It’s been 12 days since Convivium 2016, and my total one-day immersion in food and chef culture at Kalmoesfontein, Adi Badenhorst’s wine farm in the achingly romantic Swartland. Yet, I still find myself thinking about it a lot. Because thinking about it makes me very happy.
I still get a rush every time I recall chef Margot Janse of The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais saying that “actions speak louder than intentions,” in a talk that made the hairs on my arms stand up. Or when Pavs Pillay of SASSI spoke about the remarkable recovery of kingklip, South Africa’s favourite fish, after near decimation, a turnaround guided by human intervention. Or when Kurt Ackermann of Oranjezicht City Farm spoke about the need “to turn a foodie culture into a food culture.”
More than anything though, this intimate and informal get-together of about 150 or so pre-vetted food people to talk, cook and eat food was a reminder of how far South Africa has come in how it thinks about food. I feel lucky to have been there.
Twenty years ago, when I was a chef and restaurant owner, I couldn’t have imagined farmers and chefs chatting about sustainability over a beer. Or getting soaked while eating breakfast in the rain, because the conversation about calamari was too interesting to warrant looking for cover. Or that I’d be watching a butcher break down a beef carcass at a food event. Or that a beef farmer and a kombucha maker would find something to talk about…of course, back then, I’d never heard of kombucha either.
I couldn’t have even imagined that a beef farmer would be interested in talking to me. Or that an event like this could ever take place in South Africa. Things have changed.
Convivium 2016 was a relaxed yet organised forum where chefs (so many of our best along with others just starting out) could inform, listen, learn, think, talk and collaborate. And where farmers and producers could learn more about the challenges chefs face. And all could go home stimulated by the possibilities and make some changes for the better, for their customers, their community and the planet.
My personal highlights from the eight talks:
- Margot Janse, one of South Africa’s greatest chefs, sharing the story of Isabelo…the feeding scheme she started in 2009, which now feeds 1300 Franschhoek Valley schoolchildren every day. “As chefs, we have to ask: ‘What are we doing?’ There’s a discomfort…this is Africa! We are charging a lot of money for a plate of food and a glass of wine. It’s a bit empty, if that’s what it’s about.” And, on feeding hungry children: “It’s not about: ‘Here’s your egg, you need to eat it.’ It’s about connecting with them and looking them in the eye; giving them attention.”
- Pavs Pillay of SASSI, the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative. The really bad news: “In South Africa, 80% of our inshore seafood is depleted and 81% of our commercially exported fish is overexploited.” The good news: people can still make positive changes. In 1992, kingklip was about to be moved to SASSI’S Red List (meaning Don’t Buy). Through changes in industry fishing practises, driven by SASSI, kingklip moved to the Green List (meaning Best Buy) last year. Other simple changes in long lines and fishing hooks have led to a 90% drop in bird mortality and significantly lower mortality rates for sharks, turtles and dolphins in certain areas. Work with what you’ve got was the message for chefs: with prawns about to go on the Orange List (meaning Think Twice), think about not serving them every week, or mix them up with a Green-listed fish.
- Kurt Ackermann of OZCF Farm sees “a disconnect in the high end of the foodie culture from the food. Excellence in prepared foods doesn’t have to disconnect people; it can connect them. Food doesn’t taste different depending on how much money you have.” Kurt was full of suggestions to connect people: like restaurants communicating where their food comes from, seasonality, heirloom or not, etc. to their customers. And, more actively connecting with farmers: bringing restaurant staff to farms, and bringing farmers and their teams to restaurants and serving them a meal. “If farmers know that chefs will work with them, they’ll be more cooperative,”…meaning that they will grow what chefs want: “more interesting food.” Chefs, by working with farmers, will help them develop better cash flow, and so on.
- Adi Badenhorst, winemaker at AA Badenhorst, talking about how he got fired from Rustenberg for swearing and making a dodgy rosé, but more seriously, how the result of modern farming is homogenous produce, and how if you select a clone and plant it in homogenous soil, everything becomes a clone of itself. And why the Swartland is so inspiring to a winemaker.
- Roushanna Grey, forager and food lover…passing around the audience sprigs of indigenous herbs with fresh, biting scents and ideas of how to use them.
- Piet and Koot Prinsloo, father and son beef farmers from Daybreaker Beef in the Eastern Cape gave me some food for thought: that sometimes you have to choose between farming that is environmentally happy and farming that is animal happy; and that we need to balance the whole 600 kg animal – it’s not all about a 3 kg fillet. “Chefs need to be more openminded about using new cuts…more forequarters!”
- Jono le Feuvre of Rosetta Roastery, in his talk about the three waves of coffee culture, referring to “douchbag baristas with cravats flapping.”
- Ross Symons of White on Rice, origami artist, on the power of collaboration, which was what this whole day was about. Ross quit his job as a web developer to make origami, and now has a thriving business and 108,000 Instagram followers. And he’s happy doing what he wants to do. It made everyone in the audience just want to go for it, whatever their personal ‘it’ is.
The food was great, of course. Duh! A shot of Rosetta and PJ Vadas’ perfect pasteis de natas, followed by pretty muesli cups, breads and homemade jams from Colette Robert of The General Store. For lunch, we trekked up a steep hill from the farm to the forest, where salmon trout was seared on logs, broad beans were grilled and bread was baked on stones. Lunch was courtesy of Wesley Randles of The Shortmarket Club and Jess Grant of The Table.
As tremendous as this all was — and I was on a total high when I left Kalmoesfontein — I also felt that there is still a long way to go, which I suppose is the whole point of Convivium (now in its second year): to make our food community stronger and better. Mostly, I look forward to the day when the make-up of Convivium and our top restaurants better reflects South Africa’s diversity. This issue needs our attention more than ever before, particularly in Cape Town.
That said, this is a strong and inspiring starting point, which left me with a head full of thoughts about sustainability, farming and community, long after it was over.
Convivium 2016 was the brainchild of Andy Fenner of Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants and Wesley Randles of The Shortmarket Club, and was produced by Hannerie Visser’s team at Studio H. All the food was donated by producers and the chefs who prepared the meals, as were tastes from producers like Hope on Hopkins (gin) and Theonista (kombucha) and the use of the venue by the Badenhorst family. It was a generous undertaking by all involved.