The Many Faces of Mzoli’s Barbeque

Mzoli’s restaurant has gotten a lot of press recently. This is just a taste of what the food critics have been writing about it:

Everyone, at least once in their life, should make a pilgrimage to Mzoli’s – Gugulethu’s Church of Meat. – Lisa Nevitt, Capetown Magazine

For Cape Town’s carnivores, Mzoli’s Meat is the city’s hippest hangout. The informal butchery and barbeque joint is a place where social and racial barriers are set aside as locals and out-of-towners come together, eat, drink and party. – Mark Tutton, CNN

There’s a great energy about the place and as the music is cranked up, the crowd whoops and cheers. Time to watch the party unfold. – Tina Walsh, The Guardian

Ok, so we get the idea, right? Mzoli’s is this super-hip, underground meatery + dance party. (And Mark Tutton doesn’t use the Oxford comma).

Well, I’d like to argue that Mzoli Ngcawuzele’s namesake restaurant Mzoli’s–which is, as I’ll agree, an unassuming South African braai joint (that means barbeque) in the middle of one of Cape Town’s most sprawling (and sometimes very dangerous) townships–is a lot more than that. True, it is an open-air shack; true, it has a devoted following of locals from the city and tourists; true, it serves some of the most delectable meat you could ever sink your teeth into; and true, you need a lot of napkins when you go because you eat everything with your hands.

But, Mzoli’s is also a workplace. It’s a place where people get their hands dirty every day, throwing sausages onto a burning-hot grill and swirling a spatula into a huge vat of pap. It’s a place where people take your order, wash dishes, roll sausages, stock meat, marinade meat, cook meat, and prepare the side dishes everyone loves–the pap, South Africa’s corn porridge topped with a savory and spicy tomato-and-onion sauce; and isonka samanzi, a fluffy steamed bread made from flour, water, and yeast.

The day we went to Mzoli’s for lunch, I didn’t care about the people drinking beer or licking their fingers. I didn’t care that a hot DJ was going to playing later that night. I didn’t care that there had been some major celebrity sightings recently (apparently British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is a huge fan). As we ducked under the roof and made our way to the table where we’d be sitting, I wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes. I wanted to see all of this famous food–made even more famous over the past few years when Mzoli’s installed a bunch of TVs in its outdoor eating area, making it a great place to watch soccer–but I wanted to see who was making it. I wanted to meet some of the chefs themselves, the ones who aren’t celebrity chefs who’ve made names for themselves on TV and the internet.

I excused myself, walked inside, and asked if I could meet some of the people responsible for making my meal. The cashier smiled, walked out from behind the counter, and took me straight to the grill.

Here’s who I met.

***

These two guys roll the sausages and marinade the meat. They work all day in the back of the kitchen right next to the grill. After spending five minutes back there, I will never complain about the humidity–or the temperature–ever again. These guys are heat warriors.

This guy, whose shirt I kind of adore, does the barbequing. He’s so used to working back here in the heat that he wanted to show me that he could hover his hand right over those flaming-hot coals. And he didn’t flinch–not even once.

These two young guys help out in the back with the above three men. They run errands, bring back the meat, get more coals, and generally do whatever’s needed to keep the back-of-house running smoothly. At Mzoli’s busiest times when hundreds of slabs of lamb, beef, and pork are sizzling on the grill at any one time, these guys sweat. A lot.

In the next room over, this woman makes the steamed bread. Half of her job is waiting for it to rise in this huge pot. To pass the time, she hangs out with her two fellow bread and pap makers (see the next photos). Her perfect bread is soft, and chewy, and fluffy–somehow, all at the same time.

And this woman makes the corn base for the pap. It reminds me a lot of grits.

Together, these three ladies make the sides that thousands of people eat everyday happen. You wouldn’t know it when you eat it, but they do it while dancing around to loud pop music. After all, they have to pass the time while they’re waiting for their grains to do their work.

And this is Mzoli’s wife, who basically runs the operation. (You can tell by that smile, can’t you?)

And here’s what they made me:

Though we didn’t share a language and I couldn’t really say much more than enkosi, which is the local Xhosa word for “thanks,” I hope everybody behind the scenes at Mzoli’s knows how much I appreciated my impromptu tour of their kitchen. It was humbling to see how many people went into making one meal I ate in South Africa.

And the food itself was pretty good, too.

Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Rollins College for sponsoring her trip to South Africa and introducing her to Cape Town.

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