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Jacques Pepin's Safari

On a luxurious wilderness trip through Botswana and Zambia, the legendary cook is teacher and student, chef and shaman.

"We call these Desert Pringles," Ralph Bousfield says, wielding a handful of salt grass. "Try one!" Jacques Pépin breaks off a spiky blade, tastes and frowns. Though spring hares crave it, salt grass turns out to be a less satisfying snack than the next item on the menu, harvester termites. "They're crunchy," Pépin says, chewing one. "Quite nutty, buttery."

Pépin is sampling bush food at Bousfield's San Camp, an outpost in the Kalahari Desert. It's the first stop on a seven-night safari that will take us through the southern part of Africa, from Botswana to Zambia. Of course, seven years would be a more realistic time frame for exploring this vast terrain, but Pépin has a lot on his plate, with two TV series and his duties as a dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. On this tour, he is going to get a concentrated taste of the continent, even if it only serves to whet his appetite for a return visit. Africa does this. Nobody can shrug off the huge plains and rivers and skies, the wild beasts, the music and the people, even the shameful, beautiful remnants of colonialism. Nobody who has been here once is immune from wishing to come back.

African food, varied as it is, is not normally the draw. All too often, for the safari visitor at least, menus promise that dreaded noncuisine known as "international"--partly a legacy of the colonial era, partly the product of lowest-common-denominator tourism economics. The two camps on Pépin's itinerary, however, are way more sophisticated than that. Here at San Camp, the chefs conjure up wonderful food in the middle of the desert; at Tongabezi, the resort in Zambia where we will spend three days at the end of the week, the chefs are skilled at incorporating African ingredients into Western dishes. From working with the cooks in these places, Pépin is hoping to discover something of southern African food, both in its undiluted state and as it has been adapted for travelers.

The Kalahari itself is all about adaptation. Every living thing here has developed ingenious ways to survive, from the salt grass, which would pickle itself alive if it hadn't learned to pump salt out through its leaves, to the Sua Kwe Bushmen, who have figured out how to subsist on and around the Makgadikgadi salt pans, an astonishing expanse that was once a vast saltwater lake roughly the size of Switzerland. The land appears barren of life, but the more we look, the more we see. Every few yards our handsome and logorrheic guide, biologist Chris Varco, whips out his binoculars. "Look! Impalas! That's so rare here. They're obviously on a day trip." (Little do they know they're on tonight's menu. Africa is harsh.) "See there! A secretary bird eating a snake. Those birds hate to fly. They hunt on foot." We see helicopter birds taking off vertically, and ostriches striding like Nureyev, and mopane trees folding their leaves like butterfly wings in the sun.

After our introduction to the Kalahari, we head back to San Camp. The most amazing desert adaptation of all may be the one performed here by Bousfield and his wife, Catherine Raphaely, who have created a fantastical outpost--with canvas tents, hardwood floors, Persian carpets, leather trunks and antiques--out of the only positive aspect of colonialism, its visual style. Each day a very basic kitchen produces three-course feasts, complete with fresh-baked breads, from a single weekly delivery of provisions. The men who accomplish this feat are Benson Mwenda, the head chef, and his sous-chef, Foster Bube. Raphaely, who taught them most of what they know about Western cooking, is keen for the two (plus the chefs from San's sister camp, Jack's) to spend time with Pépin. "By meeting you," she explains to him, "they'll see that being a chef is an international profession and a man's profession. I don't want them to think it's a white madam's thing."

Perhaps because they have been told of Pépin's exalted status, or perhaps because the white madam is hovering, Mwenda and Bube are a little shy at first. Pépin quickly breaks the ice with some sleight of hand from his apprentice days, creating butter roses and caramel cages, incongruous froufrou that the other chefs find hilarious and pick up instantly. In no time, the language of food has created a bond among the three men. For the remainder of his stay at San, Pépin is forever disappearing, only to be discovered rummaging in the freezer with Mwenda.

The truth is, Pépin is just as eager to learn from Mwenda and Bube as they are to learn from him. He wants to know about the privations and challenges of cooking in the bush, where opportunism in the use of ingredients is key, and he is even more interested in the real cuisine of the land, the dishes Mwenda's and Bube's mothers taught them. But this will have to wait for a special delivery of bush ingredients. So their first joint venture becomes a Franco-African dinner menu. They select impala, which Pépin proceeds to rub with rosemary and lemon zest. "Don't use the lemon juice," he explains to Mwenda and Bube. "The acid will cook the meat." For dessert, the chefs infuse milk with rooibos tea (which takes the place of coffee in half the continent) for a crème anglaise.

At dusk, before the actual cooking, we head out once more into the desert on special motorbikes with four fat tires. We chase the twilight deep into the Makgadikgadi, then park and recline on the salt plain to watch the night sky. This is the proverbial middle of nowhere, nothing but salt and stars, atmosphere and silence, from horizon to horizon. It's a place that shifts your axis forever.

Pépin dips a finger into the salt and pops it in his mouth.

"Just like fleur de sel," he declares--the world's most expensive salt.

With difficulty we tear ourselves away to ride home. En route, we spot a fire up ahead. "Be careful," Varco says. "It's poachers. They could be armed." But in the best surprise the desert has yet yielded, the "poachers" turn out to be Mwenda and Bube, who are preparing a plum sauce and baking sweet potato gratins in a Dutch oven on the campfire. A huge table has been set for dinner and a full bar has miraculously appeared right on the salt flats. Pépin picks up a pan and joins the chefs as they sear the impala.

"Out here," he laughs, "I don't feel like a cook, I feel like a shaman."

The following day, when the bush ingredients arrive, Mwenda and Bube set to work teaching the teacher about their food. There are jars of marula fruit jam and sacks of mielepap meal, a ground maize very like polenta. There are dried melons; morogo (also known as wild spinach); dried mopane worms; and buyu, the fruit of the baobab tree, which yields the original version of cream of tartar. "It's sensational," Pépin says, chewing a piece of buyu, "powdery, white and tart."

"What do you do with dried melon?" he asks Mwenda.
"You can boil the melon for about three hours and eat it with sugar; and you can drink the liquid separately as a soup alongside mielepap meal."
"When would you eat that?" he asks. "For breakfast?"
"Yes,like a soft porridge,or else for dinner with relishes."
"What relishes?"
"Mopane worms, or seswaa, or morogo."
"What is seswaa? How do you prepare the morogo?"

Soon, Mwenda and Bube start answering Pépin's questions by preparing a meal, which they'll take out into the desert and sample at sunset. Seswaa is an economical long-cooked meat stew; the mopane worms and the morogo are rehydrated and cooked with onions and tomatoes.

The next morning, Pépin says his good-byes to Mwenda and Bube and we set out for Zambia. At Victoria Falls on the border we meet up with Cherri Briggs, president of Explore, the custom safari outfit that designed our trip. Briggs knows every corner of Africa. Zambia, she thinks, is the most beautiful, unspoiled country on the continent; along the road to Tongabezi, it certainly looks green and promising. If the desert was about adaptation, Tongabezi, a cross between a Caribbean resort and the Swiss Family Robinson's tree house, is about relaxation. My room is shaped like an amphitheater, with one huge curved wall painted with murals and the Zambezi River where the audience should be. The bed could comfortably sleep six. Beneath my mosquito netting, I fall asleep to a hippo lullaby.

Pépin is clearly relieved that the kitchen at Tongabezi is professional, if a little eccentric, with battered aluminum pans where the All-Clad should be. One reason things are in good order here is the influence of the camp's Scottish chef, Craig Higgins. We were looking forward to meeting him,but there is some disappointing news. He tried to hang on for Pépin, we are told, through a nasty case of malaria, only to succumb to a burst appendix. He has flown home to Scotland to recover. But we are in the capable hands of his African protégés, with George Kalaluka at the helm and his sous-chefs, Zui, Rogers, Agnes and Albert, assisting him. They have inherited Higgins's inventive African-accented recipes: butternut and cassava leaf ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes; fritters of kapenta, the Zambian version of whitebait; crocodile marinated in yogurt; and guava torte.

After touring the kitchen, we all head to Livingstone Market where Kalaluka, a father of three, shops for his family. He and Pépin hit it off famously, poring over dried fish and live fowl, greens and oils and Kalahari salt. Pépin examines every fish, leaf, root and fruit; for him, this market is better than any museum. In close consultation with Kalaluka, he picks the freshest greens, some of the tiny eggplants called impua, cabbages and tomatoes. Pépin attracts a giggling crowd of shoppers--we are the only tourists here--especially when he makes a comedy act out of learning to pound ground nuts with a big stick. He also encourages Kalaluka to pose with a large and irritable chicken. "You know, when we were kids we'd kill the chicken by cutting under the tongue, and we'd keep the blood for the sauce," Pépin says. Kalaluka explains that at Tongabezi, they buy their chickens already dead. We taste a carton of Shake Shake 7 Days, a millet beer fermented for six days and drunk on the seventh. (Do not try this.) Finally, we repair to the nearby Mosi-oi-tunya Game Park to view, at last, some really big animals.

We start with warthogs (Pépin is fond of them, having made warthog prosciutto on a trip to Senegal a couple of years ago). Then come crowds of malevolent jackhammer baboons and herds of bouncing impalas and placid zebras. A pair of giraffes appear, elegant in slow motion, and, finally, the biggest thrill of all: elephants. "This is the way to see game," Briggs says. "Animals in the zoo are like human beings in a mental hospital."

Time at Tongabezi, filled with eating, lazing, game watching and (for the brave) white-water rafting, passes at cheetah speed. All too soon, it is time to make our way to Tongabezi's tiny downriver island outpost, Sindabezi, for our farewell lunch. We reach it by canoe. Never get between a hippo and the shore, Briggs warns. They hate that. Despite their Beanie Baby looks and vegetarian diet, these creatures are the biggest killers of humans in Africa, more dangerous even than crocodiles. The lower Zambezi teems with both. We row very, very carefully.

At Sindabezi, Pépin enjoys a meal cooked entirely by Kalaluka, a simple salad of the youngest leaves (a rare commodity) and herbs from the Tongabezi garden, freshly baked rolls and spiced, marinated, wood-fired beef fillet en brochette. Pépin is amused to hear that beef fillet is cheap and plentiful here and the meat at the bone is prized.

"George's food," Pépin confides, as if grading one of his students at the French Culinary Institute, "is well balanced and substantive. He has a really good, solid sense of seasoning. A natural." Thus proving what we knew all along, but have found afresh in Africa--as Pépin puts it: "You don't have to torture yourself to express yourself. You are within the food you make whether you like it or not."

Published March 2000
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