14.09.2015

La Petite Mort

A creative couple is creating sensory experiences from the comfort of their home

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

La Petite Mort is a series of occasional dinners hosted by 28-year-old André Sales and 26-year-old Morné Visagie at their home in the Bo-Kaap. The Way of Us was fortunate enough to be invited to one of these dinners, and we meet André and Morné early that afternoon while they’re busy prepping.

Dressed smart-casual in crisp button-up shirts tucked into trousers, Morné’s hair looks as freshly cut as the flowers that he’s arranging and André has the type of curl that made the world fall in love with Jon Snow. It’s not surprising that their home is as carefully put together as they are.

Essentially a bright white box with no couch or TV, what this home lacks in modern furnishings it makes up for in art. Jean De Wet, Dale Lawrence, Justin Brett, Tom Cullberg, Mbongeni Dlamini, Maya Marx, Michael Taylor, James MacDonald, Georgina Gratrix, Julia Rosa Clark… and then there’s some of Morné’s work in here, too. A gorgeous 20-seater bespoke dining room table shares the middle of the room with a grand piano, and Morné designed the bookshelves using reclaimed wood from the original Clarke’s Bookshop to demarcate the bedroom and kitchen areas. 

Theirs is an interesting home, with curious objects making up assemblages on the various surfaces and where everything comes with a fascinating backstory – the heavy roller door, the walk-in safe, the neighbours… - stories that the homeowners seem well versed in.

Morné is an artist and printmaker, currently working at Cape Town’s leading fine art print and publishing studio, Warren Editions, and who graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2011. He was ranked one of the leading Young African Artists by Business Day Wanted in 2013, and his latest work “The Line of Beauty” is being exhibited at What If The World Gallery at time of writing.

André is a bit trickier to put into as neat a box, and balks at my using the term 'chef' to describe him, telling me a story how a 16-year-old has opened a restaurant in New York, got a slight case of the fames, and enraged the establishment for using that term, ‘chef’.

“So maybe I shouldn’t call myself a chef? A chef has a kitchen and a staff. He’s not the cook. ” 

“Well you are a chef because you design a menu”, suggests Morné. 

“Self-taught chef then, maybe that’s better?”

What André is certain about is the fact that he is now a bookseller. After a stint working in film production he’s upheld his family’s legacy. His great-grandfather was behind the print shop Galvin and Sales, and his father was a librarian. Now André finds himself working at Clarke’s Bookshop.

Still, these are day jobs and it’s what they do after hours that makes them more than just arty and bookish boys. The couple started their Saturday dinner parties at their previous home, almost three years ago, when they wanted to make a dinner that was too decadent for just the two of them. So they invited a few friends over to help cover the expenses and finish all that food and it grew from there.

“That was at this table,” says André pointing to the surface on top of which he’s busy preparing mussels. “Six guests. When we started off I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve learned how to cook by cooking for people.” 

From cooking for friends to cooking for friends of friends to cooking for strangers who sometimes become friends, the couple is confident in their offering and being able to wow. And judging by the steady stream of clientele they’ve obviously been getting it right.

“There are regulars like our friend Julia (artist Julia Rosa Clarke), who has come to nearly every dinner,” says André. “And it’s nice when someone comes once and then we see them again. Especially when they bring their friends. It’s actually quite rare where we’ll have a table of strangers.”

Because both the boys work day jobs it’s difficult to do anything outside of their Saturday night dinners, although they have done a celebratory wedding dinner and can see themselves creating more bespoke events further down the line. After all, they compliment one another perfectly where Morné curates the art and André fills the bookshelves and then they do the menu together and the prep work together and on the night Morné hosts and André cooks.

“I can give you a few tips on being a good host,” laughs Morné. “You just have to step into a different persona and be very chatty, warm and welcoming. Then make sure your salt, Maldon sea salt, and pepper, coarse black pepper, is freshly topped up. Exhausted salt and pepper on the table looks like left overs. You should care and pay attention to the tiniest of details. Make people feel at home. I suppose because it is our home, I want to make people know that they’re in our home. I’m not going to give you a Carling Black Label. We’re not going to talk about rugby. It’s all very elegant. Very sophisticated.”

The Saturday dinners are also an excuse to explore different cuisines and cultures by way of the various themes.

“There was Night Shade,” says Morné. “Which are mostly poisonous plants. And a friend of ours, David West, is really into scent, and so we did a dinner together where that was the focus.” 

“I stuffed quail with citrus,” says André. “The leaves, the zest and the juice, so that when you cut into it you got that eau de cologne. It’s about learning. Every time we make something it’s something new so that we may learn new things.”

Now there’s a saying that goes something like this: “If you can read you can cook.” With a pair of cookbooks propped up on the table, The Bouchon Bakery and the French Laundry, it’s probable that André would prepare a decent meal for us; however, it’s the love and passion that goes into his meal that elevates it to the sublime.

“I don’t think there’s something that people are born with,” says André. “You have to really want to do it. I mean anyone can throw together a pasta, but to make something where people go ‘wow’ when they eat it, you have to really care. It’s about caring about your ingredients and caring about putting it together.”

Which is why André uses the German butcher on the top of Kloof Street and has started thinking more and more about where his meat comes from. 

“I like venison because that’s usually meat that he’s either hunted himself or picked up from his friends in Namibia.”

Then there are the markets. 

“I’ll never go to one place and get everything I need just because it’s available there. We go to the Oranjezicht Market for fruit and veg. Nuts I’ll go to Montagu. Seafood I’ll always get from Fish for Africa. It’s just better. That interaction, advice and trust. You just don’t get that at a supermarket.

We return later that evening for the meal, which takes inspiration from the West Coast seaside villages where Morné spent much of his childhood.

“I grew up in the northern suburbs but my family is from the northern cape,” Morné tells me. “And so we were always driving up the West Coast. Which is just such a good summary of Afrikaans cuisine.”

“There’s things like kaiings,” adds André. “I’d never heard of it. It’s fat that you get from sheep tails, which you chop really fine and then fry until the lard separates and you’re left with this crispy goodness.” 

The menu starts with a mussel and wild sage soup, followed by a shot of grilled pineapple with verjuice reduction. The main is a seaweed-crusted venison with carrot emulsion and sweet pea and kaiings salad. Then there’s Foxenberg goats milk cheese with nasturtium pesto on a mosbolletjie crouton. We finish with a bread and butter pudding with white chocolate, cranberries, caramelized naartjie and crème anglaise. We drink a different wine with each course and end with coffee.

It’s all very delicious and beautifully presented and plated on interesting crockery with enough cutlery to intimidate. Still, as the night progresses and wine glasses keep being refilled and replaced the table grows rowdier. A vegetarian eats up a plate of Gemsbok. An animator reaches across the table to steal a desert. After the cheese course a linen napkin is left on one of the tea candles and catches flame.

The beauty of this sort of dinner is that you’re removed from your comfort zone. I’m drinking wine instead of tins of Black Label, flanked by novelists and lecturers and artists and the type of person who buys art instead of the same five guys I’ve been trading stories with since high school. My meal has no chips!

We move out onto the balcony to drink more wine in a little zen garden that’s filled with things like wild sorrel, lemon verbena and wild sage. The night view of the Bo-Kaap is beautiful and Morné tells us how happy he is living here.

“It’s close to town and we love the sound of the mosque call. It can be a bit chaotic at times with the Kaapse Klopse, who are always practising, you think it’s one day a year, but it’s not, they’re always practising, but I must say we had a New Years party here the one year and we all ended up outside with the parade, which was fun.”

The couple are sharing a cigarette now and look pretty satisfied, if a little bit spent. It’s half past eleven and while some diners have left most are staying put, drinking more wine or making plans to meet up at a bar down the road to do some shots. I congratulate Morné and André on a succesful night, and ask if they would ever consider opening a restaurant and doing this full time. 

“I have no desire to do anything outside of our home,” says André. “The life of a chef isn’t a good life. Long hours, late nights and no social life. Opening a restaurant just sounds like a horrible life. What I like about this is that it’s social. We’re having people over for dinner. We don’t know what we want to do next, it needs to go somewhere, but this whole thing has been organic, so, it’ll figure itself out. Right now I’m happy.”

Which is a far better label than “chef”.