In the heart of China’s economic power, a young woman from Benoni is introducing Asia to bunny chow and a glass of our best grapes.
Amber Deetlefs, 23, and the SA restaurant she founded, are the biggest importers of SA wines in Asia.
Deetlefs came to Beijing at the age of 18 when her father, who was working in the city, insisted she take a gap year. She would have rather done what the other kids were doing, go to university.
However, once in China, she began taking Mandarin classes, with the intention of returning to SA at the end of the year.
She was the worst in her language class – but, now, six years later, her Mandarin is so good that when she speaks on the phone, people think she was born and bred in Beijing.
Her restaurant, Pinotage, is a short taxi ride from Beijing’s city centre and overlooks a lake that is covered in lotuses in summer. Deetlefs puts her success down to seeing an opportunity, and being willing to get her hands dirty.
“It’s not culture or tradition for Chinese to drink wine,” she says. But it is becoming fashionable and as the market for wine grows, so does the opportunity for importers.
So, she and her Chinese business partner, Cao Dong, began importing from small SA wineries and distributing the wine.
After two years, they decided they needed the space to show off the wines, a place customers could taste them by the glass and buy cases of what they enjoyed.
Deetlefs planned to employ the talent, teach them the SA dishes and then leave them to get on with it in the kitchen.
“When I went down to teach them some of the dishes, I just never left,” she says with a smile.
Her lack of culinary training didn’t hold Deetlefs back and her cooking has been enjoyed by prominent people from all over the world. They also supply wines to high-end Chinese customers, including TV channel CCTV and many Chinese actors and musicians.
But the secret of her success is more than clever import strategies, it’s cultural.
“(Working in China) is not just about speaking the language. It’s a cultural understanding. You have to change your way of thinking, that’s the only way you can get anything done here,” she says.
Deetlefs returns to SA at least once a year and finds most of her peers have very little understanding of what her life in Asia is like.
“I don’t think people actually think about China,” she says. “My friends, they don’t have a clue what it would be like, what the culture is really like.
When she arrived in China, “the perceptions you have of China are so different (to reality). My perceptions were wrong… I was very closed-minded at that stage, very young. Living here really opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
One of the silly misconceptions we have about Chinese people is that they love rice.
“Rice is almost like a poor man’s food. It’s served at the end of the meal and if you eat it, it’s rude towards your host because it means that there was not enough food.”
The crime rate is extremely low, but the roads are almost as crazy as ours. Driving is so bad, Deetlefs says that most Westerners hire drivers to transport them around and if they do drive, they attach cameras to their cars, to prove their innocence in case of an accident.
Deetlefs says she will stay in China for a few more years.
“Opportunity and the people you meet make for an interesting life. But it doesn’t make for an easy one,” she says. - The Star