The Culinary Capital forges an equitable future

[This article was written by Ilana Sharlin Stone and was first published by The Daily Maverick. The article can be found here:  https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-22-the-culinary-capital-forges-an-equitable-future/#gsc.tab=0]. Republished with permission.

Chefs prepping veg at Franschhoek’s Le Petit Manoir. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

The village known for tasting menus, salmon trout, bubbly and hop-on hop-off wine tours is rapidly shape-shifting into a village trying to keep its own community fed. Could Franschhoek become a national community model, and what happens when the crisis subsides?

Two months ago, Franschhoek was that idyllic village with French-named restaurants where locals and foreigners revelled in the pleasure of charcuterie platters chased down with MCC. Today there are no tourists and Franschhoek is feeding 13,000 of its own hungry citizens every week.

It is an effort nothing short of epic, moved along by volunteers and donors of all income levels. The mavericks behind it hope this is just the beginning of a more equitable and self-sufficient future, especially once the inevitable donor fatigue begins to set in.

Franschhoek is a concentrated microcosm of South Africa, where great wealth rubs thighs with poverty. Coronavirus and lockdown wreaked havoc on the village economy, which is reliant on wine, tourism and hospitality. Everyone is suffering to varying degrees, yet the result is an unharnessing of mass generous support, with chefs some of the key players in turning a village into a community. 

From fine dining to community feeding, the passion is palpable (even over the phone) for what is a life-changing shift for chefs Margot Janse, formerly at the helm of The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, who has run school feeding scheme Isabelo since 2009 (full-time since 2017), and Chris Erasmus of Foliage restaurant.

In 2019, Janse was one of a group of Franschhoek chefs who attended a brainstorming session to discuss local tourism. “I said, we can do fun events, but forget about it – as a village we need to look after the whole village and set a different tone to become more integrated. We cannot do this anymore, this wealth and this poverty right next door to each other.” She could see everybody was willing, but how to start? At the time, Janse didn’t believe she had the base to support such a change, even with the international recognition her charity Isabelo had received. 

“Somehow this coronavirus has taken care of that a year later,” she says, as she finds herself a lynchpin in Franschhoek’s massive community feeding initiative.

Feeding the community

Chefs Chris Erasmus (left) and Margot Janse (right) making plans at Erasmus’s restaurant Foliage. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

Erasmus started the lockdown initiative with Ashley Bauer, a fire alarm safety consultant who is also Franschhoek’s volunteer fire manager. Since Janse now lives 20km from Franschhoek, she had to wait for her permit to travel. Once she had it, she began coordinating a team of volunteers who assembled and distributed parcels of donated food. “We quickly realised this was problematic,” she says. It took a big labour force to fill the bags, the contents were expensive and the distribution system couldn’t ensure that the neediest received food.

Chefs were also cooking, packing and freezing individually portioned meals that went out to the community, but this had its limitations too. Isabelo has since joined forces with Franco (Franschhoek Resource and Network Coordinating Organisation), and Franschhoek Lions Ladies under the umbrella of Together Franschhoek, a non-profit organisation coordinating food relief to the community, which is focused on providing soup kitchens with the basics: starter kits of prepped vegetables, meat and pulses that are ready to quickly turn into nourishing meals. This more efficient and equitable roll-out of food is coordinated by Bauer. 

The daily food production is monumental, particularly given the limited size of restaurant kitchens and social distancing within them required for safe production. Seven days a week, volunteering chefs and community members chop hundreds of kilos of vegetables that are donated by farms and produce suppliers like Dew Crisp, which delivers a truckload of vegetables each week. Foliage, Chris Erasmus’s restaurant on Franschhoek’s main street serves as the depot for vegetables and command centre for donations. Wish lists are posted on the door appealing for items such as mielie meal, cooking oil and dried soup mix. “People even donate spray paint for social distancing,” says Erasmus.

Down the road, Chefs Warehouse at Maison, run by chefs Liam Tomlin and David Schneider, is where meats are delivered, processed, vacuum packed and frozen. On the same block as Foliage, Le Coin Français, owned by chef Darren Badenhorst, is where “pulses and other stuff” are processed, says Erasmus. 

Colleagues from Cape Town have been joining the Franschhoek chefs in their prep. “Every day, Liam [Tomlin, who also owns several Cape Town restaurants] drives in from Cape Town, bringing chefs with him. Ivor Jones [Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia] and Nanda Cardoso [Chefs Warehouse Bree Street] are all coming through once or twice a week. “Instead of whiteys just cooking for the poor, we’re doing it together… I find it very special,” says Erasmus.

The system that serves the soup kitchens is democratic. “We supply five black bags of vegetables plus one bag of meat for every 100 people,” explains Erasmus. The food is prepped to the point where once delivered to the soup kitchens, it can be finished in less than an hour. Cooked meals are also delivered three days a week to the Isabelo feeding scheme schools.

Village hygiene and an innovative hand washing system

Maintaining hygiene and physical distancing in the distribution of food would be impossible without the hand washing stations that have sprung up in Franschhoek at vital points where people congregate; and the rollout of these throughout Franschhoek, spearheaded by antique dealer Jeremy Astfalck. He hadn’t done community work before, but when business dropped and he closed his shop, he went about creating a hand washing station at the main Franschhoek taxi rank. “We worked out that the only defence we had in the beginning was hand washing,” he explains. 

The well-researched pipe-based system is lightweight and easily transportable, based on garden irrigation with sprayers spaced one metre apart to support physical distancing. The sprayers give enough water to wash and rinse hands, with waste kept to a minimum. At each station is a nylon mesh vegetable bag containing a bar of soap. Explains Astfalck: “The soap never leaves the bag, and the bag scrubs your hands, so it’s providing the necessary cleansing and abrasion to properly clean hands.” The system pulls from a water tank, which can be transported by bakkie. There are currently 17 systems across Franschhoek Valley, with four more to be installed shortly. They are at key nodes: taxi ranks, the Post Office (where people collect for Sassa payouts) and alongside soup kitchens, where adults and children must line up and wash their hands before receiving food. Astfalck self-funded the first few; then Franco stepped in and assisted with fundraising.

To receive community support and to ensure social distancing and equitable access to food across the valley, soup kitchens must be vetted by Together Franschhoek. “This is going to run right through the winter so it has to be run properly,” says Astfalck, who adds that the biggest challenge is accessing Franschhoek’s foreign nationals, who mostly live towards the top of Langrug in informal settlements that scale the side of Franschhoek Mountain.

“We have now secured the last placement, at the top of Langrug after consultation with various stakeholders in the community,” says Astfalck, who also handles the logistics of food delivery. “We’ve noticed over time the cultural divide and language barriers. Foreign nationals are often told to wait; but they presumed they were being chased away. We need to communicate in different languages so they understand that they can eat there and that these soup kitchens are open to all.”

Education is key to the operation of soup kitchens, which are staffed with volunteers teaching children and adults about handwashing and face masks, many of which are donated. There is an effort under way to raise community respect and morale for these kitchens. Officially renaming them “food distribution points” is one way of doing this (although Astfalck says they are often still called soup kitchens within their communities). Erasmus has helped provide chef jackets and aprons to some of the soup kitchen cooks. “It’s a pride thing; they’re looking fancier while they’re doing it. People can see who’s in charge of the soup kitchen,” he says. 

One of these is Raylene Plaatjies of Mooiwater in Groendal, who since 2017 has run Veronique’s Soup Kitchen. Plaatjies has legendary status in Franschhoek. “My mother was like me; she always made food for other people; now they come to me,” she says. Today she feeds between 400 and 700 people a day.

Model for the future?

Cape Town-based chef Liam Tomlin, who regularly drives to Franschhoek to cook for the community, at Chefs Warehouse Maison. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

“I think we now have a model that’s a bit wild, but it’s calming down,” said Janse. “We have prep lists; we have scheduled deliveries; I think we’re in control… now we need to move it forward.

This is more than a small pivot for Erasmus, whose restaurant Foliage is highly lauded. “All my life, the pressure of awards systems for the restaurant; these things keep you in line with what you should be doing but not what you want to do,” says Erasmus. “Feeding people in the community every day is now the thing we chefs are focused on. We’ll make sure we all survive and have some income, but we can be part of the change.” He is almost evangelical about the future.

Erasmus, who is receiving rent relief from Foliage’s landlord (and, along with other restaurants, private donations of gas and electricity to keep the burners and lights on), has decided he will not return the space to a fine dining restaurant. His aim is to turn it into a small deli and grocery and sell “stuff that people grow in their backyards and make at home”, from local meats to koeksisters. “I want real people involved with their names on the labels of what they produce… it could be any product, but no big companies allowed.” 

Growing food in the community is an integral part of Franschhoek’s future, according to Janse and Erasmus. Guest houses and farms have already offered underutilised land. Proper fencing with green netting, irrigation and compost are already in place at Val d’Or Farm, and a plot has been planted with Erasmus’s husbanded seeds and the seedlings Astfalck managed to buy at the local Agrimark. There are offers from at least another eight farms to provide land for farming. “When we have planted all this land, we won’t have to beg for veggies. We will sell produce from the farms in the shop and the money will go back into the community,” says Erasmus.

This kind of community spirit pervades Franschhoek these days. For instance, Astfalck tells me that Paarl-based Rennie Farms has just donated 1,000kg of tomatoes. Erasmus will cook them into tomato sauce which will be used in the coming months. Any rotten tomatoes will go to a pig farmer down the valley. In mid-winter they will buy pigs from him and turn them into meat for the community. “Every single day is like this,” Astfalck marvels. 

There are no illusions about normalcy returning to Franschhoek or to restaurants any time soon. For the chefs, it has felt good to keep busy and support each other. “Did you come right with UIF? Are you managing to pay your staff? We’re all in the same boat… instead of staying at home and worrying, you can connect with your fellow chefs and help each other. I think it makes a big difference,” says Janse.

As for Franschhoek, it is starting to feel like a real community to her. “Like we’re all, and I mean all, working together.” 

When you talk to anyone involved, you get the feeling that this is more like a movement than an initiative. “We are being followed closely by communities in other parts of the country,” corroborates Astfalck. “This is going to be the blueprint for what will happen in the rest of South Africa.” DM/TGIFood

To learn more about Together Franschhoek, click here.

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