Cooking up culinary tales

2011-11-11 08:46

Brian Shalkoff can spin a yarn. In fact, he can spin several into one epic tale of a restaurant that first opened its doors 44 years ago and a love affair that’s lasted almost as long with his partner in life and work, Eduan Naude.

Like any couple who have spent a lifetime together, they correct each other’s recollections and bicker good-naturedly about what came first and whether it was the queen of Denmark or French actress Catherine Deneuve who took a liking to the yellow duck-shaped casserole dish on a wall full of shelves bulging with mementos of the pair’s foodie lives.

One thing they are clear on is that Gramadoelas, now to be found at the entrance to The Market Theatre in Newtown, first opened its doors in 1967 – in a basement garage without a
liquor licence.

“In 1970, a little old lady came in to ask if she could do a dinner party,” says Shalkoff. “It was a strange one – to end at 7pm. She never came back.”

Leaving me hanging as to the relevance of this snippet, Shalkoff goes off on what seems like a tangent to tell a tale of a crowd of Americans who wanted to do a party and invite black people.

“We couldn’t get permission, but went ahead anyway and, from that day, Eduan said anyone could eat here,” says Shalkoff.

He then veers off topic again to ask me if I know that Naude had made Miriam Makeba’s dress. “You know, the one on the Drum cover.”

I didn’t know. It seems when he was 19, Naude worked in the clothing industry. But the sticky British garment union drove him into the restaurant business in the 1950s.

“I wanted to get into costume designing in the UK, but the unions wouldn’t let anyone in. So, with a friend, I opened The Casserole in Chelsea, which was successful in its day,” says Naude, who isn’t nearly as chatty as his partner, preferring to interject, clarify or object as Shalkoff keeps the anecdotes coming at a rapid-fire rate.

When Madiba first ate at Gramadoelas, he’d just been released from prison and so Shalkoff mischievously put Robben Island Seafood Stew on the menu for the party. 

“He asked for tea with hot milk and then introduced himself to all the staff,” recalls Shalkoff. “Quite, quite wonderful.” He then seemingly veers off again.
“Before the function, the phone rings and Mary Benson says she simply must come. Not knowing who she was, I asked the first person I saw – who happened to be John Kani – who she was.”

Kani explained that Benson was an anti-apartheid activist and writer, and, most importantly, was a close personal friend of Nelson Mandela since his days as a lawyer. Obviously she was a shoo-in for the shindig.

“When she arrived, I recognised her and said, ‘You were supposed to come to dinner’. She said, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t. I was under house arrest’.” Which, Shalkoff says, explains the security police’s interest in a place serving up South African food.

They were following Benson, not trying to taste the bobotie. Without drawing breath, Shalkoff relates another tale while simultaneously trawling through floor-covering samples. The couple are redecorating the kitchens of the flats they own.

“In 1992, the Americans wanted a party for 300, which became 450. Do you know what it’s like to cook for 450 people?” says Shalkoff with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, you start with two or three bags of onions.”

The upshot is that the stress of it all meant that he was up in the middle of the night watching TV. “Larry King was on with Hillary Clinton. She said she was going on holiday to South Africa. Suddenly I knew who I was cooking for!”
Needless to say, it didn’t help him get much-needed sleep.

There were 150 security police, who went so far as to follow guests to the toilet so that they could check the cistern after they’d flushed. Clinton’s first words, so the anecdote goes, were: “Where’s the biltong?”

To hear more about their famous bobotie burgers, or about the time the stove wouldn’t work on the eve of a royal visit, or how some South African favourites come to us via Indo-China, you’ll have to pop in for a meal and order a side of stories.

» Gramadoelas is at The Market Theatre Complex on Bree Street in Newtown, Johannesburg. They serve their signature buffet every evening. 0 011 838 6960

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