With the sound of waves in the background and the enticing aroma of seafood simmering in the small kitchen, it’s a shy, humble chef who is persuaded to tell his tale, while sitting in the cosy Voorhuijs of Die Damhuis Restaurant.
Stèfan Meintjes, born in Pretoria East in 1983, proudly calls himself a Capetonian, having cemented himself as an integral part of the community in the small seaside town of Melkbosstrand on the West Coast.
Here he lives and works, walking 100 metres to the restaurant, to share his passion at Damhuis, built by Cape farmer Christiaan Brand in 1785, and which a decade ago was a ruin. Today Damhuis takes pride of place in the heart of the community on Beach Road, with stunning views and an authentic seaside ambience.
The lure of the Cape
Stèfan and his business partners resurrected the separate buildings in 2009, now a national monument, and cleverly combined them to create interconnected spaces that include the Voorhuijs, the Fishermen’s Tent, an open-air terrace, a beach area for children, and the Stampkroeg. The building is made of cow dung, sand, hay and whalebone, and a close look at the walls of the dining area reveals whale vertebrae strategically incorporated as a reminder of the all-round authenticity of the building, the food and the people.
The story of the Brand family – the original residents of Melkbosstrand – along with mouth-watering recipes, is sandwiched between the covers of a beautiful book simply called Damhuis. It combines fact and fiction, from 1776 to 1814, and the realisation of a dream for Damhuis co-owners Dirk and Reinet Nagtegaal, both published authors and food lovers.
During the four years of putting together the pages, Reinet battled cancer, and this bestseller is part of her legacy. Hein Botha, second-in-charge at Damhuis, was an integral part of the team that cooked, styled and produced the dishes for the book.
Stèfan has always loved cooking. After matric, he spent a gap year in America, and when he returned to South Africa, worked at Woolworths as a packer before studying at the International Hotel School in Sandton. His six-month internship at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria cemented his passion, and he worked his way up here from the bottom to head chef, ultimately carving his career in seven years. Then the lure of the Cape and the sea beckoned.
This chef loves local, home-grown and organic food, and at the restaurant he cooks traditional South African fare, modern and memorable, honouring Damhuis’ rich heritage. “This is not fine dining, it is good, home cooking, made the old-school way with butter and fat,” states Stèfan proudly.
Essentially a meat eater who loves all parts of the animal from shank to tripe.
At Damhuis restaurant, the rolled pork belly was the first dish on the extensive menu. “People won’t let me change the menu, they will crucify me, but we do tweak it,” he says. “Regulars come knowing the dish they want. And locals are our biggest supporters, so they get tables first.”
Fish is part of the culture
The life of this chef is an interesting one.
His chapter at the sea started with walking the building plans, and moved to establish relationships with suppliers, and then launching an anti-poaching initiative in the village. Stèfan believes that everyone in the community has a part to play, especially in keeping the town safe.
“Fish is part of the Western Cape culture,” he says. “Here we get fresh line fish like kabeljou, tuna and kingklip. Suppliers have been supporting me for ten years, and phone me when their boats are going out.” But he’s concerned about how fish, in general, is becoming endangered, and how difficult and expensive it can be to obtain.
Watching the weather report up to six times daily assists him in knowing what fish might come in, what to order and how to allocate staff from his team of 60. (These are the people who on a busy December day serve 1 000 plates.)
Stèfan enjoys watching sport, playing golf and wining and dining. “And I don’t like being disappointed, so dining at home or at the restaurant is my choice.”
He loves a convivial atmosphere at meal-time, with plates that are casual, but neat and garnished, and always shows respect for the products. “We are spoilt for choice in Africa, but there are not enough chefs showing proper respect for the product. Consistency is important, it is the art of perfection.”
His biggest inspiration? “My mentor, chef Trevor Boyd, who shaped me when working at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria. Also at the Sheraton, chef Rudi Liebenberg, who on day one chased me out of the kitchen, as I was dressed inappropriately in my brother’s chef jacket with black buttons.”
The popular Smoor Snoek Bobotie on Damhuis restaurant’s enticing menu was born at the Sheraton, while Stèfan was working under Trevor. They had a wine-tasting evening and he wanted to serve traditional dishes, so the fish was smoked in rooibos tea, then combined with the ubiquitous bobotie ingredients.
I ask Stèfan what he recommends serving with a dish like the smoked snoek bobotie. “I would pair it with Boplaas Bobbejaanberg Sauvignon Blanc. The flinty and acidic notes cut through the spiciness of the bobotie, and the wine also has lemongrass undertones that goes well with the snoek. Most milder fish dishes pair well with a Chenin or Chardonnay, and are best served with accompaniments that are not too overpowering, like a mushroom risotto or flash-fried bok choy and asparagus.”
His passion for wine is fuelled by suppliers who visit the restaurant, bringing wines to taste, and it was wine that ignited his love affair with his wife, Johanni, just three months after the restaurant opened. “She worked at a waterfront hotel nearby and would come after work to Damhuis to unwind. It took a couple of years, and bottles, to convince her to marry me,” says Stèfan with a laugh. “We now have Mignon, our four-month-old daughter.”
“Named after the fillet?” I ask.
“Yes,” he exclaims.
Die Damhuis Restaurant
Open from 09h00 for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Sunday
021 553 0093, 081 367 7011
[email protected], diedamhuis.co.za