Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:16 am

Expat lives: A culinary curator

Cultural entrepreneur Justin Rhodes left New York for love and a new lifestyle in Cape Town

Love first brought 32-year-old Justin Rhodes to Cape Town nearly a decade ago when he arrived in South Africa on a tourist visa to visit Cameron Munro, his current partner.

The couple had met in New York City where Munro was visiting and Rhodes was finishing a Master’s degree in community leadership and micro-businesses at Hunter College. “Living here has evolved naturally, but I guess you could say I was initially following my heart,” says Rhodes, who was born in San Diego and raised in Connecticut. “But I’ve found in South Africa a healthy sense of entrepreneurship, a uniquely African mentality for working with what’s around you.”

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Indeed, working from their two-bedroom home in hilly Oranjezicht – a bucolic district lorded over by the flat-topped Table Mountain – Rhodes and Munro have established some of the most ambitious cultural, civic and commercial enterprises in South Africa. All are anchored around Whatiftheworld, an independent art and events space in Cape Town’s Woodstock quarter – a historic district of colourful 19th-century homes noted for its mixed-race population even during the Apartheid era. “We scraped up some savings and opened this little street-level space right on the sidewalk where we held monthly exhibitions,” recalls Rhodes, whose gallery now represents around 12 artists from South Africa and Zimbabwe. “Then once a month we’d hold a neighbourhood market for young designers and produce sellers.”

Five years later, further Whatiftheworld sites have sprung up in Cape Town and Johannesburg and their Neighbourgoods Market, set up in 2006, is now held in Woodstock’s Old Biscuit Mill – a century-old former bakery complex. Every Saturday more than 100 vendors offer everything from seasonal and mostly organic fruit and vegetables to cheeses and charcuterie – usually provided by Cape Town’s small-scale farming and culinary communities. More recently, the couple set up Superette, a restaurant which sources most of its ingredients from the market itself.

“We always imagined the market as operating akin to London’s Borough Market,” says Rhodes. “It started small, with no more than 10 traders. It was truly a grass-roots effort.”

With their original Neighbourgoods firmly established and Whatiftheworld recently relocated to a restored century-old synagogue, Rhodes and Munro are increasingly working in Johannesburg, where a smaller-scale Neighbourgoods opened in January.

However, home for Rhodes is clearly Cape Town, where he and Munro hope to buy their current residence – a rented contemporary cottage with an outdoor pool, lush gardens and views of Cape Town’s dramatic topography. “Owning the house would really make Cape Town feel even more like home,” says Rhodes. In the meantime, they already own the restored synagogue. “It’s been important for us to own this landmark building and we have lots of plans in and around it.”

Despite its troubled past, Rhodes – as a white, American immigrant – says South Africa has felt surprisingly open-minded and welcoming, at least in cosmopolitan Cape Town. “Before moving here I, too, had these notions of the ‘deepest darkest’ Africa we see on CNN. I suspect my experience might have been different if I’d moved to Johannesburg,” he says, alluding to the city’s more racially conflicted past. “In Cape Town I’ve probably experienced more discrimination for being gay than I have for being white.”

Rhodes has also experienced a deep sense of satisfaction borne from creating not just a life for himself and Munro, but a lifestyle for similar-minded South Africans and curious, culture-hungry tourists. “While emerging markets like South Africa often offer some of the most exciting opportunities of the moment, it’s always been important for me to do something of value and not just make money,” he says. “Working in the area of cultural regeneration has always suited my ambitions,” he adds. “And living amid a young democracy still finding its feet could not be more interesting.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Sheer natural beauty of Table Mountain, gorgeous beaches, Cape Winelands

● Excellent food both in Cape Town and surrounding communities

● Strong sense of creative entrepreneurship

Cons

● Economic inequality

● Cape Town lacks world-class museums

● The city’s small size can sometimes feel limiting

What you can buy for ...

$100,000: A one-bedroom, 57 sq m apartment in a new-build development in the up-and-coming Woodstock district

$1m: A three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,270 sq m home in upscale Camps Bay with sea views

Contacts

Remax Living +27 21 423 4488, remaxliving.co.za

Seeff +27 21 438 1055, seeff.com

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