Cape Town has become a very exciting place to live in. For a greedy gannet such as I, it’s mainly because there are so many brilliant chefs currently working at the height of their powers in the Cape, all cooking their merry little hearts out. And who’s complaining?
I have long admired Jacques Erasmus. One needs a whole bucketful of adjectives to describe him, really, because he is so multi-talented and accomplished a human being.
Tall, enigmatic and coolly handsome, he is the kind of person your eye naturally gravitates to in any given scenario. He has that certain air about him; an aura of graceful containment. It’s only when you get up close and start chatting to him that you realise what a wonderful sense of fun and enjoyment he has, bubbling over with warmth, kindness, generosity and that wicked sense of humour. Did I mention he has dazzlingly blue eyes? He has those, too.
As chef, artist, master stylist, all-round wunderkind, creator and founder of Hemelhuijs restaurant, there seems to be just no end to his abundant talent and inspiration. It bubbles out of him like water from a clear mountain spring.
His food philosophy is simple and unpretentious. The vision is honest and clear, grounded firmly in his upbringing in the semi-arid Kalahari, where he spent many happy days on his grandparents’ farm. Food must taste of itself and be as natural as possible, he believes. A voluptuary who understands the necessity of restraint and editing, what he puts on a plate before you is sheer and utter magic. He turns simple boerekos into something luxurious and deeply satisfying.
For his 2016 Winter Menu, Jacques drew inspiration from Spanish realist painter, Juan Sanchez Cotán (1560-1627), an artist he is currently obsessed with. In a time when other artists were celebrating opulence, Cotán chose to honour the ordinary and this marries Jacques’s outlook perfectly.
Jacques elaborates on his inspiration: ‘It was the honouring of his subject matter, the representation of the ordinary, the simple, the mundane, that resonated with my heart. For Cotán could paint potatoes and turn them into masterpieces. He saw the beauty in ordinary things, understood the context of food and he elevated them into the rare and precious commodities that they were at the time.’ Isn’t that so lovely?
He continues to set out his aim with the new Winter Menu: ‘After 5 years of creating the food I love at Hemelhuijs, I know that the secret lies in simplicity, and this menu is a celebration of the simpler things. It is all about the food. I feel the need to get away from everything that is pretentious, or perceived to be ‘grand’. I have simplified my food, pared it down even more. It is all about the purity of flavours. If you bite into a piece of pear in a salad, it must taste like the pear. A quince has a beauty all of it’s own, it doesn’t need adornment.’
If this all sounds unbearably pretentious, rest assured it’s not. The Hemelhuijs experience is as refreshing as a glass of cold fountain water, because all excess and pretense has been stripped away. What you get on your plate is pure goodness. And boy, is it good.
Located in downtown Cape Town – an area that has been rapidly upscaling in recent years – Hemelhuijs has been enchanting Cape food lovers and bon vivants for almost 5 years now. And when I say enchant, I mean it. Alone among his peers, Jacques truly understands the captivation of unexpected magical touches when it comes to food. Like the array of old-fashioned, brown apothecary-style bottles on the shelves, containing secret spice blends and seasonings. (For sale at R200 per jar, there are about 18 in the collection and I WANT THEM ALL.) What other restaurant can you think of where patrons will be found standing around with their noses plunged into jars, inhaling deeply? Well, that’s what we did yesterday.
He’s also probably the only person who can serve a traditional soft breakfast porridge with salted butter and wild honey in a 24 karat gold-plated porcelain bowl, and have it make perfect sense. Of course we should be eating our porridge out of gold-plated bowls. Why ever not?
The decor is a feast for the senses. Jacques changes the colour of the interior walls with the seasons. When I was last there, a rich red ochre – the colour of Kalahari sand, he said – pulsated from the walls. Yesterday, it was an almost austere, muted, dark forest green. ‘The colour of our old school blazers, remember?’, he quipped with a gleam in those bright blue eyes.
The service counter will always host an exuberant display of jewel-like desserts, glass Weck jars of home-made fruit jellies and preserves, and lavish, luscious tarts for dessert.
His sources of inspiration are nothing if not eclectic. I have known no other person so fully immersed in – devoted to – creating, living and breathing beauty every day in every way possible. Jacques describes how to find beauty in the here and now, like this heady experience of a full-blown peony: ‘You must look at it every day and enjoy it and admire it while it is in full bloom, in the vase, on your table. Every time you walk past it, look at it and enjoy it. Even when it begins to wilt slowly, day by day, dropping petals until only the stem is left, look at it and admire it, it remains beautiful.’
The fare at Hemelhuijs is mostly a riff on traditional platteland boerekos, with a few very thrilling Asian segues, haute trend arpeggios and some uniquely jazzy Jacques-isms. There is a strong sense of composition, in the musical sense, not only to the room and the menu, but to how it all comes together. It is therefore no surprise to learn that he was an ardent and gifted student of music before joining Laetitia Prinsloo’s ICA for his chef’s training.
He cooks like a dream; taking subtlety, contrast, texture and colour to an almost indecent level of sensory delight. It takes exactly 30 seconds after entering Hemelhuijs to feel a sense of deep, voluptuous surrender washing over one, starting with the aroma of freshly baked mosbolletjies – a sweet yeasted bread perfumed with aniseed. The mosbolletjies are made fresh daily according to the traditional – and time-consuming – recipe, and are served at table in lieu of bread, with black volcanic salt and dukkah oil. A seductive combination, and ample illustration of what is to follow.
Yesterday I was invited to sample the new Winter Menu at Hemelhuijs. I took along two companions, one an old school friend whom I haven’t seen in decades, who now lives in America. What better way to savour nostalgic memories of our country childhood than with Jacques’ food at Hemelhuijs? We oohed and aahed and took many, many photos, Instagramming, tweeting and sharing on Facebook, and of course, we ate to our hearts’ content.
We kicked off with the three house cocktails of infused spirits, herbs, spices and cold-pressed juices, and one of the Hemelhuijs signature all-fruit blends.
The bone broth starter with beef marrow, shaved green papaya, chilli and ginger was fiery, pungent, lush with fresh herbs and the potent zing of fresh ginger. It was the first thing I thought of this morning, and I can’t wait to savour it again. It’s all I can think of, actually. My salad of fresh orange, creamy salty gorgonzola, crisp endive, salty-sweet sesame-nut caramel brittle and blood orange dressing was a deliciously crunchy munchy affair. And as far as I am concerned, a top contender for ‘Best Salad I Have Ever Eaten’. Meltingly tender veal with crab butter, parmesan, pine kernels and rocket made me feel like I was receiving a hug from the inside; all stress and strain dissolving as I devoured mouthful after mouthful. My friend with her multiple allergies tucked into her rice flour-dusted and fried pepper calamari with gusto and appreciative murmurs while across the table, our companion sat in rapt silence as he worked his way reverently through a generous serving of traditional koolfrikkadelle on creamy mash.
Excellent coffee accompanied by shared portions of the ethereal melktert and a deconstructed Hertzoggie tart concluded two hours spent just short of gastronomic paradise.
Without any doubt, Hemelhuijs should be on your bucket list when you visit Cape Town. If you live here, you ought to eat there as often as you can. The breakfasts are legendary. The service is warm, efficient, relaxed but very professional. The prices affordable (ridiculously so, for this standard of cooking). The experience: unforgettable.
Hemelhuijs, 71 Waterkant Street, Cape Town. Open Monday – Friday 9am – 4 pm, Wednesdays also from 7 pm – 10 pm for dinner. Saturdays 9 am – 3 pm. Closed Sundays. Book 021 428 2042
To visit the website, click here: Hemelhuijs Restaurant
Thank you to Manley Communications and Hemelhuijs for inviting and hosting us to enjoy the new Winter Menu.