Michael Olivier: A Man in Full

I was still laughing at a deliciously dirty video-clip Michael Olivier had sent me a day earlier when I got the news that Michael had passed away. Dumbfounded, I pulled over at a garage in the Overberg town of Napier and struggled to come to terms with the news. Something I am sure everyone who had known Michael was doing as the shock set in.

Immediate thoughts, obviously, to his wife Maddy and children, the latter whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting – although Michael often sent me pictures of son Peter lifting some brutally heavy weights in a gym. And then there followed that hollow feeling of a spark, a shard of light and of life that is forever gone.

By the time I got to know him some two decades back, Michael’s glory days as chef had passed. Although those in the know spoke of his prowess in various kitchens. From Boschendal. Burgundy in Hermanus. And Parks in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. Classically trained, Michael was spoken of in revered terms among foodies-in-the-know, although the man himself was never opinionated nor outspoken about his talents, skills and successes.

He would often recall a funny incident with a stock-pot in the kitchen, or dealing with a sous chef going through a love-crisis, or allowing a Bearnaise to split at a crucial moment.  Michael preferred complimenting other chefs, not only on their skill and prowess, but also about what “wonderful” or “gorgeous” people they were.

As a PR consultant I invited him to numerous events, which – as others in the game will know – are not always a resounding success. A fickle, cool mood can hang over the function. Catering can be sub-par. Wine presentations cliché-ridden, uninspired and plain boring. But Michael would always, always, call to thank one for inviting him, tell me how stunning so-and-so looked and how wonderful it was for him to spend time with kindred spirits. And the wines tasted were always “magnificent” or “splendid”.

In fact, and Michael will excuse me for this, but in a small circle of friends we referred to him as “Luv”. E-mails were always signed “with love”, regards sent to your “lovely” parents and wishing to see you soon as this would, too, be “lovely”.

He also loved to name-drop, and why not? Michael had cooked for Henry Kissinger, hugged actress Joanna Lumley, entertained Bryan Ferry and chewed the fat with Roger Moore. If you’ve had it, flaunt it.

From experience it was noticeable how keen Michael was to share mutual interests. Once he got to know of my love for dachshunds, I’d get frequent messages concerning the mischievous doings of his and Maddy’s wire-haired sausage dog. We both had a thing for silly British comedy and thanks to this I have a complete collection of skits performed by the wonky and delightfully politically incorrect Benny Hill.

Once Michael heard me talking of a certain wine that had legs Rita Hayworth would be proud of. And over the next few weeks I was bombarded with videos of Hayworth strutting her leggy stuff to merry music tunes. True to form, he loved the classics in life. Music. Actors and actresses. Painting and books. A man in full.

Few people can be described in one word, but for me Michael was the consummate gentleman. His manners were impeccable and his person gracious. I truly never heard Michael have a bad word to say about anyone, and if you approached him for gossip you had come to the wrong address.

In my eager youth I once wrote some column dissing something or somebody and received a polite note from Michael subtly reprimanding my barbed missive with some stern advice incorporating Christianity. I had not felt so ashamed of myself since my mother caught me scotching a R2 note from her purse while I was in primary school.

A slice of life has died with Michael. A chapter closed, impossible to open. It was a privilege and an honour to know him. Fortunately, like class and grace, memory is forever.

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