The Western Cape is usually windy and wet in winter, but get one of those crisp, still, sunny days and it takes my breath away. The day I meet chef Marcia Tyobeka at De Hoop’s Fig Tree Restaurant is one of them. The De Hoop Nature Reserve, on the coast about 50 kilometres from Bredasdorp, is a magnificent treasure of the Overberg. Turns out so is Marcia.
Taking care of people
When we arrive, the stoep basks in the sun, the restaurant doors are wide open and the light streams in. The music is mellow and the pelicans are bobbing on the De Hoop Vlei like origami boats. And Marcia Tyobeka is as sunny and welcoming as the day.
“I’ve always worked on game reserves, never in a city,” she says, inviting us in to meet the friendly staff, who have finished serving breakfast and have the airy, elegant restaurant polished and shining, ready for lunch. “I love being surrounded by nature, and the quiet and calm of the bush.”
As she shows us around the restaurant, she tells us that it was once a workshop on the estate. “And the restaurant was named after the grand Natal wild figs that grow here on the werf.”
We learn that the De Hoop Collection all started in 2007, when William Stephens and his partner Carl Trieloff formed the first public-private partnership between a nature reserve and a conservation authority in South Africa. “De hoop takes care of people, and CapeNature takes care of the animals and their habitat.” A couple of years later William and his wife Nini opened the Fig Tree Restaurant and were joined by Marcia in 2010.
We settle into comfy sofas and, over coffee, Rustenburg-born Marcia tells us what inspired her to take up a career as a chef. She breaks into a smile. “It was a chicken à la king dish that did it. In my home economics class in high school we had to cook it.
I’d never heard of it and remember thinking, what a big name. But I did it. And loved doing it. And that was it.”
After finishing her national diploma in cheffing at the Vector College in Braamfontein, first stop as a chef was Etali Safari Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve. She breaks into another of those smiles. “Yes, the bush.”
After working at several other lodges at Madikwe, next stop was the 34-hectare spread of glorious fynbos, dunes and sea at De Hoop Nature Reserve. “When I came here I had to leave my twins with my mother in Rustenburg, a difficult decision at the time, but my objective in life is to overcome any challenges and learn from them, and it really has all worked out so well.
“I certainly do miss some of the ingredients at Madikwe, like crocodile, or guineafowl and venison, which we don’t have here as there’s no hunting at De Hoop. The only ingredients I have at hand are from our herb and vegie garden, often raided by the eland, which is why we’ve now walled it. But we do make our own jams when the fruit is in season.”
Blended and restrained flavours
It’s obviously a place where the real pro is separated from the wannabee chef. “Yes, I love using fresh ingredients, but often there is no supplier to run to every day,” says Marcia Tyobeka. “A chef then needs a deep understanding of basic ingredients, to produce a meal that satisfies the sophisticated guest, who probably has no idea of the restrictions placed on a ‘bush’ kitchen.”
The world of classic European cooking techniques and flavours are evident in Marcia’s cooking. “Yes, my favourite dishes to create are confit duck, and blue cheese ice cream, but at home nothing beats samp and beans, or spinach and pap.” Another big smile.
Quite obviously, she understands her ingredients. In the food we taste, all the flavours are there, but used with restraint, so that they support each other and end up in a sumptuous dish made from basic ingredients.
“I order my produce from suppliers in Bredasdorp,” Marcia explains. “Vegetables from Plaasmark, dry goods from Packtown, meat from Elim Butchery. I have to place my orders on a Monday and they deliver on a Friday, and I never know what I’ll have to work with until they deliver.”
As warm as the day
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The stunning dishes arrive to be photographed, and Marcia Tyobeka is quick to deflect our compliments onto the staff. “I have a great team in the kitchen.
“Most of them come here as scullers and, if they show an interest in cooking, I’ll let them try their hand at it. I now have a young woman who is very interested in patisserie and she is so talented, even making the cake for a wedding we are hosting this weekend.
I think I’m good at teaching, because I’m calm and patient, and run my kitchen with respect for the staff and the produce. For me cooking is not a career, it is a lifestyle.”
Wise words from a warm and engaging woman, with a smile as bright as the day I met her.
Pictures Daniela Zondagh