Food and culture – a marriage made in heaven

Ghenwa in front of one of local artist Frans Groenewald’s classic depictions.

A few weeks ago, I headed up to Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, to the site of the newly-launched Ghenwa’s Culinary Club.

Many years ago I was privileged to meet meet up with Ghenwa and Geza Steingaszner at the lovely outdoor market at Blaauwklippen Estate, where they had a Lebanese food stall.

One of the first things that struck me about Ghenwa was her incredible enthusiasm and warmth, as we chatted about culture and cuisine, and during the years our paths crossed regularly at food and wine events, and she always greeted me with a hug and huge smile, and proceeded to catch up rapid-fire (only the hugs are missing during this time of Covid…).

Ghenwa was born in Lebanon (in an area that was known to the ancients as the land of Phoenicia), and her hometown of Aley, located in the mountains overlooking Beirut, is known as “the bride of summer resorts”.

She has always served as an ambassador of the best her hometown (and Lebanon) has to offer, and she encapsulates the heart and soul of her beloved home country, through her dedication to the art of cooking, and gathering together to “break bread”.

She describes her family’s unfortunate exposure to dire conditions due to the civil war during most of her childhood, which led her to self-sufficiency at an early stage in her life.

At the age of 18 she started as an airline stewardess with the Saudi Arabian Airlines, and in the next 17 years, she progressed quickly to managerial position, mostly thanks to her innate talents related to high quality food and service.

Among her many responsibilities, she supervised and trained airline staff working in galleys and providing high quality on board culinary services for the very frequent VIP flights for the royal family.

While in Saudi Arabia, she met and fell in love with Geza, a Hungarian-born American merchant and investment banker, and they married in 1994.

They travelled throughout the world, including a stay in the USA, where both enjoyed the beautiful wine estates of northern California, and Ghenwa became an Amercian citizen.

During their second visit to South Africa in 1997, they fell in love with the country, and bought a property in the Wineland, and in 2003 the family moved here permanently.

Geza took retirement from his financial activities and intensified with gusto his old hobby, collecting and consuming quality wines, while Ghenwa got seriously involved with activities in the neighborhood school where their two children were enrolled, activities that included many charity events organised by the parents.

One event lead to another, and before long her talents in the kitchen were noticed and solicited and soon thereafter, the cooking workshops started and were often followed by food and wine pairing events that the couple co-hosted with various talented local winemakers, thus leading to the beginning of Ghenwa’s Lebanese Cooking Club (the predecessor of Ghenwa’s Culinary Club)

Ghenwa says: “Our new culinary club concept evolved over years of experience serving our discerning clientele.

“To start with, we will focus on cooking workshops, food and wine pairing events, catering, and special events, however, as our model is a dynamic one, we intend to grow with changing times.”

When I visited their lovely new venue, I could immediately see how versatile it is, with a secondary section in front of the little bar, with couches in front of the fire, and a long table (with prerequisite Backgammon board… my favourite game!).

In the main section, warm carpets, widely-spaced tables, and windows and glass doors leading out into the immediacy of nature that Lourensford is reknowned for, sets a peaceful, yet intimate atmosphere.

Gheza visualises many related activities, including the hosting of foreign chefs, special wine tastings events enhanced by a well assorted and equipped wine bar, hosting of private celebration events, art events, media events, and many more, all aiming to create a hub of culinary-related activities.

“We will invite our audience to become active members of our club, and participate not only in our existing events but contribute to our evolution with suggestions, ideas, and advice,” says Ghenwa.

“Our focus is culinary activities manifested at the outset through cooking workshops, food and wine pairing events and catering. Guests will be treated to informative presentations by me, and I will share my in -epth knowledge of healthy dietary practices which are combined with, but not limited to, my exceptional familiarity with a wide array of Middle Eastern, North African, and Mediterranean dishes.”

Her talents will also be the focus of the food and wine pairing events as well as all other culinary offerings in the spacious interior.

It has been her dream for some time to have her own place, her own theater. This dream has finally become reality, and the building that houses the culinary club has undergone some serious changes to metamorphose into Ghenwa’s dream come true.

Lockdown caused some serious setbacks, but nothing could dim their determination to see it through, and liberate action from intention…

On the back side of the kitchen is a tranquil lake, and the vegetable and herb garden is a just a stone’s throw from where she works.

Another handy reality is that the couple live at Erinvale Estate, so Ghenwa is on the doorstep of her club, which lets her off the hook in terms of a long drive (not her best quality, she admits with a smile).

Geza and Ghenwa are delighted to be part of the greater offering at Lourensford Estate, which offers a smorgasbord of offerings, ranging from clay pigeon shooting, trout fishing at the well-stocked lakes, artisanal coffee roastery, children’s play grounds, rare automobile exhibition, art gallery, their own market (where the history of the Culinary Club at Lourensford began), and beautiful special events venues.

CHAÎNE DES RÔTISSEURS

Since her induction to the Chaine Des Rotisseurs, Ghenwa has shown her commitment to the “Chaine” by participating as judge in various Chaine-sponsored competitions.

In 2018, Ghenwa hosted her first “Chaine des Rotisseurs” dinner at the club house of the Erinvale Golf Estate, attended by almost 100 people, and it was a resounding success, so much so that it was soon followed by her first promotion to maître chef.

They will also be offering food and wine pairing events, which evolved by request from the workshop participants to involve their families and friends in an experience that exposes the participants to short version interactive cooking, combined with lavish dinners matched by carefully selected wines for every dish on the menu.

“We are looking forward to hosting variations on our offerings, which may include special guests such as wine personalities, gourmet media personalities etc, and can combine the art of cooking with the world of arts in general, giving a platform for various famous or upcoming painters, sculptors and musicians,” says Ghenwa.

A few days after I visited the new culinary club, this delightful couple invited my family to their home for an unforgettable dinner, where I met their son (who is completing his Masters in Music at Stellenbosch University), and their daughter, an accomplished pianist and jazz singer with numerous recordings, who worked on Carnival Cruise Lines as an entertainer, playing piano and singing (and was voted best piano bar entertainer in their whole fleet of 27 cruise ships).

The meal was out of this world, and the fact that Ghenwa had inflicted a grievous injury on her (very precious!) fingers the day before, and yet went ahead and prepared this feast for us without understandably just cancelling, is testimony to her tenacity, devotion, and passion for food… and creating a space where conversation can flow, and people can meet and become friends.

Bookings are essential at the club, and for more information, visit www.ghenwasculinaryclub.co.za