There was a time in Cape Town about ten years ago when chilli poppers became a thing. Like ramen and poke bowls have gone on to do, jalapeño chilli peppers filled with cream cheese, crumbed and deep fried started popping up on menus around the city. It was a similar time to when rocket on pizza became a thing. This was a very cosmopolitan thing to do. When a friend visited his hometown of East London and asked for rocket on his pizza, it came to the table liberally garnished with common parsley.
It was also the time when my friends and I, in skinny jeans, neckerchiefs, ‘vintage’ jerseys and godawful bangs, would frequent The Shack.
The Shack is a ramshackle collection of dimly lit rooms on different levels some filled with pool tables, some with cigarette-burned couches, each with its own bar. It’s been open from 9am to 4am, seven days a week for the last 23 years. A solid place for day drinking, pre-drinking or post-party wind downs; it’s always there when there’s nowhere else to go. It remains. Except, as we’ve come to expect of Cape Town, the building is in the process of being sold to developers. According to an announcement on their Facebook page though, this process may take years and while it does The Shack still stands.
Perched up the front stairs, to the right between the upstairs pool room and the foosball machines is the domain of Nightingale Nolisi, where she cooks late night, early morning snacks in her tightly-run kitchen. The Shack has seen it all, and by extension so has Nightingale.
Of all the hazy memories I have of The Shack what’s most clear is the long-suffering Nightingale and her chilli poppers after too many Black Labels. Nightingale started working in the building in 1998 at the adjacent Mexican restaurant Papa Luke’s where she learned to cook some of the food she still makes today. I met up with her at The Shack to ask her about working the night shift all these years.
When did you start working at The Shack?
When the kitchen at Papa Luke’s closed all the other ladies I was working with were fired but my bosses loved me, they said, “Nighty, we can’t fire you. Can you please come and cook for The Shack?”. So I took that opportunity.
When I started in this building my only daughter was in grade 1, now she’s a graduate. She studied Industrial Engineering at NMMU back in PE. I’ve been here for almost twenty years! That’s not right, hey?
What time do you start?
I work from 6pm to 2am. It starts getting busy 11, 12, 1. The kitchen opens at 6, sometimes I get people on their way home from work who come in for food but most of the orders start at 9. It’s getting busy at that time. I arrive home 3, 3:30am in the morning.
Is it busy in the week?
No, weekends, Fridays and Saturdays.
I fight everyone every weekend. When they’re drunk they don’t even want to wait. I say, “Wait!”. But now they know me, they call me Mama.
I don’t have written rules but they know my rules. They must obey, they must respect me. I’m their mother. They give me shit sometimes.
What do you do then?
I say, “Hey wena, I’ll klap you!”. But if someone is over me I’ll call the bouncer to take him out. But most of the time they are friendly, they understand me.
So do crazy things happen?
Yoooo, crazy things happen in the kitchen. I remember one day this guy was at the counter while I was busy making food but all that time the guy was peeing behind my counter there! They reach over the counter and eat my cheese. They’re naughty. So many things happen here: people dancing on counters, breaking things, throwing glasses away when they’re stressed. I just call the bouncer when it’s too much. I don’t like serving guys, guys are full of shit. I like ladies. I don’t know whether it’s because I had a baby girl. I love girls.
Those little girls, they take me as their parent when they have problems with boyfriends, they come to me and cry.
What’s some advice that you give?
These things happen, even to us. You’re still young to cry over boys.
Have the customers changed over the years?
They’re teenagers most of the time now days. But sometimes I’ll get customers saying, “Hey mama! I was here five years back and you’re still here!” Maybe ten years back, “you’re still here, Mama!”, “Mama, we came back here for your food. I’m coming from overseas.”
And what do they order when they come back?
They love chilli poppers. LOVE chilli poppers.
Do you like Mexican food?
It’s not my favourite.
I’m from the Eastern Cape, PE, so I was cooking pap and meat. All the girls learn. I cook very different food at home – rice, pasta. I love cooking.
Is there a secret to your chilli poppers?
I use phyllo pastry.
Why do you think people like The Shack?
They like the up and down, this building is big hey. Up and down, up and down. They can have a meal, everything they need. Have you ever been here at night?
On the weekend?
It’s terrible hey?
Haha! What do you think of the music?
I don’t even understand the music. But I know a few songs. They like Afrikaans music. Each bar plays their own music. This barman working now, he’s been here for a long time so I love his music, he plays reggae sometimes. But these youngsters, I don’t understand this dum dum.
What music do you like?
Me, I’m old, I like Gospel. I put my earphones on when I’m in the kitchen.
What do you like about cooking for people?
I like meeting people. I’ve met different people – from Russia, from everywhere. In December we get a lot of tourists, especially from Germany, they like this place. They don’t know how to speak English though so it’s difficult for me.
I get people saying, “Mama, come with me, I’ve got a job for you.” A lot of people want me, they ask how much I earn and say they can give me more. I say I’m too old to start a new job now. The only problem is I’ve been working night shift all these years.
Lastly, what’s on the menu?
I’ve got pizzas, pita breads, chilli poppers, chicken burgers, beef burgers, chips. Not too much, enough to keep them alive. To keep them sober!
How to make Nightingale’s Chilli Poppers:
I take the whole jalapeño. Then I cut it and take out the pips. I’ve got my mixed cheese: it’s mozzarella, cheddar and feta, it’s mixed already. Then I put it inside the chillies and wrap them in phyllo pastry. Then I drop them in hot oil until golden brown. Then on my plate I put lettuce and my sauces: tomato, mayo.