Tuesday, April 25, 2017: It’s 6.15pm and I’m standing in front of 38 Lower Church Street in Woodstock. It’s a nondescript commercial building with a ‘House of Glory Ministries’ sign on the facade. This is the venue for an exciting new pop-up restaurant and the flickering lights and shadows on the second floor indicate that some last-minute preparations are on the go. The plant-lined sills are more reminiscent of a house of hydroponics though than that of the Lord but I’m soon to discover that they are an integral part of the setting, created almost entirely from discarded objects and hundreds of wooden pallets found around the neighborhood.
Sourcing in the immediate environment, getting to grips with local is at the core of the One Star House Party concept, scheduled to open the following evening. Cape Town is the eighth world city on the team’s mission to establish 20 restaurants in 20 cities, over 20 months. Conceived by chef James Sharman with partners Kevin and Trish McCrae, the idea is for the team to land in each city four days prior to the event and to gather, skillfully dissect and reinterpret the local ingredients and cuisine, which is then presented through seven courses.
To most, this would seem like a mammoth task but for Sharman and team all appears to be under control. Having honed their skills at Michelin-starred establishments like Noma in Copenhagen, The Ledbury and Tom Aiken’s in London, it’s no wonder they’re able to navigate a new locale in four days then orchestrate a unique culinary experience each time with such military precision.
“Trish is singlehandedly the best front of house person of any rank I’ve ever met. She was the first piece of the puzzle,” raves Sharman. “Her husband Kevin is the brains behind the build of each site and is also a chef. And then I flew a few other people out who were taking holidays from their regular jobs. Everyone used to live pretty grownup lives compared to what we do now.
“A couple of days ago we didn’t even have a finished menu, which must seem so crazy from the outside,” says Sharman. “But the best way to explain this is that we have all worked in certain restaurants that have given us a very militant approach to food. So places like Noma are quite revered for the way they change you as a person and as a chef. Also in the way you approach ingredients of course, in the creative sense but also in terms of efficiency and the way that you conduct yourself and the way you work. However, that militant environment drove us to do something different because we were all quite sick of it. But to its testament, it gave us the skills necessary to do something like this.”
Sharman moved to Hong Kong and the others soon followed, with his flat becoming the venue for one of a few hap-hazard pop-ups before the idea for “20” was born. However, as Sharman puts it, Hong Kong was to have its way with them and it soon became apparent that they had to take what they knew and apply it to the city but without any set rules.
“We had quite dogmatically created a menu before I’d even got to Hong Kong. Once I started to build this and execute the menu in the city, it wouldn’t allow me to get some of the ingredients but I was presented with others that were better. I couldn’t get the furniture I’d imagined but was able to get something that worked even better. We realised that if we were to take all of the ingredients and our own skill sets and apply them to each country like a formula it would be interesting to see what came out the other side. So that became the model.”
So how exactly does one capture the flavour profile of a country or city in four days, in seven courses? “For a couple of people, the first impression of ’20’ is that we are trying to sum up an entire country’s foodscape. But the point is that it’s just stuff we’ve found and enjoyed and had fun with.
“Cape Town has been quite easy because everyone speaks English and it’s more attuned with where food is coming from and where it’s going. But then you go to places like Vietnam and the only way you can really follow what’s local is by using the local markets. Places where you couldn’t even hope of exchanging a word but know that nothing has been flown in. It’s what people use because that’s what they can afford. You know that this is the real flavor profile of the place.”
What did he discover in Cape Town? “It’s a snapshot of what we’ve had here. There have been a couple of really interesting dishes that I’d never seen or heard of before but overall it’s the ingredients here that really shine. In some countries there is quite a fixed idea of what the food is and the techniques that go into that food. Thai food for example is very much dictated by ingredients like fish sauce and that gives a very clear profile of the 12 dishes people know and would expect to see in a Thai restaurant. South African food is a little more creatively up for grabs. We found ingredients that I haven’t seen for years. I probably tasted the best celeriac I’ve ever had. The climate and soil all just work here. The ingredients here have definitely taken precedent.”
Apart from the celeriac, the most exciting discovery for Sharman has been springbok. “I’ve fallen in love with springbok. I’ve never seen anything quite as lean but it doesn’t lose flavour. We met the guys at Ryan Boon [Speciality Meats] and they’re hanging the springbok shoulders so long and soak them in milk, which neutralises the blood. According to him it’s an age-old technique. It literally changes the gaminess of the meat and breaks down all the proteins. And wine grapes, I love them for cooking as well.”
With each pop-up restaurant funding the next, it’s not only undiscovered ingredients and food culture that give this incredible project its edge. Success here takes them on to Florence, which will be 9th on a journey that began in China. Vietnam followed, then Thailand and Nepal where they did the base camp of Everest. Oman then India, a floating restaurant in Kenya on a raft they built in Tigoni outside of Nairobi, and now Woodstock until May 11.
“One crazy night, we decided the whole trip. We literally started with about 75 countries. We rely heavily on Post-Its, so everything goes up on the wall in different sections. All the countries went up on the wall, our favourite ingredients, people we hoped to meet, ideas for venues, and it all worked itself out and we had a journey. What you experience here is no bullshit. That’s a very rare thing I think. Everyone is different but we can come and chat to you for 15 minutes if that feels right. It’s very honest and very raw.”
Stay and chat they certainly do. Cooking is done in full view and each course is presented in person by one of the chefs who explains each dish and happily hovers a while to answer any questions you may have or just to chat.
Having experienced the full spread, I believe that revealing every detail would be totally unfair and I encourage readers to book right away.
Each course was a marvel but highlights included the extremely tender beef, prepared and hung like biltong for four hours before being warmed on the Weber, then served sliced with smoked beetroot and a hazelnut puree, with freshly baked bread on the side.
For the third course, snoek found its place in fine dining and onto my list. Gently seared for a few seconds sashimi style then served on a barley reduction with a little kelp oil, these clever people tamed this fierce fish with its distinct taste into something quite delicate and totally mouthwatering.
It is tempting to haul favourite equipment along for the ride like a sous-vide machine, especially when the intention is to create magic wherever you land. A paired-down tool kit is far more practical, however. In Sharman’s case it also opened up his mind to the cooking that happens locally. “Having limited equipment opens you up to new techniques, like in the case of the Kenyan ceramic jiko pots.”
But there must be a few things a chef would not leave home without?“Post-Its. The basics like knives.”
They’ve a smart way to deal with crockery too.“If you think of tableware, which is a huge problem for someone like us in our position. Anything interesting or unique is expensive. So we’ve found a technique with a very normal white plate and we fire them over charcoal. It’s gives them a little more depth. One of a few little tricks that make us tick and I hope people understand this. Literally a mistake.”
Apart from the founders, the team changes from time to time depending on who applies for an internship online. One Star House Party also invites young chefs to join them on their creative journey at OneStarHouseParty.com.
Tickets are $85 and available online on OneStarHouseParty.com. One Star House Party will be in Cape Town until 11th May 2017. Guests are asked to bring their own booze.