From small eateries to major conglomerates, the tide of the covid-19 pandemic was unrelentless in its damage to businesses. But chef and owner of the Station Street Kitchen in Paarl, Mynhardt Joubert (44), has managed to overcome the struggle. While recovery is slow, he says chefs were forced to become more innovative and adapt to the new normal. Noluthando Ngcakani visited Joubert at his home.
The Cape Winelands is home to many culinary treasures. Behind a red door on Station Street in the heart of Suider-Paarl I discover one which captures the essence of the fine-dining experience the area is famed for.
Behind this door lies a sanctuary in the home of Joubert, who opened his space eight years ago to foodies in pursuit of authentic country culinary experiences.
“This really happened by chance, before I opened my eyes there was a long queue of people who wanted to book a seat at my table,” he says.
Upon arrival I am greeted by a tall, slender man, who Joubert has sent to guide me towards this bright red door which perfectly frames the Afrikaans language monument on the mountains in the distance. It unlocks an almost whimsical world vibrant with colour.
Entering the kitchen, it is abuzz with activity as the team of seven are packaging boxes of goodies for the “Mynhardt’s Heritage Day” campaign. To survive the lockdown, he has become quite innovative, offering dining packages over Zoom.
The Free State-born chef is quick to give credit to his team of smiling companions.
Seated behind a computer screen is his manager and right-hand man, Frikkie Janse van Rensburg, who is responsible for finances and the management of staff; in the kitchen cleaning shellfish is a woman with a beaming smile, Jasmine Mcghee.
‘Food is the one thing that comforts you, it makes you feel like you belong. It nurtures you.’
The man who has been my guide into this world of whimsy and wonder is Daniel Opperman, who tends the gardens, prepares food, and polishes cutlery.
Together the team is like a well-oiled machine who have just begun thriving under the new normal.
Joubert, with his background in the performing arts coupled with his genuine warmth, has all the makings of a natural entertainer. He hosts dinner parties for groups who have booked well in advance. He has now turned to the digital sphere to keep his cooking business afloat.
Passion forged by the arts
Joubert was born in the eastern Free State farming town of Ficksburg and had always been creative at heart. Farm life, he says, was always filled with celebration and festivities with his mother at the helm, cooking up a storm for visitors. To this day his mother Winnie is the muse that charges his passions for cooking traditional, wholesome country food.
“I was very fortunate that I started cooking from a young age. Our house was always filled with people, so the mood was always festive.”
In his early adulthood he studied performing arts in Pretoria and has danced ballet on the global stage. After twelve years his career met its end, and like many artists he struggled to transition from the stage to a “normal life.”
While visiting friends in Cape Town, he grew to love the city. This attachment would soon see the origins of his journey into food and wine. “I loved the vibe and the atmosphere during my stay, but then the money ran out,” he laughs.
‘The lockdown has pushed me in a direction that I am grateful for; to be able to do what I love despite the challenges.’
In order to survive he turned to waiting tables at a bar in the Cape Quarters called the Nose Wine Bar, where he speedily climbed the service ladder to a position as manager of the bar.
After spending time in Cape Town, he grew listless and was drawn to Riebeek Kasteel, a small town 80 km from the city. Here he met Anton Espost, who is known to be the visionary behind Short Street – a street filled with vibrant eateries and culture.
His passions for food were intensified by the produce grown in the region. After a short stint at the Royal Hotel restaurant as a chef, he was invited to take the reigns as head chef of Bar Bar Black Sheep, a restaurant he founded with Espost in Riebeek Kasteel.
“We had a beautiful marriage of local wines that he would actually make. Anton had this vision of creating this peasant-style restaurant that offered head to tail meals that were really fantastic to make.”
His stay in the professional kitchen did not last long, however. “Five years was enough for me and I left when the restaurant was at its peak.”
He later moved to Malmesbury, where he lived on a farm, further gaining an appreciation for locally produced food. In 2014, he entered the cooking competition Kokkedoor on TV channel kykNET, and won with his partner, chef Tiaan Langenegger.
“Many good things flowed from this. I got to design and style my very first cookbook for the Kokkedoor edition and together the two of us started cooking up a storm throughout South Africa.”
Emergence of the digital dining experience
Prior to the announcement of the hard lockdown, things were going well for Joubert. Like many he was confused about how things would pan out in those initial 21 days of the announced lockdown.
“In my mind I thought me and Frikkie could just carry on as we normally would. We were getting ready to do the Cheese Festival and they had already paid their deposit, which we had to pay back because the event was cancelled,” he recalls.
‘To survive we had to transform.’
He set aside his own needs to make sure his staff were well taken care of. “I had to take care of them. I emptied out all of the credit cards and goeters to make sure they were surviving.”
Things have slowly begun to return to normalcy as the lockdown restrictions which constrained the hospitality industry have been eased.
“Very quickly we got the ball rolling again. We used frozen meats that we had intended to use for weddings and other events and started making meals for home delivery.”
He attributes his survival to adaptation. To stay relevant in the culinary industry you have to stay on your toes. Food became central to said adaption as he turned to the Cape farmlands to source only the best ingredients for his meals.
“Food saved us. Even though people were baking bread and baking banana bread once they allowed deliveries, people were yearning for Station Street country cooking.”
To maximize his reach he turned to Zoom, where he uses the platform to create a virtual dining experience.
“To survive we had to transform. Food is the one thing that comforts you, it makes you feel like you belong. It nurtures you,” he says.
“If anything, the lockdown has pushed me in a direction that I am grateful for; to be able to do what I love despite the challenges.”
He advises young chefs and home cooks to keep an open mind. “People have become disillusioned by culinary schools, they believe it begins and ends with the professional kitchen,” he says sternly.
“Food is always at the forefront and there is always room to work for yourself, it is a varied industry, the world is your literal oyster.”