At Hemelhuijs in Cape Town, simple things make a lasting impression
By Richard Holmes
Interior designer, chef and artist, Jacques Erasmus is a hard man to pin down. On the morning we arrive at Hemelhuijs, his understated eatery on a Cape Town side street, he has just finished a recipe book, is keeping an eye on the kitchen, and is preparing to cater a function for 700.
Since opening in October 2010 Hemelhuijs has rapidly built up a loyal clientele of city workers, ‘ladies-what-lunch’ and style mavens, drawn here by the eclectic design – a mounted reindeer with antlers full of antique crockery, anyone? – and homely yet elegant food. Playful art adorns the walls, and Jacques’ attention to detail is etched into everything from the delicately iced biscuits to the canvas fresco on the ceiling.
From designing bespoke crockery to constantly revamping the menu, I wonder where all his creativity bubbles up from? “I’m a bit obsessive with details, so styling comes naturally to me, but it’s really just about drawing on your life’s inspirations,” says Jacques, who studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts before opening Kloof Street’s Manna Epicure. “Perhaps you travel and you eat at a street café in Vietnam, or at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris… your brain files away these little inspirations and they all come together in their own way. One day, when you have to sit down and create, you draw on those different elements.”
They’re elements that feed into Jacques’ playful yet precise menu. His selection of dishes changes every two months, but some dishes are so popular he can’t take them off the menu. “We always have a rolled chicken dish, and the frikadelle are always there. The poached eggs need to stay and, of course, the steak needs to stay because we have a lot of lunchtime business people in here and die manne hou van die vleis,” he says. “So that doesn’t leave me much space for creativity with new dishes!”
That creativity finds an outlet in the daily specials. “At Hemelhuijs it’s not about emptying the fridge into a bowl and sending it out. Here, the special is our very best dish; the best the kitchen has to offer that day.”
As much as Jacques can be a stickler for detail, he’s adamant food should never intimidate. “Hemelhuijs is about comfortable, elegant food, because I think food should always, always be elegant,” says Jacques. “We try to take the fussiness out of cooking, because for me it’s about bringing food home to people. Where else in Cape Town can you eat mosbolletjies?”
Across the Hemelhuijs menu Jacques focuses on careful simplicity; the right ingredients prepared perfectly and plated with care. The cake selection offers a hit of decadence with billowing lemon meringue pie and a rich cheesecake. “I think everyone wants to indulge a little when they eat out, but it’s all done simply,” says Jacques. “Nothing is over-styled or too complicated. The cakes and breads come out of the oven and straight onto the counter.” Jacques’ starter salad of beetroot, figs and chocolate almonds is a perfect example of his philosophy of making the simple, seductive: “Chocolate and almonds go so well together, as do beetroot and chocolate. Figs are the ultimate indulgence in a summer fruit, and then you have nice crisp radishes that add a little touch of bitterness. It’s a circle of all these things that work together… and it’s also a little bit of fun.”
There’s more fun in his choice of dessert – a colourful celebration of summer. “The idea behind it is simple: it’s just strawberries and cream,” explains Jacques. “It’s summer, and who doesn’t love cream and strawberries! The meringue wafer is really just there to sandwich the cream together, and then it’s served with macerated strawberries. So there’s sweetness from the cream, and some acidity from the strawberries and it’s just… fun!”
And fun is what Jacques seems to be as both chef and designer. The crockery bedecked reindeer, the Delft settings on the wall, and – on the display rack – his exquisite clay dishes coloured with manganese and iron oxide to give them a texture and style similar to Wedgwood’s famous basalt ware. They’re stylish, unique and crafted with perfect attention to detail… threads that run throughout Hemelhuijs.
Macerated strawberries with meringue sandwiches
71 Waterkant Street, City Bowl, Cape Town