Grape Escape Café
Hodgson introduces John Appelman, owner of the Grape Escape Café. This rural café is located just 5 minutes off the Great Taste Trail Rail Route at Appleby.
Appelman is a name synonymous with great food in the Nelson region, both in the restaurant scene, and in catering events from small dinners to large weddings and functions. Born in the Netherlands in the 1950s food has been a passion since he stirred his mother’s pots on the stove as a five-year-old. Appelman says “to be fair she had to make the most of limited resources, but that reflected the times and foods available. A lot of foods and attitudes to cooking were affected by austere post-war Europe – we made the most of what was readily available, lots of potatoes, cabbage and pork.
“Many producers raised pigs indoors in barns during the harsh European winters, so that was our main meat; we did breed large rabbits in cages – just before Christmas Dad would tell us the cage had been left open and the rabbits had escaped, and then we found ourselves eating rabbit for Christmas dinner.”
Appelman told his mum when he was very young he was going to be a chef and “being as stubborn as a mule” everything he did at school was so that he could realise that ambition. He earned his full trade qualifications at the Hospitality College in Amsterdam where the students learned everything from baking to fine cuisine. During his training he worked weekends in local hotel kitchens starting when he was just 13 to get as much experience as possible.
“I got very lucky, there is a very structured apprenticeship system in Holland and I was fortunate enough to work in two very good restaurants during my apprenticeship, including one that earned its first Michelin star while I was there and its second star after I left – they still have two stars.” When he and his wife Penny were travelling around Europe a few years ago they visited that same restaurant, de Bokkedoorn in Zandvoord, and he “just stuck my nose in the back door, said that I was apprenticed here when I was young, and they took me back into the kitchen, showed me around, and invited me to watch what they were doing – I spent a great afternoon there. The kitchen hadn’t changed much, just more fancy gear.”
“Many restaurants in Europe are held in family ownership for generations and the son of the man I worked for now runs the restaurant – when I was there they had four apprentices and whoever worked hardest and longest went to the top of the pecking order – that was me, very keen and focussed, rather than chasing girls, I just wanted to cook, the same as I do today.”
“I was really lucky to train and work in a place like that.” he says.
He has been at the Grape Escape just over seven years and it is now a very busy, buzzy, casual place where he can look out the windows and see the trees and mountains, a nice bonus of finally working daytime hours, and they have a very loyal clientele – plenty of locals just drop in for coffee and cake as well as lunch. He says that as a lunch café the food still has to be of a high standard and “we make 99% of dishes freshly from scratch ourselves which is unusual these days, no pre-made sauces or desserts, or muffins or scones made from commercial premixes –everything is prepared, cooked and baked from fresh ingredients by us. We have four full timers in the kitchen plus myself and I keep telling them I won’t drop my standards.” And the future? “I still love cooking, and can’t see me stopping anytime soon. But sometimes I think I should slow down a bit work wise as I get older. That’s a hard thing for me, but I am working on it!”