Woman on top
What’s cooking with Kayla-Ann Osborn?
She is executive chef at KZN’s top restaurant: a fine-dining 120-seater. At age 23, three years ago, through a blend of determination and culinary flair, she landed the job that would have intimidated the shit out of a lesser mortal. But, as she puts it, she “gives a s**t”. Recipe for success?
Because you like to cook, can follow a recipe and friends enjoy coming to your place to eat doesn’t mean you’re a natural to open a restaurant, contrary to what these friends – or perhaps your mother – say.
So what does it take to make it as a chef?
Like a 95-hour work week. That’s the schedule multi-award-winning Chefs’ Table Executive Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn followed in London at Core by Clare Smyth – Osborn’s restaurant of choice when, early in 2019, her two bosses said they would send her anywhere in the world, the proviso being she work in a kitchen for two weeks.
“That’s pretty standard there. The competition in London is extreme,” she says. Nonchalantly. Matter-of-factly. “The staff work 16 to 18 hours a day.”
“What Chef Kayla-Ann and her young team do with the ingredients shows a profound understanding for flavour and meticulous technique…” to share a reviewer comment.
The team Osborn helms comprises 12 chefs including two sous chefs “who are amazing – really good, no s**t, fair, balanced – and who I trust absolutely to run the kitchen as I would run it”. And anywhere between 15 and 25 interns who work in the no-place-to-hide open-plan kitchen where it is quick to spot who has passion and commitment and who will fizzle out.
“Some interns we’ve kept on. Others have left, gained experience elsewhere, and come back.”
Same as regular staff who think the grass is greener and find it’s not.
“Some who go, I prefer they weren’t going. I take them back, definitely. They’ve grown. Gained experience. Learned about themselves too. I think it’s a good thing.”
This chef’s kitchen, as in Osborn’s prime domain, is where we meet to talk. In the morning. Last Monday. Where she starts her working day with a simple breakfast. Scrambled egg, no sides. Sitting with me near the distinctive Tretchi-style mural: one of the Umhlanga restaurant’s stylish out-the-box design features. Before I ask if I can meet “the SPCA specials” I regularly see adoringly referred to on Facebook.
Which has Osborn fetch two vacuum-sealed marrow bones then drive me in her car the six minutes or so to her cottage. Where Eric and Emma accept the treats with gentility and graciousness (true! – not a bark) and wag happily.
Back at the restaurant, I position myself to watch her work – front row at the counter, which offers prime viewing of kitchen theatre. At its best on busy evenings. But good today, with Osborn’s focus on the new tasting menu she’s creating. “That’s my baby. I love it. We do four to five tasting menus a year.” Eight courses. Seasonally inspired.
Paired with wines – “quite premium, from niche suppliers”. Or her preference: just a bottle. “I have sinus issues and find having too many wines is like sniffing too many flowers,” she shares. “And I want to taste the food!”
So – what will Osborn put on the new tasting menu?
Then there’s the fish roe she’s been brining, smoking, with a view to a sauce. And the guinea fowl, with sublime inspiration on how she’ll present them still to unfold.
By the time I leave one little piggy has become a work in progress. I’ve watched Osborn sharpen her kitchen knife then set to it with reverential zeal and focus. Gently removing prize cuts.
Then, after working for a while with the head, asking sous chef Ciara Gouws, who she calls “my left brain”, to debone it. So they can stuff it with sultanas, pork mince, cloves and stick cinnamon, roll it, put it in the sous-vide and then crisp it.
“I love the head meat. Yes, it includes the cheek meat. It’s the best.”
Which brings us to the farmers and other suppliers, who are always in and out. Stopping by for coffee. Some, she says, personal friends. The pig guy from Stanger. The rabbit guy – not a huge producer. The duck guy, who just does ducks. The Bartho brothers, fish guys “who get amazing oysters for me. And mackerel. I love mackerel. I dated a Turkish man for a while. He introduced me to mackerel”.
And the “big veggie” guy, without whom the small veggie growers would have difficulty getting their produce to table. And the sardine guy who comes in while I’m there. When the shoals arrive, Osborn wants buckets of sardines so she can “treat them like Spanish white anchovies”, bottle them and use them over the months.
The customers, suppliers and The Chefs’ Table have “grown together” during the three years since they opened, she says.
“Back then I couldn’t get produce like jugo beans: an African-Zulu peanut chickpea (legume). And red and white millet and red and white sorghum. Local crops we don’t often see. One reads about them, tastes them, then finds a supplier who will grow them.”
As well as heirloom and lesser-known varieties of regular veggies.
When they opened customers would tell her they didn’t eat tongue and liver. That was then.
Now, while there are the diners who still want their steak, “they will have a beautiful steak from a grass-fed animal and they will have it served with marrow”.
Tastes, she says, have changed. Gratifyingly.
“There’s an openness to trying new things. People have become more interested in what they’re eating. More receptive to what they might not have considered before.”
She puts at least some of this down to enthusiasm. Hers and that of her team.
“I encourage people to try things. I want to introduce them to new experiences. Something I’m excited about.”
Simple. “Because I give a s**t.”
For those who don’t know Osborn’s story, it’s pretty remarkable.
Born in Nelspruit, she grew up in Scottburgh with her two younger sisters in a house with “strong women – my mom and gran” – and her grandfather. She has vivid memories of her gran, her cooking inspiration, teaching her how to make apricot jam squares. How the raw pastry-mix of sugar, butter and flour would go into the oven – and emerge delicate, golden and meltingly crispy.
With the early kitchen magic spun by her gran, “a meticulous cook who still comes and watches me and gives me uphill when I cook at home (aka Scottburgh)”, she enrolled straight from high school at 1000 Hills culinary school where she had “Chef Dixi – hardcore, who fought for her place in the kitchen” as inspiration and “where you cooked all day so at the end could walk into any kitchen and hold your own”.
She was just 23, with experience running the kitchen at Selborne Hotel on the KZN South Coast and as head chef at erstwhile Traffords fine-dining restaurant in Pietermaritzburg when she was referred by friends to restauranteurs Sean Gray and Soti Sonitis (Circus Circus brand). Soon as she heard they were planning a restaurant with an open kitchen and a menu that would change every day, she knew she wanted the job.
When she arrived for the interview they bombarded her.
“I had a three-hour interrogation. And left thinking of all the things I hadn’t said.”
She put them in an e-mail, which got a noncommittal “OK. Thanks” reply.
They had said she could cook for them, if she’d like to. So she spent the next two days “breaking my back” cooking at her mom’s house in Scottburgh “getting things perfect”. She bundled the prepped stuff in her car and drove it to Durban to finish it, plate it and await their verdict.
On her “woo you” menu was a starter of tomato, lemongrass and ginger risotto with a plump poached langoustine and textured tomato: a gel, a broth and a dust. Followed by melt-in-the-mouth slow-cooked pork belly with wild mushrooms, apple jelly and a delicately intense ginger and carrot reduction. And for dessert, a Roquefort brûlée with red wine pear and caramelised nuts.
They loved the meal. Despite her age (she is only 26 now) and relative lack of experience, she had secured the job: executive chef at what was then still a concept and a vision.
It meant she was involved at every step: from the design of the kitchen to the choice of glasses, the hand-thrown plates to hiring the kitchen staff.
While delegation and management are key in her position, she says she must physically cook. “I love it. I am not a particularly happy person when I’m not cooking.” Her style being “all about flavour” and cooking “what I would like to eat” with “a focus on the natural flavours of the produce and working out what complements it”.
Osborn has a genteel steeliness, a refined grittiness. Multitasking has her name on it. Yet no matter how full the restaurant, however many things she’s dealing with, she comes across as grounded and balanced. Never seems rushed. Doesn’t hog the limelight. Credits her team at any opportunity.
She seems surprised when asked about what comes across as a natural assertiveness.
“At school I was a pipsqueak,” she laughs, thinks for a couple of moments, then says, “I think waitressing. You learn so much about people, to read them, to deal with them. And you learn about yourself through them.”
And what about that equanimity?
“You have to have balance in your life to survive the kitchen,” she says. She’s conscious of balance. Is committed to maintaining it. “Since I’ve found more balance, I’m healthier, happier and more productive.”
She works a six-day week. Sundays off. Comes in around 9am. Breaks 4.30 or 5pm. Back at 6pm and there through closing time. During her break she goes to hot yoga – “I love it!” – or takes Emma and Eric for a walk. Sometimes she’ll have a run, although she’s more likely to do that early morning. Now she and her two sisters are in training for next year’s Comrades Marathon, she’s running longer distances. Especially on Sundays.
“Comrades day is my favourite day of the year. I love it,” she lights up. “You watch Comrades and see real human love – people supporting and helping each other. And perseverance – 21,000 people all with the same goal. I think anyone who can finish Comrades has a mind stronger than their body. We’re going to run the Scottburgh marathon (in October) to qualify early.”
I ask her about the “never trust a skinny chef” stereotype. We try and think of top chefs who are fat. And draw a blank. “It’s intense in the kitchen,” she laughs. “You can’t be working hard – doing your job properly – and be fat. It just doesn’t go together.”
Back to Core by Clare Smyth – chosen to cater Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding – and Osborn’s kitchen stint of this year. Usually she, Gray and Sonitis go on an annual trip together, as is customary for top chefs and restauranteurs, to be inspired by and learn from international culinary stars and establishments.
In 2018 they ate at Mirazur in France, recently voted the world’s best restaurant. A different “world’s best” to the one Wolfgat in Paternoster won. But the same list that saw Cape Town’s Test Kitchen come in at Number 44.
At Core, Osborn first worked garde manger: salads, hors d’œuvres, canapés, flowers and herbs, microgreens. Once they saw she fitted in – that they could trust her: “You’re working with chefs who get crapped on all day” because of the intensity, the pressure (it has two Michelin stars) – she was moved to pastry then to plating.
“They were cool. They let me do a bit of everything. Sometimes when you work in kitchens they don’t want to teach you things.” Core, on the other hand: she alludes to “good humans” and “great staff” several times.
She learned a lot about kitchen organisation. And management. And saw Clare Smyth checks every dish that goes out to make sure it’s perfect. “She’s there all the time.”
After her time in the kitchen and offering a pop-up South African-themed tasting menu at a country pub, The Duck at Pett Bottom, which has a history that includes James Bond and Michelin stars, she went back to Core. As a customer, to eat the food. Including a dish I Googled and found referred to as This may be the world’s best potato. Cooked in butter and seaweed with trout roe and smoked herring roe (black and orange) on the top.
The best meal she’s eaten in a restaurant not conceptualised and prepared by her? Without hesitation she says her meal at Core and a meal she had last year at Waterkloof (Somerset West). “On a par. Clever. And in both cases, the hospitality factor.”
She says what she, Gray and Sonitis have found on their culinary travels is that the best restaurants are also the most hospitable restaurants. You don’t like it? Let us redo it.
At Mirazur last year the chef came to apologise for a delay.
“We didn’t even realise there had been one. He said the fish had been overdone so they had recooked the dish before they brought it.
So, there’s the hard work factor. Jonny Bone, Core head chef, has said to make it to the top as a chef “is 95% hard work and 5% creativity and inspiration … anyone who’s got to a great level in this industry has worked really hard.”
Which seems to blend like a perfect béchamel with the hospitality factor.
“I go out and speak to customers,” she says. “We care about what they think and feel. About their experience.”
Simply put and in her own words: “We give a s**t.”
She does. DM
Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and California and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her online via her website wandahennig.com.