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.