Jozef and Pam Harrewyn
Moments after stepping into the home of Jozef and Pam Harrewyn, I am already trying to figure out how to extend my stay. Spanish guitar fills the room with a vibe I like, and once Jozef arrives home fresh from work, he explains that this is only the first act. “Wait until the real music starts,” he says with gregarious warmth—but that’s after a glass of wine has been poured. I’m feeling right at home with a couple I barely know, enjoying the aroma from a freshly baked cake that sits on top of the stove waiting to be photographed. My hope is that this visit will take a long time so that I can savor every moment I am here. The Harrewyns’ charming home is graced with comfortable couches and chairs, colorful pottery and South African art, all which clearly reflects a story of their lives that began in Belgium and South Africa.
It is evident that good food has been a central theme for this couple. The lighthearted spirit, warmth and generosity that one feels immediately in their presence make it easy to understand their success. They share a love of cooking together in the kitchen and preparing fresh seasonal dishes for friends, family and guests. Owners of successful café/bakery Chef’s Corner, with locations in Williston and Burlington, Jozef and Pam with business partner Scott Sorrell have been keeping customers coming back for almost 20 years. One imagines that most chefs would return home from a long day and avoid their kitchens, much less continue to cook. Not so for Jozef and Pam. This shared passion for preparing fresh, local and eclectic food continues well into the evening for the Harrewyns. They sit down almost every night at a candlelit table and share the day.
Jozef and Pam’s love of food began early in each of their lives. Jozef immigrated to South Africa at age eight from Belgium. His grandfather encouraged Jozef’s dad to go to South Africa to start a small café and bakery. In 1956, the South African food landscape was wide open for young entrepreneurs, especially in the restaurant arena. Thus Harrewyns, a small café and bakery, was spawned. When not at school, Jozef and his five siblings would help out, contributing to its success. As a young boy, one of Jozef’s fondest memories was sitting atop a tomato box to run the cash register under the stern eye of his grandfather, an old-school army general. Jozef’s dad taught an African staff in the kitchen, and they in turn taught Jozef with a particular focus on pastries and bread.
Pam always loved helping her mother in the kitchen of their South African home. By the time Pam was 15, her grandmother had enrolled her into Le Cordon Bleu cooking classes, opening the culinary doors for Pam and introducing her to many of South Africa’s incredible spices that she still uses in her cooking today.
Her earliest fond memories were barbecues under an old oak tree in summer and sopping up her mother’s famous marinara with crusty bread while listening to uproarious dialogue among South Africans.
Pam and Jozef met on a blind date in South Africa, a perfect match of a couple who love life and enjoy every moment with infectious energy that makes them fun to be around. Jozef shares, “Pam is as productive, creative and skilled a chef as I have ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world.”
Jozef attended culinary school in Antwerp and Versailles, where he graduated with a specialization in garde-manger, pastry and baking. So began a love affair with preparing food that eventually took him to Montreal, Edmonton (Vancouver), Houston and Chicago with the Four Seasons Hotel Group. In 1984 he competed in the World Culinary Olympics at the IKA in Frankfurt, Germany, on the South African team. He had remained in touch with his former colleagues who landed him a job with the Four Seasons hotels. Fortunately for Vermont and for the thousands of people who have enjoyed dining at Chef’s Corner, New England Culinary Institute recruited Jozef in 1992 to become an executive pastry chef instructor. Ready for a lifestyle change to raise their growing sons, Ashton and Brent, Vermont fit the bill perfectly.
Their background is fascinating, and I feel personally grateful that the Harrewyns found Vermont. I watch as Pam pours the hot steaming sauce from a stove-top saucepan onto the waiting warm cake that she has carefully poked full of holes with a fork. In one of two elegant stemmed glass dishes, she scoops the piping-hot pudding cake and then makes another. “This one’s for you, Laurie,” she says with a smile. The flavor of this traditional South African dish called malva pudding is near orgasmic, rich and satisfying, enhanced by the freshly whipped cream from a local dairy she dollops on top. I try to savor every bite as I watch their son Brent photograph the other glass, thinking to myself about when I might attempt to make this for friends and would it possibly taste this good.
Even though we start with dessert, the evening is not over. The gratin of Belgian endives and Belgian stoemp aux carottes are up next and the music is ramping up as well. Both dishes are favorites from their native countries and a traditional part of their holiday gatherings. Pam shares that she loves cooking a traditional Thanksgiving turkey and mixes it up for the Christmas season with duck, lamb or goose but always prepares traditional South African dishes as well.
“Braai, a South African barbecue, was a traditional way to celebrate the holidays during my years at home,” Pam says. “It’s so hot that most people want to be by the water, and curries are often part of the menu because they cool you down.”
Pam and Jozef embrace seasonal cooking, and local, organic and what’s in season defines their menu. In summer they barbecue everything including fruit and vegetables. “Basically anything that can be barbecued,” says Pam. Stews, soups and root vegetables are prepared in fall. During the long winter months their home is filled with the aroma of slow cooking, and roasts often grace their evening meal. Entertaining is something they both enjoy. They set elegant tables for their guests, planning a menu in advance that begins with deciding the main course. Despite hectic and demanding work schedules, they find time to share long dinners around their table, celebrating friendships, family, good food, stories, wine and music.
As I sip on my wine enjoying the spirit of the evening and trying to stay out of the way of Brent’s skilled photography, Jozef shares cooking stories. Things don’t always go smoothly in the kitchen; he chuckles, describing a time over the holiday season when they were cranking out trays of holiday cookies with young Brent and Ashton participating in the activities. With an oven full of cookie trays, it was Brent who noticed smoke pouring from the oven. They had all been having way too much fun and the entire batch of 200 cookies had been burned to a crisp. Attitude is everything in life, a mantra that Jozef lives by. They swept the cookies into the trash bin, cleared the smoke and made more.
Remarkably, even travels and holidays away are food-oriented for the Harrewyns. An upcoming trip to Charleston, South Carolina, is already planned with dinners and lunches booked months in advance at some of the best establishments, found by browsing the Internet and on recommendations from friends and customers. Avid travelers to Europe, South America and home to South Africa to visit family, they embrace the local food landscape wherever they land. Not surprising are their semi-retirement plans in the future; they have purchased a small cottage in the food capital of South Africa, the wine region of Franchoek.
A visit with Jozef and Pam Harrewyn leaves you with an infectious desire to allow the meals we share with family and friends to go on for hours at our tables with lively exuberance and fun. To share as much local bounty possible prepared with love and connecting us to where our food comes from. And to celebrate the culinary traditions that have endured to remind us of our past. It’s a tall order but one that the Harrewyns model effortlessly.
Spending time with the Harrewyn family reminds Laurie Caswell Burke to seek out the best local food wherever she travels and to plan ahead, recognizing that Vermont’s food landscape is one of the finest.