Nic van Wyk loves fantasising about, talking about, and working with food. Over tapas at his recently opened Barnyard Brasserie in suburban Cape Town, he was spreading the mood.
By Kim Maxwell
We’re meant to be talking tapas, but pigs’ ears and tails are on the menu. We’ll get round to the tapas chat – when Nic van Wyk talks food there are always culinary diversions and detours aplenty. Chatting in the open kitchen of his new restaurant in Tyger Valley, Cape Town, Barnyard Brasserie and Tapas Bar, Nic rolls dough for fried Spanish churros for the day’s tapas gathering with foodie friends. “It’s one of the easiest desserts you can do,” he says. “The only important thing is to use really good chocolate for the dipping sauce. In Spain they have this machine that looks like an old mincer, which churns out the churros.”
Unsurprisingly, a trip to Spain is on the cards for Nic and his parents next year. “My mom has her own catering business, and when we’re on holiday together we all start planning our next lunch over breakfast,” Nic admits. “We read the same food books so there are usually two bookmarks. I get very hungry reading Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries!”
His thoughts are sidetracked by wafting yeasty aromas. Bread is being removed from the industrial oven, assorted loaves destined for restaurant tables. “I always wanted to be a baker, but my mother worried about the hours. Bakers get up at 4am,” says Nic, justifying that while chefs’ days are long, they’re bearable if they start at 8am. “We always bake ciabatta and olive oil bread for the restaurant,” he adds.
Nic enjoys making bread and savoury dishes, and has a simple philosophy. “Doing less is often better – finding a really good piece of fish and doing very little to it,” he explains. “At the brasserie we use hake, baked in a parcel in a wood-fired oven to achieve a blistery skin. Inside we use Roma tomatoes, red onion, button mushrooms, basil and olive oil. Customers have been surprised that simple hake tastes so good. With a chunk of ciabatta to mop up the juices, mmm…”
A smiling woman with vibrant red hair diverts Nic’s attention. It’s his wife Ali, her leg in plaster. A trained chef too, she usually operates Lick the Spoon catering in Stellenbosch, but her injury has meant a few months off. “My days off are usually spent with Ali, and exercising our two dogs. It’s good for me and them,” says Nic. “Dippy is a German short-haired pointer crossed with a Great Dane – a big, energetic dog. My wife tripped over Dippy and broke her leg. While recovering, she spent a lot of time ordering things over the internet, so we now have a Jack Russell puppy called Lily too!”
With two chefs in the house, who cooks at home? “Ali’s favourite things are roast chicken, foie gras and cep mushrooms. Sometimes all three combined! We both cook,” answers Nic. His tastes tend towards spicier flavours such as North African harissa paste, or combinations using ginger, coriander and cumin.
As Nic adds veal and pork meatballs to a delicious stock he chats about his career. A promising student at the Institute of Culinary Arts, he was selected to work in London, but after a few twists and turns became an unpaid volunteer at La Colombe restaurant in Constantia, Cape Town instead. With family friends providing accommodation, Nic quickly proved himself in the kitchen. When his fourmonth stint finished, he was invited to stay on as an employee. Money was tight though. “I worked six days instead of five so that I wouldn’t spend my salary! But I stayed at La Colombe for nearly four years, and they were good years. Thinking back, I don’t remember not having money. I just remember the awesome teamwork, the service, the kitchen,” he says.
Nic was La Colombe’s sous chef when he moved on. After a stint at the Mount Grace hotel in Magaliesberg, he was lured to Kleine Zalze wine and golf estate in Stellenbosch. With chef Michael Broughton as his business partner, Terroir restaurant opened in October 2004. The venue was – and still is – a huge success.
But Nic wanted to create his own path. “I left to become a shareholder in Barnyard Brasserie in March 2007. When I became a partner with Michael, I didn’t have the confidence to be a chef on my own. So when I left Terroir, it wasn’t that I was bored. We were winning awards and cooking fantastic food. But this brasserie was a vision I’d had for a while, and it was a good business opportunity.”
‘Nic is in partnership with actress Sybel Coetzee Möller, and they plan to open more Barnyard Brasseries. The interior has a French feel without being intimidating, and the fuss-free food relies on a handmade approach and quality ingredients. “I’ve always wanted to cook more approachable food, so that’s what I’m doing here. At Terroir we’d have meat or fish and three sauces. Now it’s meat or fish with one sauce, using cheaper cuts of meat,” he says.
The action moves to the tapas bar, where chef friends Mariette Smit and Chani Mare are seated with Ali. “Did I tell you how much I love cooking offal?” asks Nic, setting down a tapas dish of crumbed pigs’ ears and tails. It isn’t on the usual tapas menu. “We have offal such as kidneys and liver on the restaurant menu,” he says. “But we can do any offal with advance notice. Sweetbreads, tripe, sheep brains… I love things like this. I want to make brawn from a pig’s head for Sunday lunch. And the stock left over from cooking these ears and tails would make a fantastic broth!”
While hesitant at first, Nic’s guests enjoy the unusual crumbed pig bits and pieces. “I had the ear. It’s chewy but okay,” reports Mariette. “The tail is actually nicer. You eat around the bone,” says Chani. “My problem is I know what it is. But it tastes more like the crumbs, so you don’t even know what you’re eating. I agree that the tail is meatier,” adds Ali.
Nic’s spinach, mozzarella and chorizo parcels are another hit. “Tapas is a nice way to entertain. You spend time in the kitchen and then everybody helps themselves,” he enthuses. “And you experience more flavours than a regular meal.” With Nic van Wyk, having a food experience is what it’s all about.
Barnyard Brasserie and Tapas Bar, Willowbridge Lifestyle Centre, Carl Cronje Drive, Tyger Valley, 021-914-5046. Open daily for lunch, and for dinner only Mondays to Saturdays. A harvest table is served for Sunday lunch. Tapas served daily until late.
By Sean Calitz