Diane de Beer
Pictures: Theana Breugem
What makes a good deli?
We have a few in Pretoria but if you check your favourite, mine happens to be Carlton Café Delicious (Menlo Park Centre, 71, 13th Street, Menlo Park) – it usually has something to do with the chef patron; in this instance, the fabulous Rachel Botes.
It’s all about quality produce and seasonal food, as it usually is with good chefs across the world, but with Rachel it’s about something more. It is her deep love of food, her instincts of what she wants to present and how, as well as strong roots in terroir which taps into her cultural background.
She never lets up. The deli is always evolving with fresh ideas popping as frequently as her trademark baked goodies that few can resist. She has a demanding clientele who through the years have appreciated the excellence, thus always expecting more. And she doesn’t disappoint.
Reading her daily specials on the blackboard is a treat and often trips you up if you’re expecting that all old favourites will remain on the menu. Because her dishes often defy the description, it’s difficult to resist just checking out what she has come up with.
She has developed a formidable team around her but as anyone in the competitive restaurant world knows, nothing stays the same for too long. Yet she has been up to the challenges, understanding that well-trained staff will move on to different experiences, sometimes simply dictated by a change in their lives.
A good example is her Friday Dinners, which were inspired by a tough economy and a desire to gift her customers with an enticing option at a competitive price to counter punch financial famine. The options are well thought through, varied and cuisine that would be difficult to replicate with similar excellence both in the kitchen and on monetary grounds.
There’s also the Friday happy hour, which was initiated to celebrate and spotlight a long-awaited liquor licence while simultaneously allowing the creative cuisine minds in the kitchen to explore and experiment. Watch out for some of these favourites to resurface in the new menus.
It’s not only the food that’s fiery, it’s also her choice of wines which she has astutely assumed should be cheap but of supreme quality because they are a daytime deli. She has some of the best sourcing secrets and if you are smart, make a note of your favourites for your own wine cupboard.
Different folks want different strokes in their desires for their best deli. In mine (or all honesty my partner’s), it is the anchovy toast breakfast (for the past few years and foreseeable future) that is the meal of choice – and would be any time of day, if there wasn’t a cut-off point.
Others cannot make their annual trek to the sea without the Rachel festive specials and it’s a treat of a different kind to watch these goodies being collected.
A few years ago that side of the deli has moved next door and there’s more breathing space all round but it has also allowed Rachel to have her own long table, which is used for separate occasions. You can book the table for a special lunch or evening event allowing the chef supreme to do her own menu.
She’s at her best when given free rein because it allows that cuisine craftiness to shine through.
If you wonder about her not receiving all the accolades her reputation so richly deserves, it is a result of its being a daytime deli. It’s as if the food powers that control these awards don’t take that kind of food finesse into account.
And yet, with everything she does, travelling the country to pass on her skills or to cook on request for people who know what she achieves in the kitchen, is worth experiencing, any time, any place.
If you’re wondering about this ode to a chef, it took some thought to decide when writing about food on this first-time blog, what would I like my first food musings to cover.
Why not someone who has been worth watching over the years, someone who has become a friend, but was first and foremost a chef whose artistry from the start was awe-inspiring?
Whether it is about a table setting, the choice of flowers or table decorations on a particular occasion, deciding to make her own biltong, or the way she has constructed artistic meals in art museums to accompany and illustrate an exhibition. Or simply thinking about the drinks she served all those years when she was waiting for a licence, to make it colourful for her clients who might have preferred a light wine with their lunch.
It’s about the innovation, the innate sense of style, the way she turns everyday meals into something imaginative with sleight of hand to make it special and often spectacular that fills a dreary day with sunshine.
This is a chef who loves to feed people, to have them smile, to add new tastes and textures, to surprise even the toughest critic – but also someone who has learnt to accept that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.
For me though, it is always delicious because this is food that is thought about, has to fit different criteria but in the end, has one goal, to be delicious!