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'Mr Kapitan': curry chef to the kings Print E-mail
11 September 2002
Rare sight ... Mr Kapitan seldom smiles, says his wife
Rare sight ... Mr Kapitan seldom smiles, says his wife

NOT many people have a working life of 63 years. But not only has Madanjit Ranchod worked that long, he has worked in the same place all those years.

Ranchod, a sprightly 76-year-old, is the chef ("I'm a master chef"), at the legendary Kapitan's, one of the city's oldest restaurants, best known as the place where the young Nelson Mandela lunched each day. Ranchod is a fourth-generation chef, who was taught to cook by his father, in this same restaurant, at the age of 13.

Kapitan's has been open for 88 years. But it dates back even further. "Before that there was a Kapitan's in Durban from 1887," says Ranchod, better known to most people as "Mr Kapitan". It was opened by his great grandfather, who started the first Kapitan's in Durban. He worked as a ship's captain, and took the name from his title.

Note
Madanjit Ranchod died in December 2007, and Kapitan's subsequently closed.

About Mandela, Ranchod says: "I only realised he was a politician when he was arrested."

Ranchod was born in Durban in 1926, and came to Johannesburg as a 10-year-old. He married in Johannesburg and has three sons, none of whom are likely to take over the business - one is an engineer, one a salesman, the other a music teacher. Ranchod lives next to the restaurant in Kort Street, in the city centre, with his wife Margareta or Marge, who acts as chef when he's away.

Kapitan's only serves curries, and is world famous for them. Mr Kapitan says he has cooked for some famous people - for Jackie Onassis, the late Shah of Iran, the kings of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Eva Peron of Argentina, as well as diplomats and senators from around the world.

"There's no restaurant in the world that comes near me," he smiles.

The restaurant looks like an unlikely place to serve world-class meals. It is in a run-down part of town, up a double flight of worn stairs. At the top of the staircase are two large fridges at the door. The restaurant is decorated with vases of multi-coloured fabric flowers, and red curtains at the windows. The roof is hung with flags, empty wine bottles, Chinese lanterns and shiny Christmas decorations. A large freezer and a disused counter take up space in the restaurant, which seats 45.

The floor consists of red, black and grey linoleum, with a mix of wooden and metal chairs at the red and white checker tables.

"These are the same tables and chairs that have been here since 1936," says Mr Kapitan.

I spent 20 minutes in the kitchen of Kapitan's watching the efficient operation that produces these world-class meals. The kitchen is as long as the restaurant. There is a set of long gas stoves along one wall, and along the opposite wall is shelving storing the restaurant's vast collection of metal cooking pots.

One of the stoves, designed by his grandfather, was custom built in 1914 by a Hungarian blacksmith. It has been repaired twice.

The stove is loaded with several large round containers, with the curries for that day already prepared, including a large container of rice. As the orders come in he calls them out, with his helpers passing him plates and a small Chinese soup bowl. He uses the soup bowl to measure out the rice for each dish, filling it then slapping it down on the plate with practised dexterity.

The plates fill up quickly and are taken out into the restaurant. Despite the heat of the stoves, he looks cool and elegant in a pink and white striped shirt, with a maroon cardigan and black pin-striped trousers. Over this is a bright orange waist apron. He moves around the kitchen smartly, not a grey hair on his head out of place.

He stops for a moment and gives a big smile to my camera, and says: "Take your picture". But Marge says he seldom smiles. "You've caught him on a good day," she says.

kMr Kapitan sitting in his restaurant ... colourful and crowded, and some the furniture has been there for decades
Mr Kapitan sitting in his restaurant ... colourful and crowded, and some the furniture has been there for decades

Once his orders are complete, he walks out among the customers and like any good chef, asks how they are enjoying his food.

"I've never had a complaint," he says. People come from Krugersdorp and Pretoria for his curries. "People phone from London and tell me they're eating shit and they wish they could be eating here."

I tasted the starters - chilli bites, samoosas, potato curry balls, dipped in sauces - and would have been happy to fill up on these delicious teasers. For the main course I had a chicken curry - the saffron rice was superb, the curry flavour was subtle and just sufficiently hot. Just as curry should be.

Previous customers flew in from London for his recent birthday party. Marge was given a pair of diamond earrings. "I'm still waiting to be given the locket to wear with the earrings," she says with a gentle smile.

He says he never cooks at home and is reluctant to admit that Marge is just as good a cook as him. "I cook with love, even better than him - more tasty," she says. At home he watches TV, drinks Scotch and smokes Cuban cigars.

He goes on holiday three times a year, usually to Argentina, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and sometimes Mpumalanga, and always for the fishing. He goes deep-sea fishing but doesn't cook the fish. "I tag the fish, then throw them back in. I once caught one of my tagged fish in Argentina."

He has travelled extensively. "I haven't seen South Africa but I have seen the world."

Thai food is one of his favourites. Every three months he visits Thailand, and goes for two two-hour massages in the day, then the disco at night. "I enjoy the Thai people," he says.

Any thoughts of retirement? "I want to retire next year to Thailand or Brazil, and I want to write my autobiography."

Regulars say they've heard that before. Every year he says he is going to retire. Let's hope he continues to postpone the final date.

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