“With food you have to think a little differently, go wild,” a beaming Dané Vermeulen (30) says on a rainy afternoon overlooking the bustling main street of Paarl in the Western Cape.
We’re talking in Food For Mzansi’s headquarters, an office we share with our digital partner YehBaby. As a member of the YehBaby team, Vermeulen and I interact often at work, but I only recently discovered our shared interest in food.
As a home cook and aspiring food photographer she believes that food may be central to our survival, but it definitely does not have to be boring.
Take your first meal of the day, she says with typical candidness. This does not have to be a bowl of overmilked soggy cereal. “We always think, ‘oh I don’t have time in the morning, I need to grab something simple and quick and easy.’”
“Food is such a big part of our lives, we eat for survival, we eat for community. A lot of time we slack on making food interesting for ourselves, that is when we start missing out on what the possibilities of food can be. Why not enjoy it? It is something you are going to do for the rest of your life.”
Vermeulen is what some may refer to as a jack of all trades. Creative, methodical and honest. These attributes are channelled through her love for whipping up authentic home cooked meals.
While her passions for food burn bright at this present moment they were only ignited in her early adult years. Her adolescence was not filled with elaborate culinary memories.
But today the kitchen maestro is making her own memories. She channels her creative spirit and marries her passions for food with her equal love for photography on an Instagram page she calls Life’s A Dish.
Host family opens doors
Vermeulen, born and raised in Paarl, confesses that her passion for food do not stem from her own family.
“We joke about it today too. I think it comes from where you have got a family and are a working mother. Her cooking came from a place of ‘oh I have to put something on the table, get it done, get the family fed,'” she adds sympathetically.
“Even though she loves us she does not share my love for cooking.”
In 2008 she matriculated from Laborie High School.
An animal lover, she was filled with an urge to pursue a Bachelor of Sciences in biodiversity and ecology at Stellenbosch University, where she graduated in 2012.
After graduating she worked for an environmental consulting firm. She soon grew listless, discovering that the field lacked creative expression.
“Even though I am methodical and love science I also approach things in a creative way.”
A year later Vermeulen packed her bags and boarded a plane to the Netherlands. “At that moment I said to myself, screw this, I need to find myself. I wasn’t happy with my career or what I was doing.”
Her trip would become the catalyst to her culinary curiosity.
In 2014 she began her year-long journey as an au pair in Bennebroek, where she met host family, the Fosters. The patriarch, Jim Foster, took on the role as kitchen sensei of sorts with a penchant for home cooking, Vermeulen explains.
“He would not flinch from cooking a three or four-hour meal because it will taste good. That was his end goal. He could get so excited about this new recipe that he would like to try out even though it would take five hours. And I was like, why?” she asks, unable to contain her laughter.
‘Cooking is the one thing that’s been calling me over the years, marrying food and photography is my ultimate passion.’
“If you spend five hours cooking on a Saturday, that’s your day gone! And I’m just thinking, no man, I want to go party, I want to go to Amsterdam,” she pauses as if she had an epiphany.
“It’s because good food brings family together. It is a communal celebration. It is about sitting together and enjoying a genuinely good plate of food. And I started viewing food in a very different way.”
When she returned to South Africa in 2015, she was on a mission to redefine her family’s palates.
“I thought that I could show my family what good food is, but I don’t think they really understand. They don’t share the same love I have for cooking and that is fine.”
Despite her disinterest in the kitchen, her mother still tries her best. Dad not so much, though.
“My dad’s cooking extends to braai and for him it’s more of a chore than enjoyment. He works hard so cooking anything is the last thing on his mind,” she says.
Cooking is a science
Food has the innate ability to push a person’s “happy buttons” she believes.
“It’s the one thing that’s been calling me over the years, marrying food and photography is my ultimate passion, it’s been a calling,” she says passionately.
Vermeulen adds that it is the truest form of artistic expression. Food is art but it is also a science, she says. “Cooking is an experiment as well. Certain flavours go together, and you can test the boundaries of those flavours.”
Vermeulen has aspirations of developing a cookbook that would transcend cultural barriers amongst South Africans.
“Most people do a food blog or something like that, but I’m not a writer,” she says firmly.
“Part of my aspirations would be to bring out a cookbook someday with quick and easy, interesting, flavourful meals. We are a rainbow nation, we should explore each other’s flavours. I would love to focus on more local influences in my food and marry them together, because why not?”
She advises young chefs and aspiring home cooks to, “be true to yourself. Experiment. Be inspired, but never imitate. Bring your own flair to it because that is how you will stand out.”