“COOKING OUT—BARBECUE—IS A BIG THING in South Africa,” Ty Naidoo says as his Aurora shop, Pie Boss, fills with the scent of pastry bubbling in the oven. “Because I grew up in a place with such diversity—people of Zulu, Indian, Dutch and Afrikaans descent—it really showed in the food.”

When I traveled through South Africa in 2009, what struck me about Durban—located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal—was not just the breathtaking surf, sea and proximity to the “Big Five” game animals tourists typically go to see, but also the curries. When the British in Durban failed to attract Zulus to work on their sugar cane farms, they began bringing in Indians as indentured laborers. That past, for better or worse, is reflected in the culture, and it inflects the cuisine.

But it’s not a cuisine I expected to find when I moved to Naperville last summer. How did a Durban ex-pat end up in my neck of the woods, making pie—killer pie—infused with the flavors of South Africa, in a nondescript strip mall storefront with just two tables, in southwest suburban Aurora?

Ty Naidoo, pie boss of Pie Boss

Ty Naidoo, pie boss of Pie Boss

When I met with Ty, we sat at one of his wobbly black tables on a quiet weekday afternoon. His wife, Lynell, was busy in the kitchen, and their three-year-old son, Zander, sat quietly, shyly, spinning on a chair behind the counter. How the Naidoos settled here is an age-old tale: Lynell’s family relocated to the area from South Africa. In 2009, Ty and Lynell did, too.

“I pretty much chose the location because space was available,” Ty admits. “Plus, it previously housed a restaurant—meaning it was an open now or way later scenario.”

Meathead Red

Like his fellow Durbanites, Ty grew up eating pies like the ones he now serves. Food culture there runs deep, given the region’s diverse roots. So, he regularly watched his grandma and mom grill outdoors—biryani, started atop wood and finished over white-hot coals. Leg of lamb and beef, too. “We didn’t grill out of necessity—we had a full kitchen inside the house,” Ty says. “But I found it exciting spending time with family while something delicious was cooking on the fire for hours.”


Because I grew up in a place with such diversity—people of Zulu, Indian, Dutch and Afrikaans descent—it really showed in the food.


Before doing a 180 that led him to baking as a profession, Ty worked in the packaging industry—marketing and business development, to be precise. When his interest in meat and, yes, pies turned into something larger, Ty turned to Bala Naidoo (no relation), a renowned Durban baker, for advice. Bala had helped many small bakeries grow over the course of his longstanding career. “I was drawn to his lifelong experience,” Ty muses, though he describes himself as mostly self-taught. “Bala sadly passed away last year.”

Prior tinkering and training aside, Ty had some kinks to work out once he settled in to the Aurora shop. Some were unexpected. “The ingredients here are not the same,” he says. “For example, the quality of the flour, a major component, is finer.” And because ovens in South Africa are electric—here, they’re usually gas—the cooking process was different and, initially, unpredictable. “At first, we made a lot of bad pies,” Ty admits. “They weren’t horrible, but they weren’t perfect. So, for example, while I started with all-purpose flour, I switched to pastry flour.”

pieboss1

He attributed another snafu to the butter he sourced stateside. His initial product did not have the golden, rich pastry he was accustomed to. “Some days, I felt like I was starting the whole process from scratch,” Ty recalls. It took a few months to find the exact-right ingredients for his precisely cooked pies, but Ty wasn’t willing to change the recipe he worked so hard to master back in Durban. In the end, he’s glad he stuck with it. “We spent the month that led up to opening fine-tuning,” he recalls.

Ty says the dough itself is very temperature sensitive. Fortunately, and practically, it’s also amenable to pre-filling. Ty has his first small batch ready to go and waiting in the cooler each night before opening shop; then, he bakes them off shortly before the store opens at 10 a.m. The result is piping-hot beauties for the first customers who arrive.

 

 

Handpies, pasties, sausage rolls, and chicken peri-peri pies (marked "CP" on the crust)

Handpies, pasties, sausage rolls, and chicken peri-peri pies (marked “CP” on the crust)

ON AN AVERAGE DAY YOU’LL FIND a selection of five standard pies, including pepper steak, chicken and mushroom and cheeseburger, a creative liberty. Additionally, there are daily specials, of which tongue-singeing chicken peri peri and spicy lamb—made from slow-simmered leg and sweet red pepper—are musts. “The pies are baked in small amounts throughout the day,” Ty says, adding he bakes them fresh for customers who call 30 minutes ahead. “That way, I can be sure customers get what they want because we do run out.”

Besides the savory pies, there are dessert pies— mini Dutch custard and fruit pies. Pie boss also serves pastries, among them sausage rolls with potatoes and cream, as well as beef pasties encasing tender, stewed sirloin. “We use the same dough as for all of our savory pies, but the surface area—and end result—of the pastries and rolls is different since they cook directly on a tray,” Ty says.

Beef pasty

Beef pasty

On occasion, you may also encounter bunny chow (colloquially “bunny”), though it’s not what you think. In fact, bunny has nothing to do with rabbits at all—it’s street food in Durban, made from a distinctive hollowed-out loaf of bread that’s filled with curry. Cabbies popularized it, eating it as finger food at stalls or while jetting from place to place. A bunny order is dictated by the bread—you might have “a quarter mutton,” which will get you’re a quarter-loaf filled with mutton curry.

Sometimes, Ty’s mom made bunny at home. As an homage to his hometown, he now prepares it occasionally, too. “Making bunny is time consuming — especially since I keep things authentic,” notes Ty, who prepares it once a month, give or take, with no set schedule. “Everything is made from scratch, including the bread. And the leg of lamb we use for the curry takes at least four hours to cook.” If you’ve never tackled this handheld food before, eating it can prove intimidating: simply tear off hunks of the bread by hand and use it to gather and sop up the saucy, fragrant curry within.

Dutch custard pie

Dutch custard pie

Pie Boss doesn’t advertise, though social media helps a bit. But most of his customers come from word of mouth or straight-up curiosity. As business took off, Ty found the area’s small South Africans—about 200 families total, he suspects—flocked to the shop, seeking authentic flavors with nostalgic flavors that remind them of home. “We have supportive customers,” he says.

HP

Catering has become an increasingly big business for this “little guy,” which also does a mean take-and-bake business. The result of those take-and-bakes, I can attest, are nearly as good. Plus, the at-home versions leave your house smelling like heaven for a day.

If you decide to eat in, you’ll get your personal pie served on contemporary china. If you want to do like South Africans do, though, you’ll eat it like a burger on the fly—by hand—while you drive. Whatever you decide, make fast tracks. Pie Boss is a local treasure, and it’s worth its weight in the pastry-pounds you’ll pack on.

 


Jennifer Olvera got her start as a dining critic for Chicago magazine. All the while, she traveled the globe, sampling local cuisine and stuffing her suitcase with edible souvenirs along the way. She penned four books, including the definitive first and second edition Food Lovers’ Guide to Chicago and The Meat Lover’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, which hits bookshelves December 2016. Jennifer wrote a longstanding recipe column with original photography for Serious Eats, as well as features for many national outlets, among them the Los Angeles Times,Chicago TribuneChicago Sun-Times and Frommers.com.


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