CAPE TOWN — We were sitting in an alcove in the bustling kitchen of the renowned Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, watching chef Rudi Liebenberg and his team perform culinary alchemy. It was The Chef’s Table experience and included our own multi-course meal beginning with just-baked breads and fresh-churned butters, pates with chutneys and fruit. The first course was a tomato salad drizzled with tomato dressing and topped with tomato panna cotta. It was beautiful, uber-fresh; it tasted like summer. Here’s the kicker: when dessert came it looked exactly the same. Huh?
“You end up with the same dish, only different. Savory and sweet,” our waiter said. It was a compote of red berries topped with a red-tinged fruit panna cotta. “It’s just chef Rudi showing off,” he giggled.
Liebenberg has been on the forefront of the red-hot culinary scene in Cape Town, leading a strong farm-to-table movement, and highlighting its multicultural flavors with flourish and flair. An influx of new chefs has followed, flooding the city with energy and passion.
“It’s our time,” Liebenberg says. “Cape Town is on the cusp, ready to showcase some of the finest chefs in the world.”
The vibrant, gorgeous city at the southernmost tip of Africa is definitely buzzing with food options. Some are already on the international foodie’s map, like The Test Kitchen, named one of the best restaurants in the world; Chefs Warehouse & Canteen, with award-winning tapas-style dishes; the French-inspired La Tete, with a strong nose-to-tail ethos; and the fine dining at the Lord Nelson Restaurant at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, offering haute cuisine using the freshest local ingredients. But we also wanted to check out some of the more casual, everyday options, so we hopped on the Cape Town Eats City Walking Tour offered by Cape Fusion Tours.
“Capetonians love their coffee,” our guide, Ryan Lawrence, said as we strolled down bustling Bree Street, filled with cafes and coffeehouses. “There are 62 independent coffee roasters in Cape Town.” He recommended a few: Deluxe Coffee Works, Truth Coffee Roasting, and Haas Coffee, and pointed out other places along the way, like Elixir, a vegan juice bar; God’s Army, a bookstore and diner; and IYO Burgers, with “the best burgers in town.” We stopped at Jason Bakery, with “a crazy tattooed chef who experiments a lot,” Lawrence said, and sampled one of his “kickass pies,” a creamy, Portuguese-style pasteis de nata.
The streets were lively, filled with young professionals and families, hustling here and there and milling about. We scurried around a couple of Rastafarians selling medicinal herbs, as we worked our way to the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood. This area dates back to the 1760s when the houses were leased to slaves, mainly brought from Malaysia, Indonesian, and India, and known as Cape Malays. Lawrence explained that when the slaves lived there, the houses had to be painted white. When the rule was lifted and the slaves could buy the houses, they painted them bright colors as a sign of their freedom.
We popped into Atlas Trading Company, a general store that has been owned by the same family for more than 70 years, and “where everyone in the neighborhood gets their spices and dried fruits to make curries,” Lawrence said. It had an amazing array of spices and other specialty products. We bought a box of Rooibos tea, made from a plant that only grows in South Africa and purported to have a myriad of health benefits, along with a bag of sookh mookh.
And then we moved on to meet Wardia, a Bo-Kaap street vendor, well-known for her fresh-made samosas, milk tarts, and savory cakes. Wardia gets up at 2:30 a.m. six days a week to start cooking; everything is made from scratch. She’s been doing it for more than 18 years, making enough money to put four kids through college. “I was in the corporate world and got cancer, so I started this,” she said. “I don’t regret it for one moment.”
We learned why she’s been so successful: The chicken samosas were packed with flavor. “I use 18 spices in the samosas,” she told us. The potato koeksister was sweet and also filled with spices. “I call it a healthy doughnut,” she said. “I use a lot of spices, cinnamon, ginger, potato, and a little honey. No sugar.”
At Honest Chocolate, our next stop, we devoured banana bread “bunny chows,” filled with macadamia nut chocolate and ice cream. We peeked in the courtyard in the back of the shop, which used to be a mortuary. “At night the embalming room turns into a gin bar,” Lawrence said.
We tried delicious slow-roasted beef ribs at the funky House of H, where an old VW van serves as a tap bar, before moving on to Heritage Square, a lovely complex of 200-year-old brick buildings, surrounding an open courtyard, where a thriving 1771 grape vine, one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere, provided shade.
We stopped in The Drinkery, a cozy, intimate place, for a gin tasting, and when we left, we were just loosey-goosey enough to appreciate The House of Machines a short walk away. This trendy, boisterous hot spot is a coffeehouse/cocktail bar/live music venue/men’s clothing shop/motorcycle workshop. Their T-shirts emblazoned with Don’t Be A Dick were hot sellers, along with their craft cocktails and beer.
Our last stop was way off the tourist radar. We followed Lawrence to the city’s train station, climbed the gritty stairs to the rooftop, and found hundreds of locals shopping and eating at vendor stalls housed in shipping containers. Here, we met Sandile, a self-described African chef, who served us pap, a maize porridge similar to polenta or grits. It’s one of the most popular dishes in South Africa, Sandile said, “I run out of it every day.” The next dish we tried is also a regular sell-out: chakalaka, a comforting casserole of tomatoes, beans, peppers, onions, and spices. Finally, Sandile served us samp and beans, a seasoned maize and sugar bean dish that he cooks for four hours until it’s very soft, nearly creamy.
“It was [former South African president] Nelson Mandella’s favorite food,” he told us. We liked it, too.