DROPPING IN AT SURFRIDERS CAFÉ IN DURBAN
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
IMAGES: SAMANTHA SMALLSHAW
Out & About was stoked to share a Turkish breakfast with Surf Riders’ chef, Sam Smallshaw. Here’s why you should swing by…
Gazing out over the Durban beachfront promenade is sassy chef of Surf Riders Café, Samantha Smallshaw.
Although a good friend once suggested that chefs don’t have huge personalities and that most of their alchemy is confined to the kitchen, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Sam.
Her creativity, outspoken enthusiasm and strong opinions are a tonic for most jaded Durbanites. A visit to Surf Riders is a celebration of Sam’s energy. The same goes for her inspiring culinary creations which are conjured up all in the name of a lifelong love for good food.
So, why the food obsession? “I’ve always loved food – even when growing up. My Dad used to take us to Daruma. I first had sushi when I was seven. He used to take me to all these different places on the beach front. I also remember going to Razzmatazz and eating crocodile. I have always liked unusual food,” she answers.
It comes as no surprise, then, that some rather tantalizing prospects have made their way on to the Surf Riders’ menu. Sushi hotdogs and an octopus burgher (which comes highly recommended) are just two of her signature dishes as well as a cacophony of seafood and even a Turkish breakfast that has many locals queueing over the weekends.
The idea for the sushi hotdog came to her after a long hard day in the unexpectedly ordinary looking beachfront restaurant. “I went home and my brain just kept on going all night. I got up in the morning and just created it.
My mind never stops working. It just comes naturally. I also do a lot of research into the latest food trends and then makes these my own. I want people to come and enjoy food that you can’t cook at home,” she admits.
But life hasn’t been served up on a platter for this self-taught mealtime maestro. There was no silver spoon for a youngster who grew up on Durban’s legendary Bluff and was “busting tables” at the age of 16. She paid her own school fees and, by the age of 18, was working three jobs at top Durban eateries.
It was her association with “the Durban restaurant family” and respected restaurants such as Marco’s, Café 1999 and, ultimately, Andre Schubert’s Market restaurant in Greyville that kitted out her culinary toolbox.
“Brendon Newport was my inspiration and was the one who always guided me. When Surf Riders opened in 2014, I was working front of house. Brendon Newport was the chef at the time and took me under his wing. That’s when I migrated to the kitchen and my journey the kitchen started. I loved being creative and conjuring up magic on a plate. I guess I take pleasure in seeing my customers enjoy their food,” she continues.
A HEART FOR DURBAN
Sam’s characteristic laugh is often heard as she marshals her troops. She says her staff are integral to the restaurant’s vibe and work very closely with her. She also makes a point of chatting to her customers.
Quizz some regulars and they tell you that Surf Riders is a slice of old school Durban – the gruff port city that welcomed container ships behind some of the best surf in Africa. It hankers back to Surf City with the Tropicale roadside diner and some goofy night clubs. Even now, the neat promenade that weaves along the edge of the sea is the artery that keeps the waterfront alive – and bright bubbles of brilliance like Surf Riders.
“This place is so Durban. It’s not pretentious, it’s not fancy. In a way, the restaurant is a bit retro Durban. Remember the old days? They had roller skates and the Hotel California and people came just to see the beach. Those were the days of the Gunston 500 – that’s the vibe. We try and maintain that,” Sam chips in.
As much as it is relatively retro, Surf Riders opened in 2014 when much had changed.
The original vision was to stick to simple beachy fare such as burghers, hot dogs and pizzas. Just good chow remains the Surf Rider motto.
“We opened. Saturday arrived and we had a huge queue. We couldn’t get the food out fast enough. We learnt quickly. Now, we run like a machine,” she says of a kitchen that turns out everything from Italian pastas to Mexican and Greek street food.
Of course, Sam has a treasure chest of highly entertaining tales of the quirky goings-on along the so-called Golden Mile. But they’re probably not for general consumption.
She clearly harbours a deep love for her city.
“Everywhere you go, there is always going to be some sort of issue. I like Durban. What Covid and all the other upheavals have taught us that you just have to carry on, be positive and make the best of what you’ve got,” she says.
Like many Durban eateries, Surf Riders took a dunking during the pandemic – but Sam was determined there would be no wipeout.
“Because I have been through so many things in my life, when Covid hit, I did not panic. I knew we were just going to have to deal with it,” she admits.
Sam attributes the fact that they survived Covid to “amazing loyal customers” that the Surf Riders team during tough times. “The community came through for us and the love and compassion for Surf Riders was amazing,” she says, adding that this has continued.
But she also admits that Covid has had a lasting impact on restaurants in Durban.
“You had to go back to the basics. Covid has changed the restaurant industry because you have to be more mindful of the fact that people do not have as much money as they used to. You have to be price sensitive and provide value for money. It has probably been a good thing because it taught us that we have to up our game.”
DELVING INTO THE MENU
Surfriders has a standard menu with specials that are changed every week.
“The nice thing about the menu is that it is for all kinds of people. You can come to Surf Riders and have a foodie experience or, if you don’t like food that is too over-the-top, you can choose something more conventional. But we don’t just go and put food on a plate. I look for flavours that are going to work. We test it out. I like to make sure that what we are doing is excellent,” she says.
So, how would Sam describe her food?
Simple, she replies.
“I do normal but good – but I also like to do things that are different. You don’t just want to have a standard chicken salad. You can go and get that down the road or make it at home, so what’s the point? I try to make food that is unique and tasty. It is the food that I would like to eat,” she adds.
That doesn’t mean complicated. “I like to cook very simply. I don’t like to use 10 different ingredients. I just do three or four,” she explains.
Even the standard toastie has to unconventional. The Korean and Mexican versions are particularly good and popular.
“Although a toastie is for someone who wants to come and have a quick bite, we do them very differently. We flat top it with a bit of butter so it becomes crispy and then we fill it up with slaw, your panko chicken and your mashed avo. Or you can have a vegetarian one with tofu or haloumi.”
Sam is also determined to well and truly bust the stereotype that healthy food is boring and bland.
“Most restaurants don’t cater for vegans. The thing is that, if you can’t cook vegetables, then you might as well not even cook. All the vegan stuff that we do is fresh. We’ve really thought about what we are putting on a plate. We also do vegan milkshakes with fresh fruit on top, cookies and cream, dark chocolate. People love them. Those who are not vegan come here because the food is good and healthy. I eat it and I love it,” she says.
Burghers get the same treatment. Surf Riders serves standard and cheese burgers. “But, if you want to go all crazy, you can do a habanero burgher or a camembert burgher which is served with sour cream and berries. We grill the camembert so it melts and then you have the sweetness of the berries. Then, we have the vegan burgher which is very popular,” Sam explains.
The soft shell crab is another Surfriders icon and seafood – which includes naked oysters and fresh west coast mussels and Mozambican clams – is a given.
Breakfast is also a healthy adventure with Sam – although she will also do the standard eggs, sausage and bacon when requested. Her latest eye brow raiser is chai, soaked overnight in almond milk and then served in a glass bowl topped with dragon and other fruits.
Last, but not least, is dessert – a rocky road, a carrot cake which Sam describes as “insane” with its caramel drizzle – and, of course, a banana split which is very retro Durban.
The ice cold craft beers served at Surfriders come from Unity Café simply because Sam believes in supporting local. Something warmer? Try the beetroot or turmeric cappuccino.
Then there’s the fresh juice bar, which only uses raw and organic vegetables and fruit. “It goes by the name Sam’s Crazy Detox because everyone thinks I’m mad,” laughs Sam.
If you’d like to unravel that one, you’ll have to head off to Surf Riders …