Jules Mercer preparing an outlandish event. All photography in this article courtesy of Vanessa Burrell.

She has been called the ‘pied piper of picnics’ and she is certainly hard to pin down, but finally caught up with Jules Mercer to find out about her Outlandish Kitchen.

Apparently it all started in Zimbabwe with a concept called the Expeditionary Diner’s Club where a groups of friends would throw elaborate banquets in exciting outdoor locations. This evolved into Outlandish Kitchen – an unusual monthly pop-up dining experience based in South Africa’s Cape region and touring to Zimbabwe about once a year.

The idea is for guests to eat a meal in the environment in which the food comes from, surrounded by local farmers or the natural bush. The food is prepared by a local chef with assistance from the Outlandish Kitchen team. It is a highly exclusive experience with very limited numbers. The last one held in Harare sold out twenty minutes after being advertised!

Motivations and inspirations

We asked Jules what motivated her and she told us…“I’ve always loved food.  I think I started working with it because of greed. In this industry good food is always available, quite something! I trained as a chef at Ballymaloe cookery school on an organic farm in Ireland where you learn the basics of organic farming as well as cooking. This knowledge and experience was, I guess, the start of my interest in farm to table food and supporting our food farmers.”

Outlandish kitchen last year in Harare
Outlandish kitchen last year in Harare. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell

The outlandish concept

Jules went on to explain how it works…

“The pop-up concept is so utterly easy and obtainable for anyone, it’s a great way to start something new, by dipping your toe in the water so to speak. I was settling into the Cape and came across some farmers working to heal the land and food systems and I wanted to create a link between the consumers and these farmers so they could communicate, learn and probably most importantly sit down and have a chat about what and how they do things.  I thought it would also help people appreciate where their tomatoes come from just that little bit more – not in a preachy way…. Finding people who have great products is super easy.  Once you meet one person and start talking, they tell you about someone else and so the ball keeps rolling…”

Logistical headaches

We asked Jules about the challenges of organising pop-up food events and she said… “gosh too many to mention! from roads flooding on farms the night before events, to ice cream melting so we called it custard, to farmers forgetting we were having events on their land… lots of fun times! … Practically speaking it’s always a challenge to win new people to ‘get on board’ with a new concept.  But I find that the people who are key don’t need much convincing.  I’m not going to spend hours talking through everything with someone trying to convince them about what we do and how we do it – we have a very basic and loose formula, and from there on, every event is different but our moral compass stays the same!  If people are like minded and get it, it’s very easy for the ball to start rolling.  The whole thing works organically and inevitably the right people get on board.”

Flat breads flavoured with baobab powder
Flat breads flavoured with baobab powder. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell

Promoting local food

We asked her how she thought we can encourage more people to eat local food. “I think introducing things slowly in a form that makes them look more like food that they know is key…  and, something I forget myself at times, don’t compromise on taste.  People will always be scared off if tastes are totally new and unique.  But also once you tell people the story of the food, they become very loyal to that story and in turn that food.  And more willing to try it out, perhaps, because they met the farmer who was working on it… Just try it!”

Kariba crayfish
Kariba crayfish. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell

Favourite ingredients

We asked Jules to tell us about her favourite ingredients. She said: “my favourite foods have to have a good story – something that was grown by someone who respects the land and earth and harvested in a kind way and cooked by someone who acknowledges and respects this entire process.

Roasted cauliflower with marula nut garnish
Roasted cauliflower with marula nut garnish. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell

Baobab powder – I really loved what this did to doughs for breads.  The sour flavour absolutely brings something cool to a basic bread loaf or bun – in the same way sourdough has that fabulous tart taste.  I would love to use it in a creamy dessert like a panna cotta or similar. Popped amaranth is just great- the texture of this adds so much to any salad or topping for a veg dish.  I think this is probably one of the most versatile “new” ingredients I’ve worked with in a while.”

amaranth (1296 x 864)
Salad garnished with mungongo nuts and popped amaranth. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell
Baobab ice cream
Baobab ice cream. Photo credit: Vanessa Burrell

So if you really like your food on the wild side then Outlandish Kitchen is the venue for you, where ever it may be. For more information, check out their website http://www.outlandishkitchen.com/ or like them on Facebook.