Stefan Marais of Societi Bistro knows how to mix French class with South African comfort.
Winter is a time for comfort food, and in a Cape winter there are few restaurants as cosy as Societi Bistro. Rain taps against the sash windows while vintage Victorian fireplaces crackle cheerfully with warmth. Apron-clad waiters bustle back and forth as the high ceilings resonate with the burble of happy chatter.
Rough brick walls frame daily specials scribbled on chalkboards, as plate after plate of comfort food flows out from the pass of Stéfan Marais’ kitchen. “There’s something rewarding about long, slow cooking methods, like making a cassoulet,” Stéfan tells me. “To transform a handful of raw ingredients into a beautiful finished dish, where it all works so well together… there is something soothing about the whole process.” It’s a typically relaxed approach from a chef whose small kitchen feeds up to 160 diners on a busy night.
The secret of the Societi kitchen lies in simplicity, says Stéfan. “Ours is simple food, but cooked slowly and carefully. There are no bought-in stocks or shortcuts in my kitchen. A lot of it is rural, peasant food. When it’s cold outside and pouring down with rain there’s awonderful old-world comfort to it.” It may be peasant food, but Stéfan cut his teeth in some decidedly upmarket kitchens.
After stints as commis chef and eventually chef de partie in London, he took his savings and travelled through Europe, eating his way from Belgium to Italy and Spain. “I think it was during this big tour of Europe, travelling on a really tight budget, that I fell in love with simple peasant food. And that fits in with the dishes I love cooking now.” A spell at Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road, and short stints in some of Cape Town’s best kitchens, eventually led him to Societi in 2008, where he combines the best of both worlds in a menu he describes as “rural food served in an urban environment, with a lot of French and Italian influences.”
In keeping with the rustic, rural influence, seasonality is a key element of the kitchen, says Stéfan. “When we do a menu we first look at what’s in season and available, and then look at what flavours will work together. In springtime I’ll do wonderfully simple asparagus dishes. We’re always governed by what’s fresh and in season: we have an à la carte menu, but I’ll only keep things on there that I know I can get hold of.” As important to him as buying seasonally is buying local, so Stéfan puts time and effort into finding reliable local producers. “We want to support local farmers, and using imported products just makes the dish more expensive… if you look at our menu, we want to offer dishes that are well-priced. Even with vegetables, I source what I can locally, and we’ve got plans to replant boxes at the back of the restaurant for herbs and tomatoes.”
A poster of SASSI-approved fish takes pride of place in Stéfan’s kitchen, and he’s passionate about getting our palates to venture off the beaten track when it comes to seafood. “I always try and use fish species that aren’t really popular, but are extremely sustainable. We had some maasbanker the other day, and I just love cooking with gurnard. It stands up to so many different flavours. It’s important to venture away from what you know. I’ve got four different fish suppliers, and by 9am I’ve an idea of what’s fresh off the boats and what’ll be on the menu that evening. Of course the downside is that we sometimes run out of a dish, but I’d much rather run out than serve someone three-day-old fish!”
This honesty defines Societi Bistro – specials are crossed off the blackboard as the last portion is sold and the menu lists the local butcher’s phone number.“We’re a busy restaurant with a small kitchen team, and we need to make sure that every dish that comes out of the kitchen is up to scratch,” says Stéfan. “It is so important, whether you’re a small bistro or a finedining restaurant, to have consistency. From flavour to portion size and service, customers have to know what to expect, and you have to deliver. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
Societi Bistro, 50 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Call 021-424- 2100. See www.societi.co.zafor details of French and Italian regional menus until the end of November.