Chef Warren Mendes talks to BeanScene about South African safaris, uncovering an unknown food culture, and why the best coffee experiences are situational.
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Warren Mendes would wake before sunrise to view the animals on safari and always make a coffee stop along the way.
“I drank coffee with a rusk – a dry muesli bar biscotti that you dunk into your coffee – as an early morning snack to take you onto a later breakfast,” Warren says.
As he got older, that morning coffee with a dash of milk was replaced with amarula, which Warren describes as a “South African baileys”.
“It’s made from the marula tree. Elephants shake the tree to drop the fruit it produces. As the fruit ripens it becomes very sweet, and when it ferments it becomes alcoholic, so when you spike your coffee in the morning when you’re on safari, it’s the most amazing start to the day.”
Time on safari is integrated into leisure time in South Africa, the same way Australians go to the beach, Warren explains. On the weekends as a kid, he would stay in different safari lodges and be exposed to giraffes, lions, and other wildlife.
In the city however, Warren says Johannesburg has become a “cool, creative destination”, with a few “cowboys” leading the charge for a coffee culture and culinary scene that’s fun and adventurous.
“The country has had a turbulent history in the past of following rules and traditions that were set in place, and suddenly there’s new generations having fun with things and exploring with no boundaries, and I’ve definitely noticed that with coffee,” he says.
“Even if you visit the farmer’s markets, like the one in Pretoria near Johannesburg, you’ll find rows and rows of enamel coffee pots on individual stoves. You get there at 5.30am to 6am and everyone goes straight to get their ‘moer koffie’.”
Warren considers South Africa’s coffee culture to be somewhere in between the United Kingdom’s and Australia’s. While it has a progressive coffee culture, Warren says some of his most memorable coffee experiences are situational.
“When I was back recently, I had hand-ground coffee at sunrise overlooking a watering hole. To me, that was the most magical coffee, even though the beans were probably a little over roasted. In that case the habitual nature is quite important,” he says.
In Sydney, Warren attributes one of his best mates, Sasha Jade of Fat Poppy Coffee, as the person who has helped him develop a deeper fascination for coffee.
“Sasha made me more aware about the process of roasting, coffee as a fruit, and introduced me to cupping. It blew my mind,” Warren says. “I never really thought about coffee akin to winemaking. There’s a massive process behind selecting the fruit, roasting the coffee, and exploring different flavour profiles. As a chef, I only figured this out quite late in my career. It fascinates me.”
Warren always has Fat Poppy Coffee in his French press at home, which he leaves to brew for four minutes with a timer.
“I like my coffee to be punchy. I like a robust, strong, heavy roast, like the way I like my caramel or salted caramel, on the edge of being burnt. I don’t mind that little bit of bitterness combined with sweetness,” he says.
Warren is not ashamed to admit that a tin of instant coffee is also allowed on the kitchen bench at all times.
“I am quite partial to an instant coffee. There’s nothing wrong with it. It used to be my dirty secret, but I’m not hiding anymore. I’m proud about it. I think it’s ok to have and accept it for what it is – a hot brown drink – on top of other delicious, beautiful coffee forms,” he says. “A strong batch brew with a slightly sweeter milk, such as oat, is actually quite delicious. It’s like being a chef obsessed with amazing food, but at the same time, fast food chicken nuggets can be delectable.”
When Warren’s not brewing coffee at home, he says nothing beats the experience of visiting a coffee shop and letting someone else do the work for you.
“Even if I’m going to early morning shoots, I’ll stop and get a double shot coffee to have in the car on the way. I like that habit. It’s nice to see cafés buzzing again. There’s a special interaction customers have with their local barista, maybe something we took for granted before lockdown,” he says.
Warren grew up surrounded by game farms, and a vibrant food culture in South Africa before moving to Australia as a teenager. From an young age, he had an interest and skillset in cooking. His earliest cooking memories are of his mother in the kitchen, holding a hand mixer, and the reward of licking the beat at the end.
“I was fascinated with what she was cooking and how she was doing it,” Warren says. “Food was always the centre of socialising as a family on the weekends. We loved having a braai, a type of South African barbeque. It’s a big process that takes a long time because you’re cooking on coals. I was always surrounded by food and I started to cook more and more as a kid but never thought I would do it as a job.”
Instead, Warren studied economics and accounting at university, and was content with owning a briefcase, a nice car, and simply cooking “on the side”. He went to work in the corporate world and knew early on it wasn’t for him.
Warren decided to follow his food dream and trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Paris, and London. He says changing career paths “was the best decision I made”.
That career change has led to work as a chef, recipe writer, and food presenter. He’s worked in restaurants and catering, as delicious magazine Food Editor for more than four years, and across various cookbooks and food TV shows. This included Everyday Gourmet, and his own series, Food Trail, which launched in 2022 and can be watched on demand via 10play.
“What we realised in making that show, is that Australians still have this fascination with travel and food, despite the blip of COVID-19 in our lives,” Warren says. “To film that first season, we left in March 2022, just as the borders had opened again. It was so beautiful to be in South Africa. People were open to having us there and we were able to really show off the country’s food culture in all its facets. I think everyone really enjoyed seeing this other culture. South Africa is very familiar to Australians, but nobody really knows about its food.”
What it is, Warren says, is food that tells a story about the country’s many cultures.
“It’s a multicultural country with traditions that are hundreds of years old. The country was colonised hundreds of years ago, so you’ve got these deep cultures that have evolved. The Indian cuisine is incredible in Durban, and Cape Malay,” he says. “South African food is very spice driven with huge influence from the east, which is surprising to people, but it’s just really delicious food. Enjoy that with a beautiful sunset and some giraffes in the background, and yep, I’ll take that job any day.”
In Food Trail’s second season, airing later this year on Network Ten, Warren will explore the hidden gems of South Africa, taking the back roads to some of the country’s less obvious food destinations.
“Because South Africa covers the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean, the coastline is incredible. It’s rugged in places, there’s desert, and then suddenly you’re on striking white sandy beaches, and that comes with incredible seafood,” he says. “The show will definitely be a feast for your eyes as much as it is for your stomach.”
Warren stresses the show isn’t a 10-part series about him travelling back to his homeland. It’s about the people and places of South Africa and uncovering the faces behind the food.
“I’m always meeting someone and finding out about their ways of doing a traditional recipe or why certain foods are special to them, or to an area, or culture. I’m just a guide along the way to some beautiful locations, local people, and together we cook some delicious food that will inspire people at home,” he says.
“You’re on the move every day, but it’s the dream job. The travel and early call times can be gruelling, but then you wake up in a beautiful location and spend the day with amazing people, learning about new foods, techniques, and cultures. I would do it every day of the year if I could.”
After filming in South Africa, Warren hopes to uncover more about the land he now calls home and spend time exploring his own backyard.
“I’m an immigrant Australian, but I don’t think I’ve seen the best of what Australia has to offer. I’d love to see more of this beautiful country,” Warren says. “Food Trail Australia? Maybe.”
This article appears in the February 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
Try Chef Warren Mendes’ mussel curry recipe:
- 2 tbs sunflower or vegetable oil
- 1 bunch (about 6) spring onions, thinly sliced
- 1 (about 350g) sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1cm pieces
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tbs finely chopped ginger
- 1 ½ tbs mild curry powder
- 1 tbs honey
- ½ cup coconut cream
- 1-1.5kg mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 1/2 cup water
- Chopped chives and red chillies to serve
- Heat the oil in a saucepan or deep frypan with a lid over medium heat.
- Add the spring onion with a pinch of salt and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened then add the sweet potato and cook for a further 2-3 minutes until they start to become tender.
- Increase heat to medium high and add the ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes then add the curry powder and honey and cook for a further 2 minutes until fragrant.
- Add the coconut cream and water and stir to combine then add the mussels, close the lid and cook until the mussels have opened.
- Stir to combine, adding a little water and coconut cream if you would like some more sauce.
- Serve hot topped with chives and chillies.
Follow Warren’s Instagram account here: @warrenmendes