It is 7:30 on a Sunday night at the Kapika Lodge on the northern Namibia-Angola border.
Half a dozen tables are set for the 19 guests, tastefully decked out with candles, linen tablecloths and formal place settings.
Simon Amadhila, 29, enters the room, lighting it up with his iridescent smile and delicious, inventive food.
It’s just another night of fine dining in the bush, brought to grateful guests by an impressive young man, emerging fine chef, and generally all around good guy. Tonight, Simon is serving his own version of gazpacho: an oven-roasted chilled tomato soup served with a dollar of crème fraiche and a sprig of mint. He follows with diners’ choice: pan-roasted hake with garlic-dill sauce, cooked to order t-bone steak, or pan-seared chicken breast with Moroccan sauces.
For dessert: poached pear bathed in a thin chocolate sauce with a dollop of cream swirled for accent and color.
All this in the middle of nowhere, plunked in a barren land three hours from the closest supermarket or food supplier.
Tonight’s feast was brought to us by a remarkable young man who has seized an opportunity to cook with both hands, an engaging, positive attitude, and a creative, inquisitive mind. The Kapika Lodge has many enviable assets: a picturesque vantage point over the Kunene River and Kapika waterfalls, stunning hillside thatched huts with sweeping views of the river and valley below, and, since it opened in 2008, Simon.
Opportunity brought Simon 150 kilometers from his native Ondangwa to the remote village of Epupa in 2007.
A man who owned the Arsenal Bar in Epupa (a shabeen, or informal bar frequented by locals) needed help.
“He is a friend of my mother’s, and he offered me a job,” Simon said. He spent his days and evenings opening beer bottles and speaking his native Ovambo along with Herero and Himba. He spoke zero English, though he learned some in school.
Six months into the job, Simon noticed that work had begun on a new lodge perched on the ridge overlooking Epupa. He approached the owner – a South African who now lives in Austria – and got a job gathering stone and sand and making concrete for the bungalows under construction.
When work finished on the lodge’s first phase, Simon asked if he could have a permanent job on staff. His first job was as gardener, then moved inside when manager Pam Morgan taught him how to tend bar. Later, while learning table service, he kept an interested eye on the goings on in the kitchen.
He began cooking by accident.
During breakfast one day, Pam – who also did the lodge’s cooking – became engrossed in a conversation with a guest in the dining room while eggs were frying on the grill. She hustled back to the kitchen when she smelled trouble and scolded him.
“Why did you just watch the eggs burn?” she inquired. “You know what to do. You can cook the eggs.”
So, from then on, he did.
Pam taught him English while opening his mind to the joys of cooking. She taught him the components of a proper breakfast, how to take guests’ orders for lunch and what to prepare, how to pair foods with one another, and, in the coup de grace of the young man’s informal culinary education, introduced him to Jamie Oliver’s instructional videos.
Simon watched hours of cooking lessons by Oliver and devoured two of his cookbooks, both of which are always within reach of his spacious kitchen off the lodge’s dining room.
“When I watched him on YouTube, he said ‘Don’t just throw food on a plate. You must decorate.’”
So his meals turn out perfectly plated with decorative garnishes.
Now, when Simon returns to his native Ondangwa, word quickly filters out that the chef is back in town.
“I cook for my family when I go home, and they say, ‘Hah! Where did you learn this?’ Now, when I go home, they say, ‘Oh, Simon’s coming.’” Typical Namibian cuisine takes a back seat when the maestro returns.
When Pam left in 2014 and was replaced by a new manager who didn’t cook, Simon stepped in full time.
“I communicate with the owner by email, and he asked me, ‘Do you have a new chef?’ I told him, ‘No, I’m in the kitchen now.’ He said OK, but he asked the manager, ‘Why is Simon in the kitchen?’ The manager said, “He’s fine. The guests are happy with the food.’”
Simon quickly became a Kapika Lodge fixture (read their TripAdvisor reviews for evidence) who remains, a self-taught magic man who is making the most of a life-changing opportunity. Homemade bread is a staple, and fresh-made muffins await guests at tea time in the afternoon.
“He is everything,” says Rona Botha, who has managed the lodge since June 2016. “Without him I’d be lost. He knows everything about this place…every stone, cable, stick. He’s always keen to learn something new, and he’s on top of everything.”
As assistant manager, Simon handles everything from check-in to maintenance requests, working closely with Rona and other Kapika Lodge staff. The kitchen is his domain, and Rona is teaching him inventory control and how to anticipate food needs for the lodge’s 10 rooms with a capacity of 20 guests. Supplies come from Opuwo, three hours south by car. Large orders will be delivered, but most weekly runs are done by staff. It’s a seven-hour round trip, so there’s no room for forgetting crucial items.
If something vital is omitted, Simon said, “We’re in big trouble.” The Opuwo markets sometimes don’t have what they need in stock, requiring the chef to improvise his menu. He smiles, “I have to make food with what’s in the fridge.”
Oliver remains a major influence in his cooking. Using a laptop computer that Morgan gave him when she left, Simon watches YouTube videos for kitchen tricks and new ideas.
“When I started with this guy,” (nodding to one of Oliver’s cookbooks), “I thought, I can follow his instructions.” Simon’s limited English posed a periodic problem. So did the absence of certain ingredients.
Again the smile, “So I added my own ingredients.”
Simon cooks his own amended recipes, stored between his ears and augmented by scribbled notes and Oliver’s books. “I cook what’s in the fridge,” he says with a grin.
Now, lodge staff grows vegetables in a covered raised-bed garden near the lodge’s entrance.
It’s all part of the fun for the affable young chef.
“He is the most cooperative, willing, eager and inquisitive person you could think of,” Rona says with a soft smile. “He’s always in friendly; I’ve never seen him in a bad mood.”
With good reason, as far as Simon’s concerned.
“I am quite happy here,” he understates with an enormous grin. He lives nearby with his girlfriend of seven years and their one-year old daughter. As for the future? “I am enjoying what I do. I want to do more…there’s a lot I don’t know.”
For lunch on our last day here, Simon said there would be chicken salad. What turned up on my plate, though, would have made Jamie Oliver beam with pride in his erstwhile protégé: a warm chicken sauté with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and spinach flavored with a light cream mustard sauce. Garnished, of course, with a sprinkle of diced spring onions.
Because one can’t just throw food on a plate.