Going Dippy with Durban’s Dino
Discovering the delights of Dino Constantinou’s Mediterranean kitchen.
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
First published in the Sunday Tribune, May 27, 2012
When Dino Constantinou was a tiny tyke growing up in Bulawayo, he would hang out in the kitchen for hours on end watching his mother conjure up her culinary delights. “She was a fantastic cook and baker. Mainly, she cooked Greek food,” he says.
His fascination continued as he grew into his teens. But it was something he didn’t share with his mates. “I guess I thought they might think I was a sissy,” he laughs.
Little did he ever image that one day he’d open a Mediterranean kitchen in Durban and become a flavour favourite at outdoor markets in the greater Durban area, expanding on the dips and tea-time delights (think baklavas) his mother used to make.
His father, who had moved to Zimbabwe from Cyprus, was a building contractor. Dino, appropriately, followed in his footsteps, enrolling when he left school (as a correspondence student) at the City & Guilds of London Institute. He graduated as a structural engineer.
He married his teenage sweetheart, Annamaria, the daughter of one of the first Greek families to settle in Bulawayo.
The pair then moved to Ulco in South Africa’s Northern Cape (between Upington and Barkly West). “I went there to be an engineer on what was at the time the largest dry process cement plant in the world. We were newlyweds and lived in a hotel room for 18 months,” he says.
It was the middle of nowhere but — spend a bit of time with Dino and you quickly learn that, besides being gutsy and a people person, he is both reflective and one of those good-to-be-with people who see the glass as half full — “we loved it”.
They were among Afrikaaners and when they arrived, he couldn’t speak “die taal”.
But “we were out in the dessert in a beautiful area by the Vaal. And I learned that true Afrikaaners are really nice people”.
African Greek Cypriot
Then something started to tug at him. “I think it’s in our blood as Greeks — (Dino describes himself as African of Greek Cypriot descent) — food, restaurants, cafès and now supermarkets, etc.”
He and his wife moved to Durban and he bought his first business. Namely, Mannie’s Takeaway, a supermarket and take-out between the bus rank and the taxi rank on Hill Street, Pinetown.
“That was another experience, waking up at 3 every morning to open at 4am for the commuters on their way to work. I had an 8-ton truck and did the market every day. Filled it with fruit and veggies. Supplied all the local hawkers. Then our first son was born. He grew up on the back of my (Zulu) chef, Cecelia. He was what I think you’d call a counter child.” (Now 27 and an economist, he is a lead analyst at the Competition Commission of SA in Pretoria.)
When Annamaria, an architectural draftsperson by training, gave birth to their second son (now 25 and an actuary in Johannesburg), Dino sold the business. “She’d been helping all along. It was a big business. I felt it was all too much for the family.”
They moved to Pietermaritzburg where Dino took at job managing his cousin’s restaurant, McDaniel’s Taverna. (Readers might remember it, as I do, for the Greek dancing and plate breaking.)
Next came his first restaurant, The Spotted Dog. It was “very Italian” and Dino ran it “100 percent”. It became legendary in Maritzburg for its upscale dining.
He pulls a crystal glass from a memorabilia shelf and pings it near, yes, an etched spotted dog. Dino owned and ran The Spotted Dog for five years. During that time the restaurant gained the distinction of selling more West Coast soles than any other eatery in South Africa. On the menu was grilled sole, sole mornay, sole bon femme, sole colbert, sole paupiette and sole done in all manner of restaurant-specific creative ways devised either by Dino himself or by an Australian chef with the nickname “Walkabout” who wandered in one day wearing flowing locks and looking like a hippy.
“I was about to send him away when my mom-in-law kicked me and whispered that she had a good feeling about him. And he was brilliant. The best thing that happened to us.” Spend time with Dino and another thing you notice is how he dishes out praise and shares acknowledgments.
The Aussie chef (who stayed on for about four years) helped Dino open his second Maritzburg restaurant, called Characters, which was also about fine dining and continental cuisine. “I became known as the walking talking menu,” Dino remembers. The restaurant became known for its strawberry pepper steak and creative menu.
One day, Dino says, he woke up to the fact that while running The Spotted Dog and then Characters, “I had missed my sons growing up. (The youngest is doing his Matric this year at St Henry’s in Durban.) I decided I wanted to get out of the restaurant game; to try and spend more time with my family.”
They moved to Durban where, “before I knew it”, he was back in the restaurant industry, on the John Dory’s management team. As a sideline he bought a company his wife now runs that embroiders logos and emblems on all manner of golf paraphernalia, including wood and iron covers. It is also licensed to embroider certain rugby-themed items (a Rasta hat is a hit) that get sold in the Shark Tank.
With the economic downturn, competition from China and cheap rip-offs in the embroidery game, and realizing he was feeling a little bored, a couple of years ago Dino realized he needed to think creatively.
Taramosalata and skordalia
He spotted a gap in the market. “If you grew up in a Greek home you know what taramosalata and skordalia are supposed to taste like. We’re brought up on the stuff.” Most of what he’d sampled were poor quality substitutes, he says. (Exclude the Greek stall at the monthly Hellenic Centre Food Market from this generalization.)
He started making traditional fare — hummus, taramosalata, tzatziki and skordalia — then added specialty lines like basil pesto, pepperdew pesto, sun dried tomatoes in olive oil and a green salad Greek mix. He found a hugely welcoming reception committee at Durban’s Saturday Essenwood Market.
He slowly expanded and now has more than 40 products including beetroot blends, assorted pestos, a fabulous Greek salad mix that includes the olives , the spices and and a lusciously creamy feta — and more. “I’ve reached my max so each time I create a new one, I take out a slow seller. Of course people give me requests. We play around a lot. It’s so interesting to conceptualize something and then experiment with it.”
He now has three staff members, including Happy Mthembu, his “long-time Greek chef”, working in the home kitchen he has just expanded near the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Except for the tarama (the fish roe comes in from Cape Town), all products are vegetarian. All are preservative free: “I detest the word preservatives,” he says. Many are organic.
He makes his tahini and “nice thick yoghurt” from scratch. He uses organic wherever possible, fresh ingredients always, locally produced Danish style feta, haloumi from a KwaZulu-Natal Midlands farm, extra-virgin olive oil — and and almonds as his nuts of choice.
He’s expanded to the Shongweni and select Food Lovers markets, Dirk’s Meat Market at Davenport, the monthly Bulwer market, the Wonder Market at Umhlanga and the roving Durban Thursday night monthly markets. He supplies restaurants going all the way to the Drakensberg.
He loves the markets and if you’ve come across Dino, you’ll know he’s his own best advert as he invites you to try the products, tell you how they’re made and advises you on how to use them. “I love the people at the markets,” he says. “I love educating people on the product. People say ‘carrot! I never eat carrots’. Then they try the carrot pesto and love it. It’s fun.”
You could say that, thanks to Dino, KwaZulu-Natal keeps getting more delicious.
© Wanda Hennig, 2012