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Chef John van Zyl
Photograph: Bruce Tuck

In The Kitchen With: John van Zyl

He loves the Thai fish, but diners can't get enough of the tacos. We asked chef John van Zyl what drives The Melting Pot Seafood at Time Out Market Cape Town...

Richard Holmes
Written by
Richard Holmes

Chef John van Zyl has deep roots in the Cape. From a childhood spent on the outskirts of the Winelands, through a diploma at the respected Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA), he first made a name for himself alongside Liam Tomlin at the respected Chef’s Warehouse on Bree Street. From there he took the helm of Thali, bringing the same refined notion of small-plate sensibility to Indian cuisine. 

It was experience that stood him in good stead for opening The Melting Pot, a delicious romp across global cuisines and cultures, where inspired small plates are big on both flavour and finesse. And while The Melting Pot restaurant amid the Elgin Winelands is well worth the drive, locals and tourists love the seafood focus he brings to his outpost at Time Out Market Cape Town...

How would you describe the plates on offer at The Melting Pot Seafood?

Our focus is flavour-packed food and our dishes pack a punch. We really focus on that street-food approach where every plate has some sweetness, a salty aspect, a sour aspect. We also love our chilli, to different degrees. In a way, it’s simple cooking, but it’s also complex. The way we cook is simple, but the seasoning is complex and layered.

How is the menu at Time Out Market Cape Town different from the original restaurant in Elgin?

In many ways, the food – even the recipes, the plating and the portions – is exactly the same. The key difference is that at the Time Out Market it’s a seafood concept, so the focus is entirely seafood. But all the dishes here also feature on our Elgin menu.

As a chef, how do you go about creating new dishes – what’s the starting point?

A cool aspect of The Melting Pot is that our food really tells a story and many of our dishes are inspired by experiences on our travels. They’ll come from a memory, a book, or something I’ve tasted on the way.

Dishes like Vietnamese charred pork skewers with fragrant herb salad and thick rice noodles. I’d find myself at home in the kitchen and these flavour thoughts come back to you. It takes you back to that exact memory, that exact moment. It’s a natural interpretation of what you experienced.

Or the squid roll, in a Portuguese-style bun with a fresh wedge of lemon and mayo. That is directly inspired by walking the streets in Spain and tasting squid bocadillos. We put our own twist on it with a deeply fragrant and layered chilli paste, but the idea’s the same.

What is the most popular dish on The Melting Pot menu?

We always thought it would be the mussels, but the Time Out Market has proved us wrong! The crispy fish taco is the best dish on the menu here... right now it’s selling three times more than anything else!

Mussels, fennel and sourdough, The Melting Pot Seafood
Photograph: Bruce Tuck |Mussels, fennel and sourdough, The Melting Pot Seafood

That’s impressive! How did the dish come about?

It originated as a slider idea, which came from a fish and chip shop in Pringle Bay, about an hour from Cape Town. There it’s a saucy fried fish vibe, but I thought The Melting Pot Seafood was the perfect platform to execute our version.

So we started with an enriched slider bun, and a banging tartar sauce, then added shredded lettuce and house pickles. But the kicker is a smoked potato mash mixed with a bit of mayo and a few other bits and pieces to make a spicy smoky potato aioli. But I wasn’t always happy with the consistency of the buns, so we took the whole thing and made it a taco! Now I love the visual aspect of doing it on a blue corn taco.

Fish taco, The Melting Pot Seafood
Photograph: Bruce Tuck |Fish taco, The Melting Pot Seafood

What’s the best drink to pair with it?

I’m a beer drinker, so I’d probably go for a nice fresh pint, but a glass of crisp Riesling would work a treat too.

What’s your favourite other eatery in the Time Out Market Cape Town?

I’ve had the burgers from De Vrije Burger, and I love what Bertus Basson does there. I’ve had some sushi from Sushiya which was really good, and a taste of the ramen and the pork gyoza from Ramenhead. I’ve also had a little from Barakat, and I think they do the best samoosa I’ve had in my life... they’re cooking some really good food there.

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