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KITCHEN CONFIDENCES
Karen Dudley’s Woodstock coffee shop offers more than just good food and coffee.
by Lorelle Bell
The text below was first published in The Cape Argus’ Heart of the Home supplement, 3 September 2011
The Kitchen in Woodstock gained extra street cred when Michele Obama chose it as the place for a family brunch on her brief visit to Cape Town earlier this year. Clearly the woman’s got taste! And while some, whose noses were out of joint at the choice, tried to suggest that her visit to this seemingly un-presidential sandwich and salad spot was a case of mistaken identity; Cape Town’s creatives, intellectuals, urban trendies and food fans know better.
Since this small cafe opened in what was then still a dodgy part of Woodstock’s ‘Top Main Road’ two years ago, it’s had a major fan base. The Kitchen has entrenched Karen Dudley’s already established reputation as the creator of fabulous food: great ingredients with a combination of flavours that turn descriptions like “taste sensations” into clichés.
So what makes The Kitchen so special? Well, it’s the food that people return for, for sure. But central to this is the vitality and hospitality at its heart. Karen Dudley is more than a chef or caterer. As she herself admits, “I am a Dudley after all, and we’re the keepers and tellers of stories.” This is evident in the The Kitchen’s appeal, where the atmosphere created is one of a home kitchen of someone unique; someone you’d like to know and to be around; someone with amazing style and the confidence to carry it off.
This is precisely what Karen has done. Before trading at the Neighbourgood’s Market where she’s had a stand since its inception, Karen’s food ventures were confined to catering for events and home dinners. The cooking was done from the kitchen of her home in Woodstock, a stone’s throw from the cafe. She found that people, when they visited, were drawn to this warm eclectic though functional space, and that they’d often stick around to be fed by her.
“People love the theatre of food,” she explains. “They love seeing the mechanics of it and the cooks at work using the paraphernalia of our craft.” This desire to share with her customers the full sensory experience is what has dictated The Kitchen’s decor. While the major cooking is done in an adjoining room, dishes  are displayed in the restaurant and food assembled and plated in diners’ views.The shop, which is relatively small, is dominated by a huge set of glass fronted counters, reminiscent of old haberdashery and corner stores. In this case the displays of are fresh foods as well part of Karen’s collection of old kitchenalia. Delicate gold-handled cups in bursts of brilliant colours share space with the Art Deco shapes and colours of Alfred Meakin’s recognisable sandwich plates. Behind the counter, ceiling-high shelving holds more of the kitchen finds from the 30s and 40s that are Karen’s favourite period for salvaging the kitchen and home wares, furniture and paintings and prints that adorn her shop and home.
In this lies one of the stories she relates. “My grandmother had a glass cabinet filled with fabulous things that I was not allowed to touch. So as an adult and lover of things with stories, I guess I’m reacting to my grandmother by collecting  loads of treasures, that I make sure are available to touch and use and enjoy.” Karen has collected pieces from her favourite era long before it became hip to do so, and says, ” I love pieces that have stories attached to them, either ones that I’m familiar with, or stories that I can imagine.” Apart from trawling the treasures of her own family, Karen, when she has the time, is a shopper at thrift and charity shops as well as Milnerton Market.
The walls of The Kitchen are layers deep in paintings, prints, plates and kitchen appliances, so that there’s always something from another time to discover and hold one’s interest. And a tall set of shelving holds a vast collection of serving platters which the customers for whom she caters are lucky enough to have access to for their events.
Her journey to becoming a chef is another story. She had little inkling that this would be what she’d end up doing while still at school, explaining that she “was happy to leave the kitchen and cooking to my mom, a brilliant cook.” She ended high school as head girl of Herschel Girls School. The year was 1985 and as a young black woman this experience was both “scandalous and amazing at a time when my contemporaries were not able to write exams during the school boycotts on the Cape Flats”.
“While I was uncomfortably aware of how very privileged I was, what the school and my parents taught me was that I was the same as everyone else and that there was nothing I could not do.” She started university but could not settle down to deciding what to do and packed her bags for the United States where she spent four years. Her first job was at an international retreat centre. “This is where I basically learnt about food and what you could do with it, as well as a lot about the hospitality and service industries. And I began to realise that I could express myself and my creativity through cooking.”
Her years in America provided her with a wide range of experiences – including singing for the President (but that’s the subject of another story) and Karen returned home to seek out  a way to turn her newly minted passions for people and cooking into a livelihood. While working at the YMCA conference centre, which she ran for a while, she threw herself into cooking there, and her career as a chef in Cape Town took root. it took off after one of Cape Town’s influential “ladies who lunch” asked if she’d cook for a lunch for her and her friends. It took a bit of spunk to pretend that she was familiar with the dishes requested, but this commission launched her as caterer to Cape Town’s influential. “These early supporters – a network of influential Capetonians – were very kind. They took me and my cooking seriously and put me on the map.”
Then another twist in her culinary tale occurred when a friend invited her to work at a very zhoosh deli in Chelsea, where she spent two years catering to the creme of London society and managing the cooking and logistics on huge jobs. “This is where I was acknowledged as a serious cook and learnt to take myself seriously as a chef,” she reflects. A return to Cape Town, meant a period of educating people to the value and possibilities of using a caterer.But that was twelve years and a hard slog ago.
Today when we meet Karen at The Kitchen there is another story unfolding. Karen is tearfully, gratefully saying goodbye to someone who charmingly refers to herself as having been Karen’s intern for two weeks. The “intern” is a human rights lawyer who bid R3000,00 at a fundraising auction to spend time in Karen’s kitchen with her and be served lunched at The Kitchen. The day turned into a further two weeks as the “intern” asked to spend the last two weeks of her time in South Africa before relocating abroad for a stint, helping Karen. The serendipity could not have been better. Karen is in the process of writing a recipe book and during this two week period her brilliant intern captured and recorded over fifty of her trademark recipes – a real gift.
“It’s this kind of experience that makes me feel so grateful for my work. Serving people food is a real privilege, you know? This is why we call our most popular sandwich the ‘Love Sandwich’. Putting it together and serving it to people is an active of love and all of us who work here get a real buzz out of making it for people.”
Ms Obama is lucky then  that she chose to have salads. Had she chosen the Love Sandwich instead, she might never have been able to leave.

 

NOTE: All photographs courtesy of Cape Argus and remain the copyright of Independent Newspapers. Further reproduction is forbidden without the paper’s prior consent.

In case you missed the story in the Weekend Argus HEART OF THE HOME supplement yesterday, you can read about Dan Saks’s corner shop here.

Saks House in Observatory is a little corner store on the border of Salt River, where owner Dan Saks is putting his mid-century stamp on this bohemian neighborhood.

It is here that one finds Dan’s creations modeled on the gentle, well-made designs of our own modest domestic pasts: those oval or palette shaped tables with black glass tops and slanted legs in solid wood or veneers and the sleek buttoned-back sofas on similar legs.

It is here too that you’ll find originals of the armless chaises with diagonal backs and the zodiac chairs manufactured in South Africa and till their recent increase in popularity, fairly easy to find. This is the furniture from a time before the local love of Victoriana or Cape Cottage took an earlier generation from cool to cluttered twee.

Dan’s stock of original pieces mixed with his own creations modeled on 50s wooden furniture is a happy mix of affordable restored and original pieces without the gimmicks that make some “up-cycled” designs destined for design brevity.

The seeds of this store were sown years ago when Dan worked the markets throughout Cape Town, trading in frames made from salvaged wood. A decade ago these pieces were not as popular (or as overtraded) as they are today and it was difficult making any sort of living.

For a while he worked with his wife Jill in her fashion accessories business while buying old pieces of furniture on auction which he fixed or repurposed, mainly for his own home. A favourite piece at home remains a salvaged old industrial wooden window frame which he filled with photographs of his family. “I never tire of that,” he says .

Out of this passion for furniture from bygone eras, Dan’s love was distilled to a focus on mid-century design which he favours for their simple lines, and the way they were built to last.

Along with the realisation that working on handbags could never really excite him, came the certainty that trading in furniture and furniture designs from this period was what he really wanted to do. As luck would have it, the shop on the corner was available for rent and Dan was convinced that it was what he was meant to be doing.

Persuaded to exercise caution, he took two months to work in a friend’s factory, building up his stock and when, at the end of this period, the shop space was still available, he dived in and launched  Saks House, purveyor of mid-century modern furnishings.

Dan’s first customer at Saks House was a man called Hercules (how can you forget a first customer with a name like that?) from the neighbourhood, who bought a large art deco wardrobe that Dan had repainted and fitted on castors. The castors came in handy as “the delivery required Herculian (ugh)strength”. As Dan reflects, “Art deco wardrobes were not made sparingly,” and, after delivering another three-door art deco piece to a roof conversion “on the hottest day in summer”, he decided that three-door wardrobes would not be the signature pieces of Saks House.

instead, it’s  the long button back sofa that has become his stock in trade. Made by Dan in the style of 50s sofas with their slanted legs, he recently delivered his 14th one – not bad going since his production of these started only six months ago. Built with the next thirty years in mind, Dan uses hard wood and quality fabrics. He sees these products and the coffee tables he makes as the start of a  range that he dreams will be the direction his business takes.

Dan, an inhabitant of Observatory with his young family, admits that the first year and half in business was tough. But he loves the neighborhood and and its sense of community and is  grateful that it seems to love him right back. His customers are mainly faithfuls from Observatory, young couples building up homes, creative types who often gather round Saks and whose energy Dan feeds off. He also loves they way his customers come in and share stories of the history of the little corner shop.

His future dreams are vested in this space and what he’s doing here. “Ideally I see myself producing a range of high-end mid-century style furniture  and also creating an exclusive range of repurposed pieces.”

“I’m very hopeful that all the activity from the Biscuit Mill will start moving to this area,”  he muses.

In the meantime, Dan’s  latest venture,  a collaboration with Heather Moore of Skinny LaMinx, sees the  button back sofas he produces covered in Heather’s fabric and featured at Skinny LaMinx’s outlet in Green Point.

How cool is this?  Visi online features hoolie-hah the shop today. Yay! Check it out.

Visit http://www.visi.co.za and like the article please.

x0 Lorelle

How to be second-hand Savvy in Heart of the Home, Weekend Argus 2 July 2011.

Lorelle Bell

Decorating on a shoe-string doesn’t have to look Salvation Army – even though Salvation Army-type thrift shops might well be your source for examples of twentieth Century design that can transform the look of your space from so-so second-hand to savvy modern styling.

Design fundi’s are currently trawling the designs of an era that spans the Bauhaus movement through Eames to the Italian designers of the 1970s – an era that offers some of the enduring style images of the past. Their re-discovery, reinvention or reinterpretations add an interesting take on responsible consumption at a time when the credit crunch and climate-change concerns should be high even on a decor agenda. Going for collectables will demonstrate your design cred with your personal triple bottom-line of cost, green and uber-cool.  

And you’ll be in good company. Twentieth century design has become the go-to era for domestic design inspiration; from architecture to furniture to homeware.You don’t have to look far to find their direct references in the work of popular young local designers. Heath Nash’s fabulous flowerball lights seem to take their design cues from George Nelson’s 1947 Bubble Lamp, a mid-century classic and Holger Strom’s 1972 IQ hanging light.

Furniture designer Haldane Martin’s chairs and sofas are quite close facsimiles of modernist pieces. His hide-covered Simplicity Chaise Longue, for example, bears a striking resemblance to Poul Kjærholm’s 1965 PK24™ chaise longue, while Cini Boeri’s 1971 Serpentone Sofa seems to have been the inspiration for Haldane’s Songololo couch and his Zulu Mama chair reminds one of 1960s Scandinavian wicker chairs.The Zenkaya prefab house, often punted as South Africa’s answer to modular living, derives much from Mies Van De Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House. Even Y.Tsai’s award-winning stacking bed has an antecedent in the Rolf Heide’s 1967 modular stacking bed.

So what makes this period such an inspirational one for contemporary designers? And why should we care? As Kirsty Machen of online vintage shop Minttheshop, a showcase of smaller items of twentieth century design, says, this era reflects “a time when everything was designed with thought, consideration and style”. Significantly too, as Kirsty points out, products from this era were created “before the concept of built-in obsolescence was incorporated into the modern economy, (and when) attention was paid both to (their) design and durability.”

Luckily for us, original pieces from this era are also still to found. Mid- to high-end antique shops are starting to stock some pristine mid-century finds. Other sources are vintage shops trading in retro, and the best are thrift shops and markets where the products of spring-cleaning and downsizing might land up.

The current local mecca for originals of iconic pieces of the twentieth century would be the recently opened Mid-Century Modern in Woodstock which has taken over from Eddie Sanderson’s Zoom now on Kloofnek road. Here you might see an original Egg Chair designed by Denmark’s Arne Jacobsen in 1958 or a set of Eero Saarinen’s famous Tulip tables and chairs of 1956.  Antique Shop in Wynberg Main Road and Kalk Bay Antiques also stock a good selection. At the latter you’ll find a very knowledgeable owner in Ingrid Aron who, in addition to displaying some gorgeous samples of mid century furniture also has probably the best selection of kitchen and tableware from this period. It’s here you’ll would find a complete selection of British ceramic designer Susie Cooper’s collectable pottery. And it was here that I spotted an example of Finn Antti Nurmesniemi’s enamel coffee pots in the flesh for the first time.

Shops like Vamp in Woodstock and Saks Corner in Observatory also offer an offbeat range of retro and revamped pieces for the eclectic home. Antiques on Kloof remains a long-time favourite for collectables from this era. Owner Bruce Tait can also be found at Milnerton Market where you can find collectables from this era at bargain prices.

 (see Heart of the Home for photographs.)

 

 

 

Heart of the Home is the name of the Weekend Argus’s new monthly decor supplement. Below are some photos I took at a photoshoot for an article I’ve done for the supplement this coming Saturday.

While the photo’s of the Tulip Chairs and Table and the Egg Chair and Anglepoise Lamp are from Mid-Century Modern, the very kind owners, Gawain and Erndst, allowed us to use their shop to photograph more affordable mid century furniture and home ware from hoolie-hah.