Making Chakalaca w/Chef David Higgs



Our first morning was spent at the Apartheid Museum.  I will share that in a later post.  But there truly could be no greater contrast that going from the Apartheid Museum to the Saxon Hotel (except perhaps going from lunch to the Irish Famine Memorial in NYC).

We met David Higgs, the Executive Chef at the Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg.  After spending most of his life in Cape Town he moved to Johannesburg.  Since joining the Saxon Hotel in May, he has worked to raise the quality of the restaurant offerings to the award winning level already enjoyed by the hotel for their service.  The Saxon receives top honors for its service and boasts such notable guests as Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and many others.

Chef Higgs greeted us at the door as if he were welcoming us into his own home.  In fact, The Saxon Hotel was originally designed as the private residence of Douw Steyn, the owner of the Saxon Hotel.  Much like the lord of the manor will, he proudly showed us around.  One of the many reasons the Saxon is popular for celebrities and politicians alike is the privacy.  They have recently built 3 private villas that can be accessed directly from the parking garage so guests can arrive and leave virtually unnoticed.  But trust me, if you are lucky enough to be able to score a villa, you won’t want to leave.  To reach the villas, you first walk down a habitrail like bridge which opens on to a beautiful boardwalk trail that leads you to the private villa.  It is so quiet and remote that you feel as if you’re in the middle of the bush somewhere.

Afterwards he invited us into his kitchen to prepare some traditional South African dishes.  There is no real clear definition of South African cuisine.  There is however, a common palette that favors both the very spicy and the very sweet.  Fittingly, we made a couple of entrée dishes and a few desserts.  I helped out with what he described as the South African version of bangers and mash (see, I knew there was a connection between South Africa and Scotland!) – chakalaca over pap with sausage.  Chakalaca is a spicy relish.  It’s made with onions, peppers, carrots, a tomato base and, oh yeah, A LOT of spice!  He served it over pap, a traditional South African dish that is basically corn mush, cooked to a polenta like consistency.  All served aside sausage.

We also made a traditional South African dessert, cake sisters.  It is fried dough twisted in a braided format and then dipped in more sweetness.  Forget the calories, just enjoy its deliciousness.

I asked Chef Higgs what he most wanted Americans to know about South African cuisine (he may or may not have missed the “cuisine” part) he answered, without hesitation, “that Johannesburg is safe”.  For him, this is one of the main challenges facing Joburg in gaining its place as a culinary hub.  With only about 15% of the city’s population with the means to eat out, tourism is essential to the growth of the restaurant industry.

For him, the excitement of Joburg is the cacophony of cultures.  Africa is home to 11 different cultures that come together, as I’ve said, to form a very similar taste palette, one he defines as a combination of spicy and sweet, everything is either very very spicy, or very very sweet.  And the convergence of those cultures is something he finds unique to Johannesburg. He left Capetown to, in his words, “experience Africa as it should be”.