I met the dynamic ‘warrelwind’ interior curator (not designer!) Neil Stemmet from KONCEPT for the first time at Decorex about two weeks ago.  There he stole the show with his amazing BOS Tea House that he designed for the ice tea brand, and the stand won an award for the best Green stand.  It was here that Stemmet started talking to me about his vision of the Restaurant of the Future, which he had embodied in his BOS stand design, but it was too much for me to comprehend in the busy and noisy exhibition hall, so we agreed to meet at Hemelhuijs with Sonia Cabano, highly respected chef, cookbook writer, and now Twitter fan.

Neil told me that he grew up in Upington, and Hemelhuijs owner Jacques Erasmus did too, and it was at Neil’s Le Must restaurant in Upington that Jacques cut his first chef’s teeth.  Neil’s restaurant made the Style Top 10 restaurant list in 2004, unheard of that a restaurant so far from the Cape Town and Winelands could achieve this.  He says that his was the first restaurant to introduce “Afrikaanse kos” in Upington. Neil started a blog called ‘Sout & Peper’, a blog solely in Afrikaans, and he is proud in documenting the recipes and stories about food preparation of up to 200 years ago, which he is transforming into a book.   ‘Sout & Peper’ food preparation is based on the ‘keep it simple’ principle, a good design principle too he says, and he gives the example of Karoo lamb, which should be prepared in the local way by just popping it into the oven with salt and pepper, and one should not make a Greek lamb out of it.  Neil’s book will be called “Sout en Peper”, and will be a collection of stories about the origin of South African food, and it will only be published in the ‘volkstong’ Afrikaans, being a ‘kos storieboek’.  It will explain how to cook local dishes, and more than one recipe may be provided for a particular item.   Neil said his book will be ‘sout en peper’ too in containing both sadness and humour.   He will also include recipes from South African cookery icons from many years ago, such as Hildagonda Duckitt and Louis Leipoldt.

Neil is so avantgarde that he put up a sign on his BOS stand to say “Decor is dead”.  He explained this as not being the slavish following of design trends, but rather ‘anything goes’, he said, with a focus on sustainability and heirlooms, utilising timeless classics.  His mantra is “curate, not decorate”.  He is somewhat of a trend setter, and therefore he recently read the work of Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, who spoke at the Design Indaba earlier this year.  He was so excited that she forecast the colours purple and green as the new trend colours, and these two colours are the ones he chose for a project to be launched this evening at the new Freeworld Design Center on Waterkant Street, next door to Hemelhuijs.  Green symbolises the heart chakra, he said, and stands for universal love, while purple represents the 7th chakra of spirituality.  He calls these ‘heirloom colours’.  Green is going back to a shade with a black tone added, as it was used 200 years ago, he said.

Neil proudly says that ‘curation’ comes from the heart and the soul, and it is not pre-planned or pre-designed to scale.  It just happens. The curator trusts his/her mind, and one should not ‘theorise’ the process.  There must be an ‘altar’ as the focus point the restaurant, on which the food is displayed – in the BOS Tea House this was a lit high table, and the food was presented on large platters, Neil getting the Cape Town International Convention Centre to serve food in these that he felt suitable.   He became very serious when he talked about the use of purple in making an “anti-Roman Catholic/papal statement”, in retaliation to how this religious group “has raped the world for money”, his view contentious to many, no doubt.   But Neil speaks his mind, and has done so for many years.  Food is blessed by those eating at the ‘altar’, but it does not mean prayer necessarily, but rather is a sharing and connecting with those that one is having the meal with.   Vitally important is what is served – it must be fresh, real and imperfect (in other words, it is no longer the perfectly round tomato from Woolworths, but an odd-shaped one fresh from the farm).  ‘New food’ is roasts, and pies for the left-overs.  Woolworths is a no-no to shop at, he says, as its products are too perfect!  He told Sonia and I that he could feel a shift in energy amongst the people who ate at the BOS stand, due to his curation, which was focused on “designing a space to accommodate and enhance human life”.   “Altar Music” is vital too, and he often uses film scores (e.g. from ‘The English Patient’), ‘chakra music’, or Lebanese music, as he did on the BOS Tea House stand.

I ordered the pork and chicken liver terrine with the most unusual accompaniment of orange preserve at Hemelhuijs, and Neil was very envious of my choice, saying it embodied ‘food of the future’.   Neil said that the restaurants can no longer be run as currently, and he sees neighbourhood restaurants springing up, which are supplied by the residents in that neighbourhood, and supported by them too as customers.  This creates a relationship with one’s social community, and waiters must know their patrons, and serve them accordingly.   Neil also talks about ‘lardering”, using fruit and vegetables of this season for next season, by preserving them, and making relishes, keeping all of this in the ‘spens’.  “Real’ bread will be baked at home again instead of supermarket bread being served, simple cuts of meat will be served, and gas will be used as a means of cooking to conserve electricity, and all one’s baking will be done on one day for the week ahead, to save time and energy.   Consumers will become more independent in their supply, growing their own vegetables and herbs, and turning them into long-term sustenance.  Restaurants will not have menus any more – the chef will decide on the day what he can prepare, given what fresh supplies he has.  Clients will learn to be brave in trusting the chef in his food preparation choice, and clients will be in the kitchen inside the restaurant, with the chef, while he prepares their food. 

Restaurants will have chairs, couches, or even beds in them, with music, books and children – they will no longer be elitist.  Good examples of such restaurants are Pierneef à La Motte, Towerbosch  (for which Neil did the interior), Babel (seven years ahead of its time, Neil says), and Hemelhuijs.  The food served in such restaurants is elementary, honest and sustainable as far as possible (e.g. in New York restaurants grow vegetables on top of city skyscrapers, Dash restaurant is growing vegetables and herbs on top of the V&A Hotel roof, and Dear Me is growing its herbs in special containers hanging from its ceiling).  Restaurants are no longer places at which to just eat, but also serve as a replacement of one’s office and home, a ‘connecting space for like-minded people’, our ‘home away from home’!  This trend will spread to accommodation establishments too, with guest houses and hotels becoming ‘non-guest houses’ and ‘non-hotels’, making the guest feel at home but in which one’s privacy is not compromised. As customers we will become ‘excessively open’, Neil says, becoming so ‘naked’ that all can ‘see’ one, and one can say “here, this is me”!

It was the accolades and attention that his BOS stand created that led Ravi Naidoo, the organiser of the Design Indaba, to invite Neil to create a pop-up store in the very fashionable Fashion Mall of the V&A Waterfront, for an as yet unannounced project.

POSTSCRIPT 16/5:  Neil Stemmet was one of four curators/designers invited to present their interpretation of “Openness to Explore” at the Freeworld Design Centre on Waterkant Street.  Each designer designed a pod.

Neil Stemmet, KONCEPT, Cell 082 373 3837. www.konceptdesign.co.za

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: @WhaleCottage