Father’s Day Focus: Chef John Burger

John and Kara

In the lead-up to Father’s Day, we’re looking back on the interviews we did with five of our favourite foodie dads and their little ones (who may not be so little anymore). Keep an eye on our social media channels to see who will be featured next!

The appropriately named Port Elizabeth chef, John Burger, had food in his blood before anything else. A convoluted career trajectory that kept winding back to the power of the plate, saw him dabble in all kinds of cooking – running a butchery, contract catering, retail, kitchens, conferencing, and even some out-of-the-ordinary ventures in photography and cellphone sales. But, it was the ultimate lure of his own culinary palace that saw him establish two restaurants and carve a niche for his flavoursome food in The Friendly City.

But, where does family fit into the picture and how much space is left on this chef’s plate after he has served up his best? Burger believes that, although one is never really ready for what it takes, preparation – as in the kitchen – is key. “Life as a chef is totally relentless. It’s just 100 per cent or 150 per cent commitment. You have to go in with no blinkers on. Before I opened Pescadiya, I had always worked for other people.

“This…,” he says, “is totally different. You have the whole ball game. I take on all the responsibilities: shopping, markets, paperwork, bookkeeping. It’s difficult and you have to balance these with actually physically being in the kitchen – that’s where the real passion is and I would rather be there – but, without the background work, nothing can happen in the kitchen. But, if I could do it all again, I would do it sooner.”

Burger opened Pescadiya in Richmond Hill with a business partner in 2009, when the boulevard-dining craze hit Port Elizabeth. Although they sold the restaurant just over a year later, the experience helped Burger set up Flava, which turns four this year and is considered to be among the city’s top restaurants. But the trade-off is family – or, more accurately, family time – and with a seven-year-old daughter the “juggle is intense. It takes a lot of adaptation but, what keeps us going, is that this is our dream, it’s what we want and it’s worth it, so we get stronger every day.

“Kara thinks her dad is a bit of a celebrity, and it’s a big kudo for her to have a dad she can ‘show and tell’ to her friends. I cook for them or her friends’ parents and it feels like a big deal. Every now and then, she complains that she does not see me enough – and there is often a bit of sadness – but, for now, she is just about as passionate as I am – but, 15-hour days can take their toll.

“My wife, Bronwen, is very supportive. She is immensely proud, happy and content with our lives and where we are going. But I think, underlying that, she sometimes feels I belong more to everyone else than to her and our family.” Burger says the trick to keeping a semblance of balance is blocking off Sundays as exclusive time for family and friends.

“Sundays are our days where we wine and dine and make an effort to see friends. It’s the little things. But I never cook at home,” he adds, divulging that his oven at home has been broken for close on two years. Outside the Flava kitchen, Burger does trail running and cycling and winds down by watching TV series, when, he jokes, “I get a chance after accommodating Kara’s social life, which is busier than ours!” Wine is also a passion that does not stop in the kitchen and Burger maintains a healthy cellar.

“I am totally immersed in the chef’s life, and I love it. If I wasn’t doing this, cooking would be my hobby. I truly love what I do. It’s ridiculous. I don’t sleep because I am consistently thinking about what I can do, what mix of flavours I can infuse and how to make it better.”

By Amy Shelver Photographs by Ross Charnock

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