Cape City, South Africa – The primary signal that Anwar Abdullatief is just not a mean chef is his selection of headwear. Regardless of the whimsical and complex nature of his cooking, he and his group don’t put on puffy white chef hats. Granted, many fashionable cooks favour grittier cranium caps or bandanas. However Abdullatief does it his personal method: Everybody in his kitchen wears a demure tartan flat cap and a stonewashed blue apron.

Neatly stacked stainless-steel cabinets attain nearly to the ceiling of the renovated warehouse house. Further chairs are stacked within the parking storage which is seen via the open again door. The group of 11 works silently, methodically, as they assemble the clever creations which might be the product of Abdullatief’s creativeness. On one counter, an assistant arranges leaves and flowers on the flowery labyrinthine platter wherein mature cheddar cookies with smoked hake and prawn brandade are nestled.

On the range, Abdullatief is deep-frying the battered dune spinach – an ingredient he first encountered on browsing journeys up South Africa’s desolate west coast – that may adorn “The Bass”, this week’s fish course.

‘The Bass’ was the fish course on provide in the course of the week Al Jazeera visited The Completely satisfied Uncles [Courtesy of The Happy Uncles]

If there’s one factor Abdullatief has gleaned from twenty years working in a few of South Africa’s best kitchens, it’s this: “Cooks love alcohol, bacon and Parma ham.” It’s regular for cooks to attempt one another’s sauces however, as a Muslim who abstains from all three, Abdullatief quickly realised it was safer to simply say no.

That modified when he was made head chef: “Each time I used to be put in control of issues, I’d surreptitiously make the menu halal. No pork within the inventory, no alcohol within the jus,” he says with fun. “My bosses by no means complained and neither did the diners. The meals tasted good – why would they?”

Quick ahead a number of years and the 40-year-old is now the proprietor of The Completely satisfied Uncles, South Africa’s first high quality eating halal restaurant, and Barakat, a preferred modern Cape Malay eatery in Cape City’s new Time Out Market. Final yr, he scooped the Rising Star prize at South Africa’s premier restaurant awards.

It’s a important accomplishment contemplating he had completed with eating places two years in the past.

Hidden brandades at The Happy Uncles in Cape Town
One in every of Abdullatief’s creations is introduced in a platter of greenery at The Completely satisfied Uncles restaurant in Cape City [Courtesy of The Happy Uncles]

What’s in a reputation?

“I didn’t plan any of this,” he explains: “The Completely satisfied Uncles is just not a superb identify for a restaurant. The house is surrounded by scrap yards. None of this was meant to occur … life simply pushed me in that course.”

After exiting his earlier enterprise, a café within the farming city of Paarl known as My Cross Aunt (a playful tackle the French phrase croissant), in 2021, Abdullatief turned his focus to personal cheffing. As his shopper checklist grew, he realised he wanted a reputation for his enterprise and a spot to retailer his tools.

He didn’t give both a lot thought. “What’s the alternative of a cross aunt?” he asks, rhetorically. The Completely satisfied Uncles signified a contemporary begin: “I used to be transferring again dwelling, getting married, I may surf all of the spots once more. But it surely was by no means meant to be the identify of a restaurant.”

The house, in a renovated warehouse surrounded by panel beaters and delivery containers, was additionally not meant to be a eating institution. However when he was requested to placed on a celebration for a superb buddy’s spouse, he was compelled to seek out some tables and chairs.

“We did a six-course menu for the household,” he remembers. “After the dinner, they began posting on social media, occurring about this halal fine-dining expertise and hassling me to do it for extra folks… Each time I did a dinner, the folks would inform me to make it a restaurant. However I didn’t need to return to that.”

Inside the Happy Uncles in Cape Town
Chef Anwar Abdullatief stands beside a eating desk inside The Completely satisfied Uncles halal restaurant [Courtesy of The Happy Uncles]

Then, he says, strangers began calling: “Everybody was saying ‘You’re the primary halal fine-dining restaurant within the nation.’ However we weren’t even a restaurant.”

Ultimately, he relented. “We began off as soon as a month. Then each second week. Then as soon as per week …” Quick ahead 18 months and the restaurant is now open 5 days per week and has gained a number of awards, together with for the finest halal restaurant in Cape City in 2023.

Whereas Abdullatief appears stunned at his fast rise, Jermaine Esau, a fellow chef who has identified him for a decade and a half, is just not: “None of it was ever intentional however there was a necessity for it,” he says. “The Muslim neighborhood in Cape City is big. They wouldn’t go to locations the place there’s wine round. Muslim high quality eating makes good sense. However Anwar’s such a superb chef that he will get supported by folks from throughout.”

Abdullatief estimates that solely 50 % of his clientele is Muslim.

The house – all uncovered bricks and authentic art work – is much extra refined than Abdullatief lets on. The photographs he has chosen to show mirror his character. One wall encompasses a zany portray of a lady in pointy sun shades and a Rasta hat with feathers dangling from her hair; one other is bedecked with gilt-framed prints of Arabic calligraphy.

On a shiny desk to the aspect, a dozen glass teapots, every containing a special shade of amber liquid, keep heat above tealight candles. This curated tea menu modifications as typically because the meals menu does.

Subsequent to the tea desk sits a considerably hidden rack containing bottles of non-alcoholic champagne.

Each dish on the eight-course menu Al Jazeera tried was outstanding, however there have been two standouts. “Amagwinya” is elevated township avenue meals: a deep-fried dough ball filled with tender karoo lamb and accompanied by “smoked tarragon buttercream, salsa verde, butter pips [the seeds of an indigenous melon favoured by the Khoisan people] and truffle aioli.”

The opposite winner: a palate-cleansing elderflower and apple sorbet, made theatrically on the desk with greater than somewhat assist from a flask of liquid nitrogen.

Don’t count on to style these dishes in weeks or months to come back, nevertheless. Abdullatief modifications his menu every time the whim takes him.

Amagwinya at The Happy Uncles in Cape Town
Amagwinya is a deep-fried dough ball filled with tender karoo lamb, accompanied by smoked tarragon buttercream, salsa verde, butter pips (indigenous melon seeds) and truffle aioli [Courtesy of The Happy Uncles]

Again to the beginning

Abdullatief grew up within the Cape City suburb of Zeekoevlei, named after the hippos that also reside within the close by wetland. Though most of his education came about after apartheid had ended, due to South Africa’s sophisticated previous, he went to a college with no white college students.

“It was the primary highschool of color to supply cooking as a topic,” remembers Abdullatief, who was a part of that firstclass. “I liked cheffing, however I didn’t get nice marks. I used to be at all times alone mission, making my very own dishes. Everybody else was conforming.”

And never simply within the kitchen. “I used to be into heavy steel and drum ’n bass. I at all times had my skateboard with me. I used to be a surfer,” he says. “It’s not that I didn’t have mates. However I used to be at all times a bit completely different.”

Abdullatief, who stays a eager surfer, expanded his culinary horizons on browsing journeys: “We have been tenting, cooking on fires, foraging for mussels, consuming dune spinach… I took the cooking strategies I’d discovered in chef class and ran with it.”

Abdullatief didn’t perceive it on the time, however his first and most essential culinary classroom was his Cape Malay upbringing. The time period for Cape City’s Muslim neighborhood traces its origins again to slaves delivered to South Africa from the East (primarily Indonesia) from the 1650s onwards. “Cape Malay folks develop up with flavours: cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, coriander seeds,” he says. “As a teenager, you don’t give it some thought … Your mother simply needs to present you meals however you’re shy to open your lunchbox as a result of it’ll scent humorous.”

Solely now that Abdullatief has grown up does he realise how fortunate he was: “I had a wealth of meals expertise underneath my belt with out even understanding it. I grew up consuming good-quality tasty meals 3 times a day. An enormous number of completely different dishes cooked by my mother and my gran.”

A few of that information lay dormant – however not forgotten – for many years.

After college, and a tourism diploma, Abdullatief obtained a job as a resort chef. It was throughout this time that he grew to become “obsessed” with the mind, he remembers. “I’d be sitting on a prepare analysing folks: Why’s this individual huddled in a nook? Why’s that one holding the bar?”

Not leaving that itch unscratched, he enrolled for a level in psychology. Whereas his subsequent profession success stopped him from ending the diploma (with simply two modules remaining) he’s glad he did it: “To be a superb chef, you’ll want to use psychology all day, on daily basis.”

Some of the restaurant team at The Happy Uncles
The kitchen group at The Completely satisfied Uncles all put on tartan flat caps and stonewashed blue aprons – no puffy chef hats [Nick Dall/Al Jazeera]

‘I really like change and I don’t like politics’

Abdullatief discovered working as a resort chef tiresome, so he utilized for a job at a vacationer restaurant in Cape City’s stylish Waterfront precinct. He aced the required cook-off, and regardless of being a relative newbie, was quickly in control of all of the restaurant’s greatest sellers.

“They specialised within the meals I’d grown up with… Stews and bredies [vegetable broth stews] and curries. The bosses stated my flavours have been spot on. I by no means comply with recipes or use measurements… It’s not one thing you might be taught. You scent the spice and you know the way a lot you want.”

Abdullatief is the primary to confess that he’s simply bored: “I really like change and I don’t like politics. As soon as the skindering [gossiping] begins, I’m outta there.”

After that first restaurant job, he landed a gig at a close-by boutique resort. “It wasn’t high quality eating”, he says, “however the head chef was typically away and I discovered quite a bit about managing a kitchen”.

His subsequent large break got here when he landed a junior job at Delaire-Graaff, considered one of many high quality eating eating places within the picturesque Cape Winelands area of South Africa’s Western Cape province. Engaged on a wine farm might sound a curious selection for a Muslim, however the institution was on the epicentre of the South African culinary scene on the time, making it a superb place to advance his profession.

Esau, who met Abdualltief at Delaire-Graff, picks up the story: “Anwar was engaged on the veg part, the busiest part of all, and we had three copper pans to feed 200 friends.” Esau was instantly impressed: “You possibly can simply see this man, he’s obtained abilities, he’s calm, he’s meticulous, he is aware of what he’s doing.”

Over the following 12 years, Abdullatief honed his craft at a number of prestigious eating places across the Winelands, roughly an hour from Cape City. Shifting there meant leaving his beloved Cape City – and its plentiful waves – behind. Nonetheless,  he additionally met a budding chef known as Yolani Abrahams, who would change into his spouse.

He thought he would lastly be capable to settle in a single place when he was made government chef at a prestigious wine farm. “I established a vegetable backyard for the kitchen and I used to be residing on this stunning cottage on the farm. The job was good.”

However the fairytale got here crashing down when COVID-19 hit. “The boss agreed to pay my wage however he refused to pay my employees,” he tells Al Jazeera, anger flushing his face. “He wouldn’t even let me give them greens from the gardens or meals from the pantry. These folks had nothing. Actually, nothing.”

Abdullatief ignored his boss’s orders, handing out meals to those that wanted it most, and misplaced his job.

Anwar and Yolani
Anwar Abdullatief and his spouse Yolani Abrahams personal and run Barakat collectively within the Time Out Market within the Waterfront space of Cape City [Courtesy of Barakat]

Turning into his personal boss

Fed up with working for different folks, Abdullatief teamed up with a household within the close by city of Paarl to open My Cross Aunt. Its gourmand tackle breakfast staples was an immediate hit, he says, however he rapidly realised that working with companions was simply as fraught as working for bosses.

He then switched focus to personal cheffing: “I used to be my very own boss, nobody was telling me what to do. I vowed by no means to return to large eating places and high quality eating.”

Destiny had different concepts. Quickly, The Completely satisfied Uncles had established a popularity that opened new, and profitable, doorways for Abdullatief.

When Time Out opened its first market – there are solely seven on this planet – on the African continent, they reached out to Abdullatief to change into a part of the unique franchise.

“Somebody at Time Out’s head workplace in London had heard about The Completely satisfied Uncles,” he explains. “They may have requested an aunty from the Bo Kaap [a traditional Cape Malay hood] however they wished one thing extra refined. One thing between high quality eating and an enormous plate of curry.”

In November 2023, Abdullatief opened Barakat – which suggests “blessings” in Arabic – within the Time Out Market on the V&A Waterfront space of Cape City. (When Al Jazeera visited the stall, it had the longest line of all of the distributors).

The all-halal menu options dishes that originated within the slave-run kitchens of seventeenth century Cape homesteads: Denningvleis, which is lamb neck in a sticky, black tamarind sauce distinctive to Cape City, and ou mense onder die komberse (“previous folks underneath the blankets”), a slow-braised beef shin wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Denningvleis at Barakat in Cape Town
Denningvleis, which is lamb neck in a sticky black tamarind sauce distinctive to Cape City, is without doubt one of the signature dishes served at Barakat [Courtesy of Barakat]

“Each single dish at Barakat connects me to my childhood,” he says. “On the Completely satisfied Uncles, there’s at all times a complete lot of components that join me to my previous. However they’re blended in with my current and my future.”

Living proof: the dessert course on the menu the day Al Jazeera visited The Completely satisfied Uncles. The Malva Tart, named after South Africa’s most well-known pudding, is an formidable and visually arresting exploration of a few of Cape City’s most iconic candy flavours.

“We make a malva pudding and we mix the entire thing and put it into a protracted, rectangular tart case,” Abdullatief explains. That is accompanied by a fragile association of mebos (South African dried fruit) jelly, koesister crumble (a gently spiced Cape Malay tackle doughnuts) and boeber (a milky drink constituted of vermicelli and sago, and flavoured with cardamom, stick cinnamon and rose water) ice cream.

By no means one to face nonetheless, Abdullatief says he’s at the moment busy with a number of tasks, noting that there are “positively extra Cape Malay tasks within the pipeline”. He and Abrahams are researching dishes from way back to the 1600s, discovering methods to protect the delicacies “in addition to maintaining it related”.

“It’s reached a degree the place I really feel answerable for the delicacies and my tradition,” he says. “We’ve got to protect it… It’s fading. There are such a lot of dishes which might be so good. A whole lot and lots of of dishes that folks don’t prepare dinner any extra. Retaining these dishes alive is essential.”

Oumense onder die komerse at The Happy Uncles in Cape Town
The Completely satisfied Uncles model of oumense onder die komerse (“previous folks underneath the blankets”) [Courtesy of The Happy Uncles]

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