‘‘Hold the phone. Do you mean to tell me you only learned to cook, when you were told to learn to cook?”
I’m stuffing my mouth with an incredible dish of Parisienne gnocchi, wild mushrooms, truffle oil, chicken, peas, and God knows what that chef Juan van Deventer of Groot Phesantekraal has just presented to photographer Francois Pistorius to shoot. Francois works fast, so the dish is still warm by the time I get my paws on it.
“So by ourselves”
While I’m aware that skipping breakfast may have made me hungry and that the arrival of rain in the Cape that very morning may have tickled some uber-ecstatic nerve, I just can’t get enough of this dish. I also can’t quite fathom how, in all the years I’ve been heading into the Winelands for wining and dining, I somehow never found Groot Phesantekraal.
I attempt, initially, to explain away my ignorance by the deceptiveness of the farm’s proximity. Unlike many wine farms where you have to mission up passes, through kloofs, etc, Groot Phesantekraal is surprisingly close to the city. Leave Cape Town on the N1, direction Joburg, hang a left into Durbanville, pass through the burbs and, just as you start entering farmland at the back of the Durbanville Hills, you’ll find it, close to Meerendal, Diemersdal and Altydegedacht. As Juan tells it, a lot of their clientele at the restaurant are hyper-local from Durbanville, but they get in plenty of the notoriously effort-averse Cape Town Southern Suburbs crowd too. Clearly he’s doing something right.
Next, I try the backstory. Maybe it’s new or renamed with new owners? Dig deeper, ignoramus. Maret, Juan’s wife who runs the front of house at Groot Phesantekraal, snuffs that attempt. The owners of Groot Phesantekraal are Ronelle and Oubaas Brink. Oubaas (who is not old, but has had the nickname all his life) is a fourth-generation Brink. The farm has been in the Brink family for 120 years, and before that belonged to the Louws, who owned it from 1759. They bought it from Olof Bergh who was given it by his chum Simon van der Stel in 1698.
Maret says, “We actually have ties to Groot Constantia, which is why one of our wines is called Anna de Koning (after De Koning, the mistress of Groot Constantia, a former slave and Bergh’s wife). We’re so by ourselves here and so small, people don’t often realise the connection.”
An aptitude for cheffing
While there have always been grapes at Groot Phesantekraal, the wine farming only really started 11 years ago. Maret says, “The wine at the end of the day is the main focus. We sell 80 per cent of what they produce from the farm. We [the restaurant] are the bait to get people to the farm.”
Bait? With the Parisienne gnocchi chicken dish and the Chinese five-spice duck breast with smoked butternut purée consumed, and Juan’s braised pork belly in my sights, I realise that, if I were a fish, I’d be heading for the pot. So, who exactly is the chef baiting the hook?
The script for how people turn into chefs is usually predictable. They learn to cook at their granny or mother’s knee, knowing all their childhood that they want to grow up to be a chef or, like your Anthony Bourdains and Marco Pierre Whites of the world, are rebels, interested in food, fall into kitchens, and find they’re preternaturally suited to the life.
Few become chefs by taking an aptitude test, but that was Juan’s route. He wasn’t from a foodie background. Growing up in Hermanus, Juan came to cooking when he and his twin brother were sent off to have aptitude tests.
“My results came back recommending cheffing, landscape design, and engineering. I liked the idea of travel. Cheffing sounded like a cool way to travel the world, cook everywhere, and have fun.”
An odyssey overseas
After some training at Warwick Chef School in Hermanus, Juan moved to England for three years, joining the great trek of young South Africans looking for work experience and the chance to earn some pounds sterling. Learning from all and sundry, both the strict and the skilled, is something that recurs in Juan’s recounting of his career. His time in the UK included his first job working for an angry French chef at a dodgy three-star hotel in Hertfordshire and a stint at the Marriot at Canary Wharf, just before the hotel launched.
“The French chef wasn’t that good, but I only figured that out later when I learned from proper chefs. The chef at the Marriot was really good. I learned a lot, and made a lot of friends and a lot of really good food. Eventually I got gatvol of the bad weather and came back to South Africa.”
Back home, he landed a job at The Showroom, one of the Cape’s pioneering fine-dining restaurants run by the late Bruce Robertson. While Bruce was “the strictest, scariest chef” Juan had ever worked for, Juan’s time at The Showroom yielded a few priceless wins. For starters, it taught him to work fast and soak up pressure. For mains, it’s where he met Maret, also a chef. Today she runs the front of house at Groot Phesantekraal, but together they form a culinary team.
Maret says, “I came out of the kitchen only when we started working here. It was time for me to get out and let him carry on. It helps to have the two of us for menu development and I still have a lot of input.”
From The Showroom to a stint in the US, where they both worked in huge restaurants on fancy golf estates, back to Hermanus where Juan worked for Peter Templehoff at The Marine, to the Birkenhead Boutique Hotel, also in Hermanus, where Maret landed up being Juan’s boss. The couple eventually opened a small café and deli called Whisk in Durbanville. There they caught the eye of the Brinks, who convinced them to start the Groot Phesantekraal restaurant.
No song and dance
The restored 1767 restaurant building features a tasting room – designed by Jacques Erasmus from Hemelhuijs, and owner Ronelle Brink – that sports a feature wall racked with bottles à la the BFG (Roald Dahl’s dream-bottling Big Friendly Giant). Each indicates the different tasting notes you might find in the wine (grapefruit, kelp etc).
Given free reign and the backing to create, Juan has stepped into the limelight and found his own style. “I’ve been to quite a few fine-dining restaurants. You look at the plates and it looks amazing, but it can taste of nothing. For me it’s important to get the flavour right, the artwork comes second. I take from a lot of the places I’ve been too. Especially with my breakfast stuff, I get so much out of my time in America because they love their breakfasts and brunches. I’ll do crumpets, crumbed chicken breasts served with poached eggs, flapjacks, and things like that.”
It’s working. Juan’s cooking hits that sweet spot somewhere between fine dining and bistro food. Fancy enough to feel impressive but not so fancy it feels contrived. There’s no song and dance routine, just great food drawing on everything he’s learned along the way, from dodgy chefs to fine dining, American breakfasts, and everything in between. Three cheers for aptitude tests.
The relationship between the Brinks and Juan and Maret seems in part to be the key to what makes Groot Phesantekraal work so well. The Brinks and their five-month-old boerboel puppy (worth the visit alone) live in the 1720 farmhouse next door to the restaurant. Save for Juan’s suspicion that Oubaas may occasionally raid the walk-in fridge for sirloins for a family braai, the Van Deventers are left to do what they do best. Bait the Hook.
Groot Phesantekraal 021 825 0060 grootphesantekraal.co.za Booking essential.
Pictures Francois Pistorius