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Aria’s Chef Denver Govender pours his heart and soul into family and business

Macao News sat down with Chef Denver Govender, the entrepreneur behind one of the most popular restaurant openings of the year.

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Macao News sat down with Chef Denver Govender, the entrepreneur behind one of the most popular restaurant openings of the year.

ARTICLE BY

PUBLISHED

READING TIME

Less than 1 minute Minutes

As a youngster, Denver Govender was something of a rebel. To teach him a sense of responsibility, his mother gave him chores to do – cooking was one of them. But what was meant as a form of discipline quickly became Govender’s passion and he saw a way to make something of himself.

He tells Macao News that he was “never the studious type – I had the need to be physically engaged.” The hands-on, sleeve-up nature of a commercial kitchen seemed to offer the perfect outlet and, after leaving high school, he enrolled at a well-known cooking school in his hometown of Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. The course led to jobs in the US.

It was during a stint as a chef at Walt Disney World Resort, in Orlando, that he met the girl who would become his wife, Vanessa Fajardo. She was a tourism management student from Macao, doing a six-month internship in Florida. 

Hopes of starting a family with Vanessa brought him to Macao in 2017. He worked in the kitchens of five-star hotels, integrated resorts and neighbourhood restaurants and headed the kitchen at Fantasia, a popular restaurant in the St. Lazarus district. 

The arrival of the couple’s daughter in 2021 sparked a desire for a healthier work-life balance for Govender, prompting him to quit his job at Fantasia to establish his own venture. Taking on the role of chef-owner would consume most of his time too, but it’d also offer him flexibility. “Your priorities change when you become a parent,” he says.

Responsibilities have also mounted – like paying rent, bills and other running costs. “Navigating cash flow is another challenge,” he says, adding that, after six months in operation and despite initial success, “the business just started breaking even.”

[See more: How Edinburgh chef Kei de Freitas found his calling with Macanese cuisine]

From the heart

Govender’s restaurant, Aria by Chef D, is named after his 2-year-old baby girl and is a family affair. Vanessa runs the restaurant’s social media presence, when she can snatch breaks from her full-time job in hospitality. His in-laws, who own Anak Philippine bakery, supply the dough for the bread served at meals. All desserts are made to order by Yuki’s Pastry, a small business helmed by a baker friend. 

Aria’s doors swung open for the first time last May, and the establishment has already built a reputation as an inviting eatery serving reasonably priced, incredibly good food. Its unassuming location – tucked down an alley off Rua dos Mercadores – adds to its charm, with diners excited to tell others about the hidden gem. 

Macau-beer marinated pork ribs
The chef’s Macau-beer marinated pork ribs are flambéed after reaching the table, creating a shareable moment for social media-savvy guests

On the wall is a framed quote by the famed British chef and restaurateur Marco Pierre White: “To know how to eat well, one must first know how to wait.” It’s a not-too-subtle way of letting diners know that Aria’s small team (besides Govender, there is only one other cook and one waiter) can only handle so many orders. But customers seem to think the wait is worth it.

“Everything is made from scratch at Aria, going that extra mile makes a huge difference in the overall quality of the food we serve,” says Govender, who often works seven days a week. One of the chef’s specialties is boerewors or grilled sausage – a dish that honours his South African roots, and the country’s known love for barbecue. “It’s our best-selling dish. Honestly, we cannot keep up with demand,” he admits.

Aria’s homemade boerewors
Aria’s homemade boerewors pay homage to the South African love for barbecues

Govender’s boerewors uses a mix of ground pork belly and beef, marinated in a blend of spices before being shaped into sausages. The chef serves them with caramelised onions and mashed potatoes, and a side of homemade harissa sauce, a North-African specialty made with dry red chiles, garlic, cumin and coriander. The restaurant’s chicken wings are also doused in the spicy condiment, which diners can take home in jars.

Another signature is the pork ribs, marinated for 12 hours in a Macau Beer-based mixture, slowly roasted and then finished off at high temperatures in a salamander grill. For an additional flourish, the ribs are flambéed at the table, adding a slightly sweet glaze.

There are dishes from other culinary cultures on the menu too, including Italian and British. Try the linguine alla carbonara (which Govender tops with a raw quail egg yolk) or the classic beef wellington, another customer favourite. 

When pressed, however, Govender dismisses notions of geography. “At Aria,” he says, “we serve comfort food cooked from the heart.”

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