February, 2009

...now browsing by month


Hilton Little: Chef to the President

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

When serving the President and his guests, “food should not be stacked on top of each other in the shape of a pyramid or tower. This might look good, but once the guest starts eating the prepared dish, it tends to fall apart and might cause embarrassment,” explains Chef Hilton Little. At a State banquet, the chef should avoid “food that is messy or difficult to eat, such as mutton, snails, lamb cutlets on the bone, frogs and oysters”. Indeed, the sight of a table of world leaders slurping oysters is one of the more off-putting things one could visualize.


Hilton Little has been the chef at the president’s official, and therefore rather modest, Cape Town residence, Genadendal, for the past 11 years, first under Nelson Mandela, then Thabo Mbeki. There are perks to being President, but having a private chef of Little’s quality cook for you, must count as one of the best.


The second eldest in a family of eight, he started assisting his mother peeling potatoes and chopping carrots at age nine. Once, his mom in a huff decided to teach the family a lesson and walked out on them for a day. When she returned, to her surprise she found the family at supper polishing off a delicious breyani. Little Hilton had cooked his first big meal.


From Wetton on the border of the Cape Flats where he grew up, he moved into a hostel at the Lansdowne Landrost Hotel School. It was “military like and we had to scrub floors”, he recalls.


He was apprenticed for three years at the Holiday Inn on Eastern Boulevard, starting in the production kitchen. Little worked his way through the departments to the main a la carte restaurant where he stayed for five years.


Curious and enterprising with a strong work ethic, soon he was at the newly built five-star Cape Sun where people in the 1980s would stare in wonder at the glass lifts riding on the exterior of the shiny building. He worked his way through the departments – pastry, butchery, the different venues – and ended up running the establishment’s fine dining French cuisine restaurant.


Winning competitions brought him to prominence. In his first national competition, he pre-empted his competitors. Where they presented the prawn cocktail in a glass, he decided to plate it; he deboned his leg of lamb before roasting it; and he made individual apple pies rather than dishing up a slice. Little would draw the food on disposable cardboard plates to work out how it would look.


In 1996, he applied for the position of household manager for the President of the Republic. He was summoned to Genadendal at 6pm one evening, where President Mandela, already in bed, interviewed him. Mandela asked if he could “start tomorrow!” It was the beginning of “a great relationship”. After he cooked lamb one day, Mandela expressed the wish that Little always cook for him. During his presidency, Little would follow Mandela to Houghton and even Qunu.


His style suited Mandela. “Remember that guests, no matter how eminent, shrink from ostentation. You should avoid the impression of great effort and you should always aim to put your guests at their ease,” says Little.


But he puts himself under major pressure to vary the meals. Once he asked Mbeki what he would like for lunch. The reply was, “I am going to leave that up to you.” Little keeps a hawk’s eye on what returns under the silver cloche. If the plate is clean, he writes down the dish’s name and next to it “success”.  A compilation of these is now in a lavishly illustrated book Bon Appétit, Mr President!.


Actually, Little started working on the cookbook some years ago. To his relief, Mbeki one day made the suggestion to him, so he didn’t have to seek permission. Mbeki kept encouraging him and by chance even introduced his cooking to the publisher. On publication, the President, who writes the forward, read the copy from cover to cover and congratulated him. “They did a very good job he said”, says Little.


“Always remember, recipes are only the foot prints; it’s only when you cook the dish, that’s when you travel the journey,” advises Little about the book.


All dishes were cooked exactly to the recipe for the pictures and photographed hot off the stove, during which time the editors checked the measurements for the ingredients. The publishers claim that it is the first book of its kind in the world by a chef to a head of state.


Little belongs to the exclusive Club des Chef des Chefs. Its thirty members are chefs to presidents and sovereigns, almost all from the Western world, and includes four women. Information they share helps him formulate menus for visiting leaders.


Has Little ever had any disasters? Apparently not. Protocol procedures are tight and hygiene standards high. “I also put a few drops of vinegar on the plate just before I serve. It kills bacteria and gives the plate a nice spotless polished look,” he says.


As it is the President’s last term, the year is particularly busy. Little is called upon to cook at Tuynhuys, the guest house and at Mahlamba-Ndopfu in Pretoria. The first lady approves the menus. If a catering company tenders for a state banquet, a tasting panel decides.


Little won’t be drawn on what is President Mbeki’s favourite dish, nor will he give away any dietary restrictions.


“Do you know any Zulu dishes?” I ask. “No, I don’t,” he shrugs. “There’s a reason I ask,” I press him. “Oh!” he laughs, “No, I used to cook for Jacob Zuma when he was deputy president and used to come here often.”


Bon Appétit, Mr President

by Hilton Little

ISBN: 9780798148986

Price (incl. VAT): R 295.00

Format: Hardcover, 192 pp

Long Street

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

The contrast between upper and lower Long Street illustrates an important point. Expedient demolition may bring rapid urban renewal, but at the cost of unique historical character. Unless you’re a salaried drone in one of its office towers, who wants to hang around soulless lower Long Street?  The success of upper Long Street (amongst those of us on the dole, studying or visiting) rests in its almost accidental preservation, though concerned citizens, the National Monuments Council and architects such as Revel Fox in the 1970s did contribute. Much of this conservation is of course only skin deep as façadism has become widely practiced. Yet, the street does retain a vitality and vibe that runs much deeper.


The sharp contrasts at almost every corner between grand and grotty, smart and tatty, restored and crumbling, can co-exist thanks to low rentals. Even second-hand bookshops – such as Tommy’s, Clarke’s, Select Books among others – have survived here. A mix of residential and business premises keeps the street real. Long Street is not a theme park. It’s a relatively civilised, Cape version of Yeoville’s old Rocky Street.


Weird and not always so wonderful characters abound: white Rastafarians in hessian, gold robed Nigerians, the great unwashed European backpackers, a Masaai warrior, devotees of Tom of Finland. At night the street belongs to the younger set, spilling over the pavements in carnival mood, out of nightclubs and pubs such as Jo’burg, the Dubliner Irish Pub and the Zula Sound Bar.


It’s also about as cosmopolitan as Cape Town gets, reflected in its many ethnic eateries, among them Ethiopian, Cuban, Indian, Kurdish, African, Israeli. There’s the African Music Store, Pan-African Market and Mama Afrika restaurant. On upper Long Street, speaking isiXhosa isn’t going to get you as far as a command of French.


Innumerable film crews are always closing down the road and radio taxis double parked in both lanes paralyse traffic at night.


Desmond Martin in the introduction to his charming book Walking Long Street (Struik, 2007),

which meticulously documents over 50 buildings, describes how he fell in love with the street when living in the 1950s in 44 Long, then the YMCA. The building narrowly missed demolition in the mid-1970s. It is now under the ownership of Indigo Properties, the creation of Nick Ferguson and his associate Jody Aufrightig, who are breathing new life into Long Street.


They developed the highly successful Biscuit Mill, and already have on Long Street the Daddy Long Legs Hotel (No 134), the Grand Daddy Hotel (No 34, formerly the Metropole) and The New Space Theatre (No 44), which opened earlier this month with Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins.


Run by the NewSpace Trust, a public benefit organisation, the theatre hopes to preserve more than a building. The original Space, opened in 1972 by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, was in Bloem Street. It relocated in 1976 to the YMCA building. In 1979 Astbury emigrated, and it was renamed The Peoples Space. Sadly, it went dark in 1984.


Defiantly non-racial and anti-apartheid, the Space was in the vanguard of South African theatre life. It saw the premier of Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act, the original productions of the John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Fugard’s The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and it is where the likes of Pieter-Dirk Uys, Marthinus Basson (then a stage manager), Mavis Taylor, Fatima Dike and Thoko Ntshinga, among many others, cut their teeth.


The project is therefore close to the hearts of many of us who love our city. As a school boy, I went almost every month. When 14 years old, I saw Fred Abrahamse (now Artistic Director of the NewSpace) playing a guinea fowl and became star-struck by a 20-year-old David Dennis in 1789.

The concept is to create a mini precinct offering a wide variety of cultural activities and facilities.

On the ground floor is Anytime, an Italian trattoria and ice cream emporium, and the Oolong Cafe, a tea emporium. Above the theatre, which is on the first floor, are the offices of the Africa Centre, and on the top floor is the Gymnasium, a dance studio by day and at night an 80-seater performance space for stand up comedy, film, experimental and developmental work and one-man shows. The rest of the building they hope to let to ‘theatre friendly tenants’.

Located almost exactly in the middle of Long Street, few projects could be better suited to the spirit of this street.