Bringing a subtle Japanese touch to the Stellenbosch area, Chef Mune Kimura has built a unique establishment and a loyal following at the Postcard Café, says Tudor Caradoc-Davies.
The broad strokes of a life’s course can, for the most part, be pretty predictable. Grow up in one country, maybe travel a bit and see the world when you’re younger (if given the chance), then settle down back in your home country, most likely in your home city (if fate and the job market allow), marry someone with a not too dissimilar backstory and live happily ever after.
Mass generalisation? Of course, but it’s not entirely inaccurate that that is the reality for most people. For many, the travel bit does not happen at all.
Chef Mune Kimura is an exception. I wager that where he started and where he is now is something neither he, his wife, his mom, nor the regulars at the Postcard Café on the Stark-Condé wine estate in Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch, could have predicted.
Here’s what our wine writer Greg Landman thought when he visited Postcard Café.
The grandson of a sushi master, Mune was born and raised just outside Tokyo and left home at 15 years to try and make it as a pro footballer in the UK, where he tried out for Oxford United. A knee injury put paid to those plans, but after attending language school, he joined a cooking school in Surrey. His first job straight out of cooking school? Raymond Blanc’s fabled Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire.
Still, that doesn’t explain how he landed up in South Africa running Postcard Café. To get to the root of that you have to understand that, while he is quiet and unassuming, Mune’s career path would indicate that he does not do obvious.
Like a rolling stone
Instead of following the rich tradition of young Japanese chefs serving an apprenticeship in Europe, with a view to returning home to Japan (where time and time again we hear that the French and Italian food is better than that found in their countries of origin), Mune wanted to travel.
“I spent about five years in the UK before I came to South Africa. I met a German waiter working in the UK who said he was on his way to South Africa to work as a waiter in a hotel. It sounded interesting, because I had never heard of anyone going that way. I wanted to travel and go somewhere I’d never been, somewhere unknown to myself, and explore, but work at the same time, get some experience. I came here for a trial shift at the Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl. I was offered a job and have been here for 18 years now. It’s home.”
A new beginning
In those 18 years, Mune’s put down some proper roots. He got married to Marichen, a Paarl local, and they have two children. He continued working for Grande Roche, did a stage at a French restaurant in Uruguay of all places, then had his own restaurant, Megumi (named after his mom) in Paarl for five years. When that closed, Mune spent a year with Christophe Dehosse at Joostenberg before joining Stark-Condé to head up Postcard Café.
Now a 100 to 120-seater establishment, ‘café’ is a somewhat modest description. It may have started that way when owner Marie Condé started the show, but Postcard Café swiftly grew from coffee, cake and quiches into something much more substantial.
Today, Marie, whose mom is Japanese and whose South African dad bought the farm 30 years ago, continues to run the front of house, but chef Mune handles the food. She says, “At the beginning, I thought that if I concentrate on coffee and baking cakes, then people will come and fetch their coffee and cake and that’s it. I realised quickly, in about one day, that South Africans don’t fetch their own food. They like to be served. So I had to hire staff. Mune has been with me almost from the very beginning.”
Drive all the way through Stellenbosch, past Lanzerac and Le Riche in the direction of Jonkershoek and, before you get to the old trout hatchery, Stark-Condé is on your left. It’s a ridiculously beautiful valley of wine farms and indigenous fynbos.
Marie informs me that it has the highest precipitation in the Western Cape along with the notoriously soggy Newlands in Cape Town. As if to prove it, for the duration of the shoot, the rain tips down in biblical sheets over the lawns and the pond, where renovations are underway to a wine-tasting pergola. The rain is inconvenient, but no one is complaining. This is the drought-stricken Cape after all.
Food with style
There’s a Japanese feel to the design of the garden and the buildings, but it’s subtle and this Japanese subtlety seems to be a trademark of Marie and Mune’s working relationship. Marie says, “Stellenbosch and South Africa have changed a lot in 20 years. I mean, people eat sushi at the Spar. When we moved here, that was unthinkable. We decided we did not want a Japanese restaurant because the focus is on the wine and we wanted it to be the kind of place where local people could come once a week, which they do.
“But, because of our background, a little bit of Asian sort of seeps into the food, like in the salad dressing for example. There’s always a little something. One of the recipes on the menu is a teriyaki beef burger.”
Want to make the perfect teriyaki sauce? Chef Mune shows us how.
Having worked in super-fine-dining establishments, and run his own Asian restaurant, Mune has seen enough to develop his own style, one that gels perfectly with the casual yet classy approach at Stark-Condé. From a seafood linguini to a Thai prawn curry, the famous teriyaki burger (that comes with a disclaimer that it’s not a normal burger), pork neck chops and beef cheeks braised in red wine, his food is designed to please, comfort and, for those who want something different, surprise.
He says, “Food is very personal. It’s something you put in your mouth, in your body. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. There’s a very fine line between like and dislike.
“Here in South Africa, you can’t serve what you would in Japan. The taste is totally different. The stuff we serve here is too sweet for Japanese people. Too spicy, too strong. I think the flavours in Japan are too subtle for the South African palate. China, Korea, Vietnam are different, with a stronger style of flavour, but Japan is very subtle. We use dashi stock in most of our cooking. It’s a base for a lot of things, like chicken stock. Even with home cooking we use dashi.”
Looking to satisfy your sweet tooth? Try chef Mune’s vegan chocolate pudding.
Even in the deluge on what should be a quiet Tuesday morning, customers start arriving. There are several tables of tannies having coffee and cake, a few young student couples on a date, and even the odd power business breakfast.
Marie says, “We try to stay casual, because the Winelands has enough superfancy, gorgeous places. We want to make it welcoming for a 20-year-old and also for a 20-year-old who wants to take granny to lunch. We get a lot of multi-generational groups. You get the dates, the engagements, the tannies having a quiche, family Sunday lunches. Everyone is kind of familiar with each other. It’s really the community.”
Maybe, but it’s also the varied breakfast and lunch menus that Mune changes with the season. He says, “I like to mix the classics that I learnt years ago with something that’s different. For example, we have a beef cheek braised in red wine. It’s a classic Italian dish, but at the same time there aren’t many places serving beef cheek. It’s something people would not cook at home.
Give chef Mune’s lemon tart recipe a try.
“We try to keep the menu quite tight. Something I learned over the years is that if the menu is too big there’s a lot of wastage. I aim to sell everything. We’ve got something for everybody. Italian, vegan, fish lovers, meat people. We’re also quite big on cakes. A lot of people pop in for coffee and cake.”
There’s a contented hum running through the place, and even among the staff there’s a familiarity and calm, which, when compared to the high intensity and volatility of most kitchens, is rare.
Mune says, “Every kitchen has a different style of doing things. As a chef you pick up pieces everywhere you go and then, when you have your own place or are in charge of a place, you put all the good stuff together. That’s what I’m doing. I have worked for a lot of chefs, I know what it’s like to work under different kinds of chefs. At the end of the day, our objective is to put out that food as good and as fast as possible. To do that, we don’t need shouting. It took me a few years, but right now I have a brilliant team. People ask me, ‘So, do you cook at home?’ The answer is no, because I don’t have my staff.”
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