Somewhere over the rainbow...

2012-04-05 10:06

As we arrive, the backs of Montecasino’s faux Tuscan towers look even more gaudy than usual in the dying light and the deserted Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams looks like a scene out of that weird TV series Carnivàle.

A gold chain denies us entrance to the all-white bar area and red carpet that leads into the large, recently refurbished tent where the creators are putting on a new show, El Milagro, set in a fairy tale world.

The sense of being on the threshold of another world begins here – everything along each side of the broad red carpet is painted white, save for a bright pink car, which has a bed and an array of mattresses on top of it – it won’t be long before we find out who is going to recline on them.

We are here to talk to some of the 100-plus staff who keep this unique entertainment ticking over. Among them is the chef, Grethel Ferreira, who puts out about 2 000 plates of food a night, and Vanessa Cornelison, the front of house manager who keeps a hawk eye on everything, from making sure early guests get a drink to ensuring everyone gets the right plate of food when the show gets under way.

When Ferreira arrives, we are amazed to find she looks so young – as do most of the folk here – yet she has been in the kitchen’s top job for the past six years. She has just begun training her replacement as she is soon to become group kitchen operations manager for all the Madame Zingara Group’s restaurants, which include four other eateries in Cape Town.

Since Madame Zingara’s last visit to Joburg, the tent, one of the last surviving of its kind in the world, has been down for routine maintenance and there are a range of tweaks in every area, including new crockery for the meze course.

The chef’s attention to detail extends to every aspect of the operation. “The menu has the same structure, but there’s a crockery change. We have new custom-built meze stands – fairy tale stands with stars around them,” says Ferreira. It is all part of the team’s desire to create a complete otherworldly experience for their guests.

As for her 36 kitchen staff – 19 of whom are chefs – they all know what they are about in her neat-as-a-pin, supersorted kitchen. Though she has some turnover, she says the secret to getting each of the four courses’ 450 plates out of her kitchen together is down to a team that has remained mostly intact since her tenure started.

“The sous chef does the fish, because it’s the pretty dish; I do the chocolate-chilli fillet because it’s the fast dish,” she says, adding that she gets all her fish from a company in Cape Town that is linked to the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

In this age of increasing awareness of ethical eating, she doesn’t want to take the chance of accidentally serving up something on the red or orange list. Linked to that same trend, she says she has noticed a marked increase in the number of vegetarian options that get ordered, but with a few noted exceptions, folk come for her signature chocolate-chilli fillet.

Cornelison tells me there are 30 waiters who become her team once the lights go down. She ensures that all the food gets to the right table on time. She has only been with the operation for two years, but already she says it’s like her family. Which it needs to be as the core Madame Zingara staff are away from their Cape Town homes for six months at a time.

“You get homesick, but then you get busy and I meet 400 different people a night,” she says, explaining the lure of this nomadic life that echoes that of a travelling circus.

As we are chatting, the evening gets slowly under way as the last streaks of light fade. Performers emerge from the array of neatly arranged containers around the back of the tent. In the dressing-up store – where guests can buy colourful masks or hats or have their faces painted – a man in devil horns awaits his first customer while his fellow face painter touches up the make-up of a waiter dressed in a red satin and gold trim pharaoh outfit.

At the bar, the drinks are beginning to flow and the twinkling lights that dress Cinderella’s gold pumpkin coach come on, building the fantasy elements of the evening one by one. By the door a giant glitter ball lies on the floor and an army of credit card machines awaits the beginning of another night of food, drink and merriment.

As we return to the entrance, the Madhatter – a.k.a Martin Davis – is shepherding guests to the bar, charming the ladies and making the gentlemen laugh.

Everyone who attends seems to know the drill. They are dressed up in their little black dresses and are sporting that pair of heels that is only dusted off for special occasions. The women are all wearing their most expensive perfume, and the men all look recently scrubbed and are wearing polished shoes.

While Davis, who has been donning the Madhatter’s towering selection of hats and green velvet jacket for about a year, tells me about his other life as a stand-up comic, I notice the bed atop the pink car is occupied. Ample and gorgeous in her gold satin princess dress and glittery eyelids, Stella Magaba – not Mugabe, she says with an infectious belly laugh – tells me she is the princess from The Princess and the Pea.

“Later I’ll be a mermaid,” she says, and then she will sit in Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. Magaba, who is one-third of singing group 3 Tonnes of Fun, isn’t singing this time around. She, like her singing partner, Lilian Khumalo, who is decked out in a tomato-red traditional African dress, is one of the evenings hostesses.

Magaba has been with Madame Zingara for eight years and her two children – one 19 and one nine – are used to managing without their mother for a few months at a time. I look around to see that one of the white cubes below Magaba’s perch is occupied – by a human pretzel in a black body sock with white spots.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen marquee, the staff is quietly and efficiently prepping for the night. Everything is spick-and-span, the bowls gleam and so does the floor. Ferreira’s chefs take up their stations while she chats to the man behind this travelling marvel, Richard Griffin.

The original restaurant was in Cape Town, but burnt down in 2006. With rebuilding out of the question, the concept was reimagined and became the Theatre of Dreams.

While a few waiters – dressed as jesters, pirates, princesses and Fräuleins – have a final puff on an illicit ciggie before the procession that marks the beginning of the revelry, a man speeds out of a trailer out back followed by a
well-aimed soccer ball thrown by a woman in white lycra. She dashes after him and gets a dressing down from Griffin.

Minutes later she emerges, draped in a dove-grey cape looking regal and poised. She joins the procession that includes a Zorro-like character, a trio of strongmen clad in white satin loincloths, Cathy Specific hiding out in a French maid’s outfit and a mysterious looking Asian woman in a beaded fascinator – all of them ready for another night of make-believe.

Even in a place as surreal as northern Joburg’s Italian-inspired entertainment mecca, Madame Zingara comes up trumps in the fantasy world stakes.

» Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams El Milagro is at Montecasino’s outdoor venue until the end of August.
» To book: 0861 623 263

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