparagus, boerewors, nastergal jam…
At Bar Bar Black Sheep, these ingredients and traditional dishes, along with food he had discovered on his travels, were always given a fresh Mynhardt twist. This remains his approach to cooking because, he says, he has learnt that “people want experiences – unique, special, personal experiences – that are both familiar and new… but are not at all tangible.” ON THE MONDAY MORNING when
Platteland visited Stasie Street Kitchen (at number 24, opposite Paarl Railway Station), it seemed as though the town with its long main street was still asleep. It had only been five days since Mynhardt opened his restaurant doors to “the general public”. Until recently, he and his better half, Ian Engelmohr, had only opened their art-filled attic “to order” for special-occasion dinners, “home visits”, wine tastings, cooking classes, demonstrations and promotional events for between 10 and 30 guests. Ever more people had been saying how much they’d love to be able just to pop in quickly for coffee and cake, or perhaps even lunch – but then the lockdown hit…
“When the president announced the first three-week lockdown in March last year I thought: “Oh, wonderful, how bad can three weeks at home be? But by the fifth week the magnitude of the crisis had truly sunk in. It was a hell of a rude awakening. Like many other people in the food business, I went through a deep dip. You feel powerless, as if you have been thrown completely off balance, because every wonderful function and project and festival you were going to be involved in has been cancelled – and you’ve already done the shopping for
some of them! Meanwhile, you have to pay salaries and return deposits while every income stream available to you dries up instantaneously.”
Mynhardt laughs, slightly selfconsciously. “But everything does happen for a reason… On a personal level, I must admit I was saved by the lockdown. I had been tired and overworked, and felt I was too easily falling back on what was familiar to me; I was slowly doing less original, truly innovative things… But then the pandemic forced all of us to stop for a while. To think deeply about what we were doing and where we were going; to realise once again what is and is not important; to pick up and repair relationships with people where necessary; to take stock.”
Unlike the situation at many other restaurants, Mynhardt has been fortunate to be able to keep all his staff so far. “I love them all too much to let anyone go,” he says, “but I must add that they all understand how difficult the situation is. They are incredibly adaptable and are prepared to do what is necessary in order to survive. It is important that everyone buys into the idea… This is really just a house – a space – that food, decor and flowers can transform into something else. We might be located on the wrong side of the railway line, I always say, but when someone walks through that front door they must enter a completely different world. And when they are here it is important that they’re made to feel welcome and at home, because it’s the only way to grow loyalty.” (Guests are currently going home with a small complimentary bottle of olive oil or a block of the best fudge Platteland has ever tasted.)
The instant that restaurants were given the green light to start cooking and delivering food, Mynhardt and Frikkie Janse van Rensburg, head chef and manager, sprang into action and tried one plan after another.
“We were stuck with freezers full of chicken from a cancelled wedding, so we decided we were simply going to do the small things that we could do, and do them well,” he says. And so they began to sell ready-made cooked food in generous portions serving four to six people, and they were well supported by their customers and the community.
“We really put our hearts into that food, because suddenly we had to take something that, over the years, we had served in various incarnations in a restaurant environment, and deliver it to customers frozen in a tinfoil tray. The cold chain had to be preserved, and we had to rely on customers defrosting and heating it correctly so that it looked and tasted just like they remembered it from the restaurant.
They devised all sorts of plans, >
such as selling vetkoek on 22 July last year, when restaurants protested against lockdown regulations by placing empty tables and chairs on pavements and in the streets. Their vetkoek sales were a huge success and resulted in a regular offer called Vetkoek Friday, which they still do once a month.
Throughout the lockdown farmers would deliver fresh produce to them: hanepoot grapes, persimmons, quinces… “We fell in love with these wonderful fresh ingredients all over again, and made jam and chutney and so many other things. It was good to be reminded how satisfying it can be to make simple food with what you have available rather than constantly running to the shops to buy more.”
Mynhardt also began a weekly cooking programme on Radio KC (Koinonia Community), a local community radio station, where he focuses on “affordable home-cooked food with a twist”. From time to time, as part of this project, they prepare some of the meals in people’s homes.
At the end of last year, instead of the festive tables they had hosted at Stasie Street Kitchen and the KWV Cathedral Cellar in 2019, Christmas boxes containing a full Christmas lunch were on offer, including instructions on how to heat everything at home. Plans, plans and more plans – in order to survive and have a future.
“The problem with pure nostalgia is that we long for a time in the past when we were really still building castles in the sky over the better future waiting for us ‘somewhere down the line’. But that future has arrived and it’s nothing like we dreamt it would be,” Mynhardt says. “It’s really as though the lockdown has blinded millions of very privileged people in this country to the incredible benefits they continue to enjoy. I mean, here we all sit complaining about life that has suddenly become so difficult and unbearable, but most of us have a house. We are warm at night in our beds. We may have fewer luxuries, but we have food – delicious, simple food. That can’t really be described as suffering now, can it?”