I am talking to Sandra Nel from Sandy’s Food Shack, at her home in New Plymouth. She is full of life and we connect immediately. Sandra’s food truck is parked outside. She proudly shows me her new sign writing on it. “I started about two years ago when I went to an event and I saw the foods available there,” she says. “I wanted to bring the food from my country (South Africa) to New Zealand. I decided to start with a gazebo.” She called it San-Kai – ‘San’ for Sandra and ‘Kai’ for food. “But since then I gradually adapted because I’m a Kiwi now,” she says. “And my food has changed. I have made my food my way but with a Kiwi twist. There are certain things that I introduced like my Kiwi Works burger with a beetroot – which I would never have on a hamburger,” she admits, “but Kiwis love it. And I’ve started doing Pulled Pork on Chips. It was so popular and of course the Bacon and Egg Butties are always a win. Doesn’t matter if it’s morning, afternoon or evening, bacon always goes in New Zealand. I just adapted and changed it and thought ‘What will the people like’. I still have my basic South African stuff as well, but I am a Kiwi now. I can bring my original traditions and food that I have learnt while I was growing up and make it work for everybody.”
It has always been Sandra’s dream to own a restaurant. “There was a pancake place in South Africa in Pilgrims Rest and I always wanted to have a restaurant like that. Food trucks and vans are quite popular here in New Zealand,” she continues. “I thought I could give it a go and start off small, with a gazebo. But it’s difficult having a gazebo as my husband is not always here,” she adds. “So we looked at a caravan, and then we saw an old ambulance. I said ‘I want it, that will work for me’. I love it!” she exclaims. “On the side where the cleaning equipment is, you can see where the heart monitor was and above where the shelves are, is where I think they stored the injections and stuff… and it’s actually very agile if I can say it that way. Even if I am short, I can drive that thing!” Sandra’s laughter is infectious.
“I wonder if one day you can incorporate the names of those functions of the ambulance into the food?” I ask.
“Maybe. How do you think?” Sandra answers.
“‘Heart warming’… food or something,” I suggest.
“Somebody suggested I should have called it ‘Food in a Heart Beat’. But I’ve already decided on Sandy’s Food Shack. But I’ll think about it. Especially it being an ambulance. Also, what I want to do is maybe put the orange light on and say it’s an emergency food stop. Something like that. You know when I stop somewhere I put the siren on.”
I can just imagine it. “‘Food Rescue’,” I add. We giggle.
“Yes ‘Food Rescue’ or something like that,” Sandy says. “Sandy’s Food Shack is of course my little logo that I changed it to. The word ‘Shack’ refers to a little shack, like a Zulu shack,” Sandy explains. “But also to me, the top of the shack, it reminds me a little of Taranaki,” she says.
“I still do my basic Boerewors rolls. But I have also added an American dog because not everybody likes Boerewors. Kiwis like sausages or Frankfurters. They love it so I make American dogs. But I still have my Bunny Chows. which I did originally. Bunny Chows started in Durban in the Depression Days, when the people didn’t have utensils. They hollowed the bread and put curry inside so they didn’t need a container to put the food in. That’s how the sugar cane workers took their food to the sugar cane fields. It actually originated in South Africa. And there are no bunnies involved.” She laughs. “The name ‘Bunny Chow’ is an adaption of Bania (Indian) and Chow (Chinese) and it became ‘bunny’. But the word ‘Bunny’ also comes from beans because originally it was a bean curry, more than a beef or lamb curry. I also do ‘Vetkoeke’,” she adds. “It is a lot like a Maori fried bread, filled with curry mince or sometimes just jam. Vetkoeke were very popular with students when they had a hangover, like a ‘hangover bomb’.” We laugh.
“That could be your ‘ambulance dish’!” I say jokingly. “A hangover cure.”
“Absolutely! That’s why I call my Bacon and Egg Buttie also a Hangover Buttie because it works perfectly,” she replies. We laugh heartily. “I want to make people happy and give them what they like. To me, it’s making people happy.”
Sandra’s birth place is Durban but grew up in Transvaal, Alberton. They moved to Pretoria, but stayed in the Garden Route area as well. “But when we moved from South Africa it was from Pretoria,” she tells me. They have been here for eleven years now. “We love it here,” she says. “We do go back to visit to one of my daughters who lives in South Africa. But we love it here.
Although I decided to be an accountant, I have always had a love of food. I have always loved cooking food for my family, friends, being in the entertaining business, arranging events and stuff like that. For a bit while still living in South Africa I worked for my mother in law in industrial catering. We did two hundred meals a day. I just love making people food and seeing them enjoy it. We worked for one company where we had to make 100 porridges a day with different meats. In South Africa, ‘pap’ (porridge) is a staple food, made from maize meal. People loved having pap every day. They would have it with boerewors, or a stew, or a piece of chicken. We also worked for another company where we had to create lunch for every day. We would either make Hungarian stew, or Chicken à la King. We would cook a main meal for the day, with a dessert and it was for about seventy people.”
Sandra’s husband Gerry had a job offer and due to their age they were lucky that New Zealand was the country they could come to at that stage. “But it also appealed to us,” she tells me. “He came here first.” She visited him in New Zealand to see if it would work for her. “I said yes, I can live here,” she continues. “We’ve got security, we’ve got everything that we had in South Africa but we can enjoy our lives.”
They started their New Zealand life in the Waikato, in Otorohanga where Sandra’s husband was a herd manager. He was then transferred to Invercargill where he worked with pigs as part of a research facility for diabetics. Unfortunately, the company was sold and he found a new position in New Plymouth. Sandra herself has always been in finance. “But you start from scratch when you come here. So you have to work extremely hard and be willing and prepared to do that. You can’t just think that when you come here you can start off where you left. We had to really prove ourselves to make a success of our new lives. It was challenging and lovely.
I enjoy making food for people. My daughter thinks I am crazy. She thinks it’s much hard work but I love it when people come back and say ‘That was nice, that was really special’. I love talking to them. You meet so many different people, I really like the interaction with people. It makes it worth it. I love it.”
“It’s different from an office job,” I say.
“Absolutely,” Sandra agrees. “I really want to do it in the end permanently when I am able to, but… Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, I just take little steps.
At home when we do a ‘braai’ (barbecue), we prefer to do it by making a fire from wood and cooking the meat on coals, but now of course you can’t do that. But yeah, we like to make South African dishes, such as Bobotie. It is like a curry mince that you bake with egg and milk. It looks like a type of pie and you make it with yellow rice and raisins. It’s a very popular South African dish. It’s a different sort of curry. And I make a very nice lamb curry. It is my secret recipe, which my daughters also use. At my daughter’s wedding we had a big pot that you also put on the fire. We call it a Potjiekos. You leave the food in there and you don’t touch or stir it. Only in the end when you mix it. It’s extremely popular and people have Potjiekos competitions. While the Potjie is getting ready you drink and eat, and chat, and eat three, four hours later.”
I ask if she has come across any challenges when in New Zealand. “The food control,” Sandra starts. “You really have to be very careful and meticulous and follow the rules. And it’s important because you are dealing with people’s health and safety. You can’t play around with food. I will never ever take that chance. So that part I found quite challenging but it was something new,” she says chirpily. “I am always willing to learn but you have to follow the rules.”
Asking about success, Sandra tells me that she has always had the attitude that whatever you do, it’s up to you to make it a success. “And your attitude about it,” she adds. “In the end, whatever I do, my view of looking at it is to do my best and make it work. Starting from scratch was a challenge but I enjoyed it. And of course, my kids and grandkids are my greatest joy. I have two daughters. One of them got married last year and my other daughter who stays here in New Zealand has two children, and my husband’s daughter has two little girls.” As we speak Sandra speaks Afrikaans to one of her grandsons who is in the room with us and laughs. “I am immensely proud of my children and grandchildren and in just being able to enjoy everything and be part of their lives.”
One of the most recent events popular Sandy’s Food Shack was fortunate to attend was the Taranaki Multi Ethnic Extravaganza just before the Covid-19 Lockdown. Going by the delicious food on offer I am sure people will want to know when the next time will be and where they can find her. “I normally go to the Railway Market New Plymouth, but I go to every event when they are on. I am going to do the Weet-Bix triathlon as well, for the children, but mainly markets at this stage. I just look what’s out there and apply for that.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed that these markets and other public events will resume soon!