This story was first published on 14 September 2016.
Two of the country’s favourite media superheroes have embarked on the Special Assignment of their lives – owning and running a restaurant in the platteland…
Jacques Pauw may have made headlines for his explosive book The President’s Keepers, but residents of Riebeek-Kasteel know him better as the welcoming owner of a bar and restaurant. Here’s what Jacques was up to before he started writing his book.
Swapping the reporter life for the restaurant business
Gone, for these two, are the days of flitting through Africa with a cameraman, a notebook and a notion of a good story to be told. No more killing fields of Rwanda, drinking sessions with death squads, TV production deadlines, dodgy spaza preachers, chasing junkies through the back streets of Maputo and sailing down the Congo River on a stinky market boat.
Gone, too, are the days of the generous expense account, the top-end media awards dinners, the acclaim and the sweet result of seeing the bad guy brought to book after being exposed on air. Since 2014, Jacques Pauw and Sam Rogers have been the proprietors of the Red Tin Roof, a rocking restaurant, bar and guest house in the heart of Riebeek-Kasteel in the Swartland of the Western Cape.
But this is no ordinary restaurant, bar and guest house. It could never be. Red Tin Roof is about the coolest country spot outside Cape Town, because the owners’ creative super-energy never went away – it was simply harnessed into the hospitality business.
The elegant property has a history of innkeeping. Its previous incarnation was as The Traveller’s Rest B&B. Now, it’s clear that Jacques and Sam have brought the bright bits of their extensive travels through Africa and other places to the enterprise. Mexican angels live here. So does a huge Chairman Mao.
‘Be prepared to rub shoulders with Piet Retief in the passage or salute Mohammed Ali in the garden’, is part of the Red Tin Roof’s website welcome. ‘In the bar a Vietnamese iron fist rushes an American B-52 bomber’. The enterprise has been very well captured and portrayed by their logo, which you see everywhere, from Facebook in the digital sphere to the tuk-tuk parked outside in the real world.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Riebeek-Kasteel and we’ve just arrived to see Jacques and Sam and get a first-hand progress report on this, their latest adventure. I find myself completely sucked into the decor pieces in the place, in particular a three-dimensional raised-tin tableau that spreads across one of the walls and hooks you right into the noise, squalor, vibe, earthy market smell, honk of the taxis, the sidewalk smileys and general street life that is a township. Fantastic. Gritty. And for most middle-class South Africans, best experienced on a wall in a Swartland restaurant.
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Here comes Jacques. And here’s Sam.
Greetings. We sit outside in the quietening courtyard. Lunch is a distant memory, and only the last few drinkers remain with what’s left in their wine bottles. It’s clear to see who is ‘front of house’ and who is ‘engine room’. Sam is all smiles, elegance and welcome. Jacques is all kitchen confidential, a bit like the mad genius you had to drag out of the lab and into the sunlight for an airing. Or, as in this particular case, a quick interview.
Making the move to country living
And for them, this is how it all began. Jacques was heading up a media investigations unit in Cape Town. Sam was with e.tv as a producer. In May 2010, they visited Riebeek-Kasteel after attending the Franschhoek Literary Festival nearby.
Sam recalls, “It was misty and everything was in golden autumn colours. It was raining softly as well, and we sat on the outside stoep at the Royal Hotel enjoying it all immensely. We liked the town – almost instantly.”
By now, they had both been hankering for the kind of space that a country home can offer, a release from the traffic and other city pressures. Jacques and Sam began to check the estate agent listings for Riebeek-Kasteel, found a glorious old place that used to be a foundry and bought it.
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“We moved in during the summer heat of December and it didn’t feel like the same town at all,” says Sam. “Had we made an awful mistake?” Obviously not, because they took to country life, like ducks to the proverbial.
Jacques says, “I tried to do more of my work from Riebeek, and went down to Cape Town less and less. And I really hated occasionally having to fly up to Joburg. I could feel a distance between me and that life.”
Having just read his Dances with Devils, I know exactly what he means by “that life”. Since I’d first met Jacques in the mid-80s, his career had been nothing short of stellar.
He co-founded (with Max du Preez, who also lives in Riebeek-Kasteel these days) the legendary Vrye Weekblad newspaper, went on to become the country’s top television investigative journalist and had the kind of adventures the rest of us were glad to only experience from our armchairs during transmission times.
A new direction
In 2014, everybody’s favourite media couple quit their high-paying jobs, sold their first Riebeek house and bought The Traveller’s Rest. They were now in the restaurant and bar business. “Jacques has always loved cooking for friends, you know, long Sunday lunches at a big table,” says Sam. “When this place came on the market, we bought it but there was a lot of work to be done. Also, we moved in above the restaurant.”
Knowing the value of good mentoring, they took advice from foodie friends and catering experts. And this is how they came up with the basic concept of providing simple comfort food, slow-cooked, very South African, stylishly presented.
These days, you go to the Red Tin Roof to feast on pulled lamb burger on vetkoek, pregos, peri-peri chicken, bobotie samoosas, skilpadjies (lamb’s liver), smoked snoek cakes, tamatiebredie with pumpkin fritters and, yes, biltong pizza. Lots of yum right there.
Opening night, 6 December, 2014, was madness. And now both Jacques and Sam take up the story in relay, “There was free food and a cash bar. All the locals were invited. Halfway through the evening, the power died. The lights went out and the credit card machine went off. We were collecting wads of money in paper bags.”
In the weeks to follow, life did not become easier for these two high-powered journos who had never exercised their accounting skills beyond the normal creativity of an expense claim. “We suddenly had to learn how to source and pay suppliers, how to employ people and handle all the paperwork associated with that, the tax stuff – it was like picking up a new skill set in a foreign language. And, nearly two years later, we’re still trying to get it together.”
Would you ever go back?
Apart from all that grown-up stuff, however, Jacques and Sam have turned the Red Tin Roof into the party venue of the Swartland. They organise events all the time, from live music shows right across the spectrum to games nights, in which a Hot Tin Roof version of The Weakest Link is played.
And the marketing also came very easy, of course. The reviews have been good so far and the Cape Town travelling market has cottoned on to the place. Still, there are slow nights (welcome to life in the platteland, boet!), but they have learned to relish the brief respites from the party circuit.
I ask Jacques if he would ever consider going back to ‘the old life’. “I am, officially, no longer interested in all that. People still pop in to the restaurant and try to engage me in conspiracy theories, but it’s not for me anymore. I sometimes get a late-night phone call from the odd, anguished Apartheid-era spook who wants to talk, but I don’t encourage that either.”
What about another book, to add to his already-impressive list? “I am an insomniac, so I used to wake up at 4am and write. Now, I wake up at 4am and bake a cake.” [Ed’s note: Clearly Jacques changed his mind!]
Words and Photography Chris Marais www.karoospace.co.za