Generous portions of delicious comfort food are what you get from Jen Pretorius at her KwaZulu-Natal restaurant, The Farmer’s Daughter. But then she is the farmer’s daughter…
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Clinton Friedman
“From the year dot, I wanted to be a chef and to own a restaurant called The Farmer’s Daughter in honour of my dad,” says the farmer’s daughter, Jen Pretorius, a graduate of the Chantecler Hotel School of Food and Wine in Botha’s Hill outside Durban. We’re chatting over coffee on the upstairs balcony of the restaurant’s fabulous new home – a custom-built, barn-like structure in Howick.
It’s a chilly day but the views from that vantage point across Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve make braving the cold worthwhile. Meanwhile, inside the grand barn, the double-volume space is as warm as a summer’s day thanks to two wood-burning stoves.
It’s a different scene from the quirky venue in Tweedie on the Midlands Meander, where Jen started her restaurant two years ago.
“Before then, The Farmer’s Daughter was a catering business I ran from home, doing weddings and markets.” It morphed into a fully-fledged restaurant after customers kept suggesting Jen open one. Just months after it opened in Tweedie, a developer approached Jen. “He was planning Yard 41, a small collection of ‘gentrified warehouse-style buildings’ in Howick, and invited us to be the anchor tenant.”
Today, The Farmer’s Daughter is the focal point at Yard 41, and has taken on a sophisticated new look, while still cooking up the same great storm. “Our menu changes twice a year and depends on what’s fresh and in season,” Jen says. “But the staples remain, like the Big Boep Pork Belly and the lemon meringue – signature dishes that have been on the menu since day one and that people travel a long way for.”
That’s just one chapter in the story of The Farmer’s Daughter. The seed for the restaurant was sown back in the 1960s, when Jen’s great-aunt Betty and great-uncle Graham, a poultry expert, came out from the north of England to farm chickens in Eston.
Jen’s dad, Howard followed them in 1969 when he was just sixteen. “All he wanted was to be a farmer.”
After completing his schooling at Weston Agricultural College in Mooi River, Howard farmed with his uncle and aunt who ultimately bought him his own farm in Dargle. “It’s where I, and my sisters Joanne and Jessica, grew up,” says Jen. “Dad taught us to live off the land. We always knew where our food came from.”
Those lessons, as well as a childhood characterised by people regularly popping in for meals, and the farm kitchen always a hive of activity, shaped Jen for her future career. “That ethos of hospitality and good local food defines The Farmer’s Daughter and continues the legacy my dad built.” And, certainly, The Farmer’s Daughter is a vibrant, laughter-filled place known for honest-to-goodness food of the highest quality.
Everything on the menu is made carefully from scratch using, s far as possible, seasonal, local produce such as aquaponically grown vegetables from nearby Karkloof, and free-range eggs from Jen’s dad’s farm.
Closer still is the restaurant’s on-site veggie garden and the herbs and salads grown in drainpipes that zig-zag down an outside wall. Those little food gardens reflect the inspiration Jen drew from one of her favourite places in the country – the preserved Cape Dutch farm Babylonstoren near Stellenbosch. “I love walking to the restaurant through their fantastic veggie and fruit gardens.”
Jen needs to check on what’s happening in the kitchen so we go downstairs. It smells like Sunday in there. When she opens the huge oven, I see why. Two roasts – pulled lamb and the Big Boep Pork Belly – are slow cooking to perfection. Alongside them, the four-hour roast potatoes have taken on a dark, almost charred, hue. But not to worry – that’s all part of the method that evolved from a serendipitous slip-up.
“I went shopping and forgot about the potatoes in the oven,” Jen says. Later, I get to taste (okay – gobble down) one and it is the most delicious roast potato – crisp and black on the outside and creamy soft inside.
Lunchtime approaches and the barn is packed to the rafters with patrons, among them large groups of ladies who lunch. Inside the Sunday-aromatic kitchen, the staff is at full speed. Aside from Jen, there seem to be a lot of cooks but I see no spoilt broth. An air of confidence and competence reigns.
“We believe in advancing staff members who show potential,” says Jen’s business partner, Tarryn Willis, who came on board shortly after the restaurant opened in Tweedie, and is the calm presence (she’s a trained nursing sister) that keeps everything running smoothly. “Five of our chefs started out here as dishwashers and learnt to cook at Jen’s elbow.”
The swing doors slap back and forth as waiters come and go, bearing platters of tantalising food. There are free-range chicken-fillet burgers, the Big Boep Pork Belly, chicken and prawn curry, melanzane Parmigiana, even bone marrow and soldiers – robust, timeless dishes.
I watch, amazed, when a waiter cuts a colossal wedge from a carrot cake that’s the size of a tractor wheel and slides it onto a serving plate next to a diet-defying portion of whipped cream. Tarryn reads my mind. “We feed people here,” she tells me. “No one must leave hungry.”
Generous portions, slow-cooked comfort food, a natural-born chef, a lofty barn echoing with laughter and happy chatter – it’s all so, you know… farm. But without the mud and manure. The Farmer’s Daughter has come of age with contemporary flair.
Chef Jen Pretorius sits back and chats to us a little more about life in the kitchen…
I was setting up a four-tiered wedding cake and the bottom two layers collapsed on each other. The wedding was that day so I had to make a plan. I found a cardboard box, cut two pieces from it, stapled them together and iced it. Luckily the collapsed sections were still edible so there was no shortage of cake.
Have you had any accidental successes?
My four-hour roast potatoes. They came about when I went out shopping and forgot I’d left a batch of potatoes roasting in the oven. I was sure they’d be charred when I got back. They were fabulous.
As a child, what was your favourite food?
My mom’s spaghetti bolognaise.
What is your favourite food now?
Pulled lamb. It’s cooked for ages and is so juicy and super-soft it falls apart. I also love garlic mushrooms served with poached eggs Hollandaise and rocket on chewy toast.
What is your fantasy food holiday?
A trip to Italy. The whole family tradition fascinates me; of how gran and mom did things and passed that down to the next generation. I’d love to go to family-owned bistros to watch the family making their own pastas and pizzas and everything else.
When inspiration fails?
Moving to our new premises at Yard 41 was just what I needed to be inspired afresh. This happy space aside, my business partner and close friend, Tarryn Wallis is my biggest inspiration. She keeps going no matter what. (Tarryn interjects: “Wine is a big help.”)
Talking of wine, what is your favourite?
I have two. Jezebelle Chardonnay by La Vierge, and Josephine Pinot Noir by Domaine des Dieux. (Tarryn is in full agreement.)
Currently, it’s The Free Range Cook by New Zealander, Annabel Langbein. The emphasis is on fresh, home-style food using locally sourced ingredients, which is pretty much our ethos at The Farmer’s Daughter.
Schoon in Stellenbosch. It’s absolutely wonderful. Everything from the ground up is local, and produced by artisans. My favourite KwaZulu-Natal restaurant is Delish Sisters at The Litchi Orchard in Salt Rock.
What’s Tarryn’s favourite? Chefs Warehouse in Bree Street, Cape Town is also fantastic.
Who is your role model?
My great-aunt Betty. She was the kindest, most generous person. She and my great-uncle came out to South Africa from the north of England in the 1960s. They did very well and even bought my Dad his first farm. But Aunt Betty never forgot where she came from. And it’s because of her that I’m a chef today. She saw my talent, said it mustn’t be wasted, and put me through chef school.
The Farmer’s Daughter, Yard 41, 4 Shafton Road, Howick
033 330 2958, [email protected]