It’s over a steaming cup of coffee that chef Carolize Coetzee and I instantly connect. It is early morning after another busy night of service at Tokara restaurant, at the top of the Helshoogte pass, on one of the most beautiful wine estates in Stellenbosch.
The routine activities of cleaning, ordering and checking bookings and dietary preferences for that day begin. I cast my eyes around – William Kentridge tapestries, gleaming wine vats, and iconic architecture created from glass, steel and stone captivate me. Minutes later Carolize, in gumboots and clutching a basket, is whisking me off past the delicatessen, then through olive groves at breakneck speed, not warning me that she has never driven a golf cart before. As we fly over speedbumps at white-knuckle speed, up the Banhoek mountain, I tell her that her cooking is better than her driving.
I have watched them grow
Her food is exceptional and I now see why. Tucked away at the top of the estate is a garden that any food lover or chef would be proud to call their own. “Welcome to my office,” she says, smiling. Carolize first checks on the asparagus like a concerned mother and, when she realises it’s come to an end, picks off the last few for us to chew, and then fondly bids them farewell.
We stop at the raspberries, where in the heat of the sun she encourages me to taste a few. They are warm, succulent and sweet. “A few weeks ago they were tiny,” says Carolize. “I have watched them grow.”
The swathes of kale, kohlrabi and rainbow spinach shine brightly, towered over by large sunflowers basking in the morning sun. “Last year I took the seeds and dried them.” We admire the fruit trees – pear, apple, plum, nectarine and peach – and pluck off a plum to snack on. Last year the avocado trees produced 350 fruits. This year she has had a variety of corn and other fruit and vegetables planted as she dreams of the next menu. This is where this passionate, exuberant chef finds her inspiration, from nature and the seasons.
We drive back, slower, past the kapokbos, wild garlic and num nums, which she remembers from childhood. “While my father was fishing, we would pick the num nums. They are perfect for preserving.” Born in Vryburg and living in Kimberley until the age of nine when they moved to Humansdorp, family is everything to her.
“I have never lived in a big city. I’m a small-town girl at heart and get anxious in the city. I love open spaces, nature and greenery. The way I grew up, my parents were not well off, but love was the most important thing, and shared food at celebrations like Christmas and Easter.”
Carolize is the second-youngest of six sisters, who cannot live without each other. “Two live in Jeffreys Bay near our parents, and they’re the lucky ones, able to get ‘Ma-kos’ whenever they want.” Family recipes and memories motivate her.
You can learn from anyone
Carolize has spent most of her career in the university town of Stellenbosch, working in restaurants on landmark wine farms, moving to Tokara after learning as much as she could at Dornier and Simonsig. Last year, she combined work and play with a three-week stage at lauded Cosme in New York, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Working there with chef Daniela Soto-Innes was a dream come true.
A trip to Portugal also provided culinary inspiration. “The people are so real and laid-back, I could relate to them as country people – aunties sitting on steps, talking to one another like they would here in a small town,” says Carolize. This year an eating adventure in Spain provided more stimulation.
This creative, young chef, who won the coveted Haute Promise award in the 2020 JHP Gourmet Guide Awards, loves learning but also relishes the opportunity of teaching the trainees in her kitchen. “I tell them you can learn from anyone. I learnt so much from the sculler in my previous kitchen, about culture, her food and how it meant something to her – that’s why it feels good. You cannot hear when you are talking all the time, you will miss the point. Keep quiet, listen to what people want to teach you.” Wise words from a 29-year-old.
She embraces the diverse personalities in her team of 14 chefs, three trainees and a squad of six cleaners. “I was a people pleaser, but to be truly happy as a chef I need to do what I love doing. I’m not willing to compromise on our vision. Here I embrace the organic garden, which was previously limited.
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The kitchen is humming
“I started here in November 2018 and a month later launched my first menu. It was difficult, but a good start, and I have built on that, incorporating the garden more and more. The three partners in the restaurant, and the owners of the farm, have my back and are open-minded and supportive. And I have freedom. For ten years, I was ordering food, now I watch it grow. It is not easy to plan a menu to the surroundings, but I am working towards having 40 per cent of the menu from the garden.”
There is obvious respect for Carolize as we walk back into the restaurant. Waiters dash past, pausing to ask her questions, the estate manager congratulates her on Tokara being listed in the 50 Best Discovery Restaurants, and the manager approaches her with a query. The kitchen is humming as everyone gets ready for service.
It’s time to remove the gumboots and don the chef’s jacket to create more of what everyone is flocking to Tokara for
– sophisticated country cooking made from ingredients nurtured on-site. And all from a young chef with old-fashioned values, perfecting her craft on a historic estate (circa 1722), where contemporary cuisine, award-winning wines, breathtaking art and modern architecture combine beautifully.
Photos by Daniela Zondagh
Tokara 021 885 2550 tokararestaurant.co.za
Open Monday to Sunday 12h00-15h00, Tuesday to Saturday 18h00-22h00
Recipes supplied and approved by chef