By Ilana Sharlin Stone
It’s a fact: when all over Instagram, I see my favorite local chefs eating in the same place on their day off -- that’s where I’m going. In South Africa’s Cape Winelands, The Table at De Meye Wine Estate is that place.
Chefs drive the hour from Cape Town’s CBD to The Table, not for the idyllic oak-shaded lawn, itself a tonic after a week spent in an urban restaurant kitchen. The real pull is the heartfelt authenticity and inspiring food provenance of owners Jessica Shepherd and Luke Grant, who are poster children for farm-to-table in South Africa.
Not only chefs have a crush on Jessica and Luke, a married couple in their early thirties. They have a following of people who admire how they live, and their devotion to doing something real and in keeping with their beliefs. “People see us and they think this is a romantic lifestyle, and maybe they live vicariously through us,” says Jessica, a chef who her husband says is more comfortable calling herself a cook.” It’s clear that they do what they do because it’s purposeful and feels right.
The kitchen may be the heart of The Table, but the soul is its 8500-square foot garden on a parcel of this once old dairy farm. A garden lovingly created by Jessica and Luke around permaculture principles. While today, it only supplies them with some 25% of their produce, Luke, who has a financial analysis and operational background, is working to make It much more productive. Built in May 2015 on a clearing of wild grass, it looks as if it’s always been there, just like its old brick silo, now encircled by granadilla (passionfruit) vines.
The couple frankly states that they are more or less gardening novices, although they’ve had some professional advice along the way. YouTube videos filled in the gaps. It all started seven years ago with peas and carrots planted outside their Stellenbosch apartment. A few years later, they moved to Greyton, a smaller village, where they planted their first proper garden. Their harvest made its way into pies they baked and sold at Greyton’s weekly market. When the opportunity came in 2013 to take over an existing restaurant at De Meye, they jumped on it. The garden came later, although from the beginning, their products have been almost entirely locally sourced -- not so difficult when you are in the bountiful Stellenbosch Valley.
Their top-up of produce, eggs, pasture-raised beef and free-range pork, hand-milled flour, yogurt which is made in a village for the intellectually disabled, cheeses, and olive oil all come from nearby producers. Jessica’s only concession is the butter she uses, which is from the northern part of the country; it’s the most pure and natural she’s found.
Jessica has always loved to cook -- “my mom baked cakes forever” -- and by age 12, she knew she wanted to be a chef. After culinary school, she was drawn to small boutique restaurants and guesthouses. “I like to feel I’m cooking for people I know…for family. Food should be familiar and provide comfort…that’s my approach.”
“It’s home cooking with flavors people might not think of when cooking at home,” she says. The flavors are representative of something deeper…. commitment to living a more conscious life. ”Using food that is seasonal and produced locally. And supporting people who are doing what they believe is good for the planet and for our bodies.”
I’m at The Table on a Thursday morning, in the middle of Spring, Southern Hemisphere. The garden is thick with broad beans, peas, spinach and leeks. Some of the fruit trees – plum and peach – are dotted with pink blossoms. Jessica is just starting to toss around ideas for the upcoming weekend menu. “I can’t commit to a dish and I’ll usually change my mind several times before Friday. I have ordered beef shin, so we’ll do something with that. We have a lot of sugar beets in the garden…I’ve never cooked with them before, but maybe I’ll try to bake a cake with them…like a carrot cake.”
This is the menu she will ultimately end up with: Appetizer - twice baked goats cheese soufflé with foraged porcini mushroom cream and baby leaf salad and locally baked Schoon de Companje sourdough and farm butter; Main course - grass fed beef shin slow braised in red wine with garden parsley gremolata, sweet and sour garden savoy cabbage, organic pumpkin with orange and rosemary crumb, and roast onion and rocket salad with balsamic and olive oil. The vegetarian option is a Table favorite: garden beetroot tarte tatin with soured cream.
For dessert, she eventually shelves the idea of a sugar beet “carrot cake”, and instead makes pistachio panna cotta with strawberry sorbet, and a honey and fennel seed tuile. But I am there before this menu actually comes to life, when a walk through the garden kicks off her weekend of cooking.
In the garden, there is so much to take in, and to look forward to, next season. Like artichokes, figs and raspberries. But while it’s pretty to me, it’s operational and hopefully someday fully sustainable to Luke. “In the beginning, we focused on the garden’s aesthetic,” he said. “Now we focus on its health, and in particular the health of the soil.” Two of his permaculture efforts are a banana circle, which is like a natural composting system, and terraced swales, which work to eventually create a sustainable food forest.
Weeds largely remain unpulled; they have their place as indicators of what’s going on in the soil. Clover, a natural nitrogen fixer, has been sowed everywhere. “Gardens should not be perfect; they should be natural,” says Luke. Which is exactly how the food at The Table appears: family style, on mix and match vintage dishes. It’s unfussy and real… which is why chefs and a whole lot of other people are fans.
You can find more from Ilana at http://findingumami.capetown/