Catering for a lockdown

My restaurant, Moemas, which was in Parktown North, existed until three years ago when the landlords decided not to renew the lease. That’s when we went into catering. In a moment like this, I realise that this saved us, because we would not have been able to pay those revolting overheads during the coronavirus lockdown.

When our business model changed, we had to find our audience again — a process that continued for two years after moving. Customers hadn’t realised we’d gone, so we had to use social media to let people know what was going on. Not many people would google us, so we had to create a presence that made people realise we were still in business.

We did cold-calling in an attempt to resurrect ourselves. Luckily, a lot of customers are still with us and the massive reduction in overheads made it a relatively painless experience. We felt more fluid.

Social media has been great in keeping us connected with customers and finding new ones. We have been getting great feedback and, as a result of that, we’ve been finding that people are very generous and they will support us when we get back.

With our new business model, we began cooking classes, added a few single-line products like bake boxes, and ramped up our corporate and private orders. The bake boxes, which include items like brownies, magic bars, and the ginger and almond biscotti, are all ordered privately. When we tried to go the retail route with those, the retailer wanted as much margin as we’d make. What people love with these is that there is very little that they have to buy themselves — it’s all there and very simple to use.


Choux pastry doughnuts, filled with vanilla pastry cream and topped with chocolate ganache. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Of late, we have had excellent feedback from our cooking classes, and we were getting a lot of interest in the domestic cooking classes, to the point of looking at getting these accredited. All the other places offering classes seemed to be offering typical, frozen-line dishes like lasagne.

I’d actually go to the specific house and see what ingredients they are used to using, because everyone buys the same ingredients as they shop and perhaps they just need some fresh inspiration of new possibilities. That was an initiative we were going to pull off this year, but it has come to a grinding halt.

The effect of Covid-19 on our business began as a gradual trickle of postponements. The corporate lunches were the first to stop. At first, the private clients held out hope that their events could still go ahead, and then the postponements came in thick and fast. In the beginning, people were saying let’s operate on a take-away basis, but it wasn’t safe to be shopping. It wasn’t safe for the kitchen staff to come and risk their health. It made sense to shut down.

Adjustment wise, it has been amazing to see how little you need when you don’t have overheads. The cash flow is better when you are not operational because, when you are, you can do the gig today and still be waiting two months to be paid.

Although we have been able to pay our staff so far, next week we will have to begin instituting half salaries. Our staff will still be entitled to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund or the funds managed by the banks for the sector. We are very hopeful that things can get back to a new normal soon.

Chaux pastry frying in a pan Postma bought for her children to use instead of the commercial fryer. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Over the lockdown period, I’ve been grateful to be able to get out of my head and help anyone with new recipes, as long as there is a promise that it is relatively easy. People tend to feel intimidated. The majority of the people who have stopped cooking have done so because they think it is too much effort. Nothing is as delicious as when somebody has cooked it for you, but it’s easy to tire of your usual flavours.

I have an incessant need to feed people, I love the idea of gathering around the table and slowly enjoying a feast — a meal that is slowly prepared over the course of the day, no stress allowed … Timing is key, but, it’s a beautiful thing — if it’s your thing.

This past Sunday, on Facebook, I shared a spinach-and-pea soup recipe that was quite simple. I was very clear in the instructions that the onions are the only ingredient that take a lot of time to prepare. Don’t underestimate what a beautiful dish you can create if you slow-cook the onions. When done with the onions, you can throw in spinach, peas, some stock and water and blend it until smooth. But don’t underestimate this simple first step, please.

I have been eating so much more during the lockdown, but I’m grateful I can give food to people in need. People who have knocked on our door have been surprised by freshly baked banana bread, scones, soup or all three. I want to share the food — I have been sharing a lot and eating a lot.

The kids have an appetite that you have to see to believe, so sometimes I need their permission to give food away. When I go to the supermarket, I make sure that I get longlife milk, bread, and peanut butter or pilchards for people who need it, but they invariably get scones and banana bread too.

With the relaxation of the lockdown, I’m still concerned about staff who would be travelling by taxi. I have two staff members who can walk to work. As a result, I’ve been thinking of putting together a Monday to Friday menu that people can collect or that we could deliver — a main meal, fresh vegetables or a salad, or a three-course meal with meat and vegetarian options. We will figure it out.


Danielle’s roast chicken and potato tray bake

Roast chicken and new potato bake with tomatoes and Pancetta (recipe below). (Delwyn Verasamy)

Roast chicken and new potato tray bake with tomatoes and Pancetta (serves 4 to 6)

INGREDIENTS

• 2kg boneless, skinless chicken thighs

• 1 tsp salt, plus more as needed

• 12 whole unpeeled garlic cloves

• 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

• 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, plus more for serving

• 2 Tbsp sweet paprika

• 2 tsp dried oregano

• 2 tsp brown sugar (optional)

• 1.5 tsp ground cumin

• 600g cherry tomatoes, halved

• 100g diced Pancetta or bacon

• ½ cup torn fresh dill, parsley and baby spinach, for serving

• Freshly ground black pepper

• 600g new potatoes, or large potatoes

PREPARATION

1. Boil the new potatoes (or quarter whole potatoes in wedges) until tender, in salted water, drain and set aside.

2. Heat oven to 200°C. Season chicken all over with salt and place on a rimmed baking sheet.

3 Smash all garlic cloves with the side of a knife and peel them. Finely grate one garlic clove and put it in a small bowl. Stir in 2 Tbsp olive oil, 1½ Tbsp lemon  juice, paprika, oregano, brown sugar (if using) and cumin.

4. Pour over chicken, adding the cooled potatoes and toss to coat.

5. Add the tomatoes and the remaining smashed, peeled garlic cloves to the baking sheet, spreading them out around the chicken. Season tomatoes lightly with salt and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Scatter Pancetta or bacon on top.

6. Roast until chicken is golden and cooked through, about 30 to 35 minutes. After 15 minutes, stir the tomatoes and pancetta, but don’t disturb the chicken.

7. Transfer chicken to plates. Stir the tomatoes and pancetta around in the pan, scraping up all the delicious browned bits from the bottom and sides, then stir in the herbs and black pepper to taste. Taste and add salt, if needed, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice if you like.

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