Local chef recounts the day he cooked for Nelson Mandela

Brett Ladds and Nelson Mandela. (Photo: Madiba Appreciation Club: A chef's story by Brett Ladds)
Brett Ladds and Nelson Mandela. (Photo: Madiba Appreciation Club: A chef's story by Brett Ladds)

Brett Ladds knows exactly how Nelson Mandela liked to drink his rooibos tea – in his role as executive chef and manager at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria he got to know Madiba really well. He also got to cook for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, was once given cigars by Cuban president Fidel Castro and serenaded by American singer Quincy Jones. In this extract from his new book he reveals what it was like spending six years rubbing shoulders with the powerful and the famous.

Have you ever noticed how the wildest things happen in the morning? This is why I like to wake up early – to give myself enough time to prepare for the unexpected. On one particular morning in 1998 I was under the impression President Mandela and his cabinet had gone down to Cape Town to attend parliament.

The sun was so amazing that morning. As I lay in my bed I heard a car. A door slammed and then there came the sound of voices. I jumped out of bed. There was no time for clothes; I ran down the stairs in my PJ pants and T-shirt, sped down the kitchen passages, turned into the main passage and, as I was running, looked in all the rooms to check for anything out of place. All I could see were dirty cups and saucers on the tables. This made no sense-  before I put my head on my pillow I’d always ensure the house was perfect – ready for a last-minute arrival. I heard a noise at the front door. I jumped down from landing to landing, skipping the stairs. As I got to the door, with all my energy I opened it as quickly as I could. There, to my surprise, stood a small delegation, staring at me in bewildered bemusement.

“Brett, how are you?” asked John Reinders, head of the protocol office.

 “Mr Reinders, good morning to you.” “Sorry, it looks like we startled you.” “Did I miss something?” “No, not at all. We needed a place to have a quick meeting, so we asked the police unit to open up. Knowing that youalways have everything ready we didn’t want to hassle you.” “I really don’t mind.” “I know you don’t. This was really a last-minute decision.”

I was relieved to know what was going on but I was a bit annoyed I hadn’t been notified – it was still my baby. With all eyes still on me as I stood there in PJs, I said, “Mr Reinders, if I may ask, who had the meeting here?”

“How rude of me,” John said. “President Fidel Castro, this is our guesthouse manager and chef, Brett Ladds.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the Cuban president replied.

 “Thank you, President. I do apologise for how I look. Normally I’m clothed.” I could see Castro was just as startled as the rest of us. He reached into his jacket, took out two cigars, and handed them to me. “Thank you for the time at the guesthouse.”

 “Thank you, President.”

The next thing John opened the door of the host car and the president got in. Off went the small convoy. There I stood in my pyjamas with two cigars from Cuba given to me by Fidel Castro in front of the presidential guesthouse of South Africa.

In 1997 a visit was arranged for British supermodel Naomi Campbell and American musician Quincy Jones, one of my all-time heroes, to meet President Mandela. The first to arrive was Naomi. No large delegation or convoy escorted her – she arrived in an upmarket sedan.

The door closest to me opened, and out climbed a tall, beautiful woman.

“Welcome to South Africa and to the presidential guesthouse, Miss Campbell,” I announced as I tried to take her hand.

 Miss Campbell started acting as if she had a cramp in her neck from her long flight, her head gesturing at the car.

“Miss Campbell, are you fine?” I asked. She leant in to me. “Miss Campbell is on the other side of the car. I’m her aide.”

The woman who got out of the other side of the car didn’t look impressed to be there. “Welcome to South Africa and to the presidential guesthouse, Miss Campbell.” “Where’s my room?” “Please follow me, Miss Campbell.” “Bring my things,” she said to her aide.

I walked in front of her up the first stairs, then down the passage to the next flight of stairs that led to the top floor where the suites were. “How many more stairs?” “We’re almost there, Miss Campbell.” I couldn’t wait to get to her suite so I no longer had to deal with her.

 I did the tour and asked if there was anything else I could get her.

 “If I need anything I’ll send my aide.”

 In all the state visits of all the high-profile people who’d had the honour of being invited by President Mandela to stay at the presidential guesthouse, I’d never been treated so badly.

Later that afternoon Quincy Jones arrived and he was just as cool and mind-blowing as I’d expected. He loved that I knew so much about him and had followed his whole career. But he was more interested in President Mandela and who’d stayed in the guesthouse, and stories about our beautiful country. He was just so awesome.

Later, once he and Naomi were seated in the dining room, I explained the menu and took the orders. I went to my kitchen and started making the meals. I really wanted to impress Mr Jones. He’d been so patient and giving that I wanted him to feel like a king. I sent the team in to serve the starters and when I saw the clean plates come out of the dining room I knew I’d nailed it. Then a maitre d’ came to me to tell me I was wanted in the dining room.

 F**k, I thought. What could the problem be? I walked into the dining room.

 “Are you happy with your starters? How may I be of assistance?” Mr Jones – Mr Quincy Jones – stood up and started serenading my food, singing one of his songs as I tried to fight back tears of joy.  The next day we cleaned the guesthouse and got everything ready for the president. He was scheduled to meet Quincy and Naomi later in the afternoon.

When Mandela arrived he looked excited to see his guests. As he walked into the lounge Naomi almost convulsed as she rushed to get to the president first. She couldn’t stop saying Mandela was her father and she was his daughter. Then the president greeted Quincy. As they stood speaking it looked as if they were long-lost friends. Once the hype was over I started serving refreshments. As I walked past the president, who was speaking to Naomi, he took my arm and gently drew me closer. “My chef has been looking after you, Naomi?” “Yes, thank you – he’s been treating all of us very well.” “Good. Chef and I’ve come a long way together, and all of us at the ANC have respect for him. Do you know we used to live together here?” I thanked the president as he continued speaking to Naomi – about me, I could hear.

For the rest of her stay I was treated like I was the celebrity.

Brett resigned from his post in 2000. Today he owns Chefs@566 restaurant in Pretoria.

This extract was taken from The Madiba Appreciation Club: A chef's story by Brett Ladds. This article appeared in DRUM Magazine (10/05/2018)