Maverick Life

The Kitchen: On missing the joy of flirting by making a Love Sandwich for someone

By Keith Bain 31 May 2020

Karen Dudley from The Kitchen

Few days before she announced the permanent closure of her restaurant, The Kitchen, on 28 May, Woodstock culinary icon Karen Dudley spoke to Keith Bain about the pandemic and what it meant for her business. 

We humans are made for the communion of the table. For breaking bread together. And flirting over sandwiches made with love. But, restaurants will never be the same, says Woodstock restaurateur Karen Dudley.

Change is coming and pivoting to deliveries doesn’t quite cut it.

“I think it’s very important to stand naked and unafraid, clear and clean before the future,” says Dudley. “There’s something great about that. Trying to cover up reality with things that were kind of broken and putting on our game faces, is not necessarily good.”

It’s not been easy getting Dudley on the line. The cookbook author, caterer and owner of The Kitchen, the daytime deli-style café that once hosted Michelle Obama, has been unexpectedly busy since May’s lockdown regulations offered the opportunity to start delivering meals. She suddenly found herself squaring off not only against the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, but having to negotiate traffic.

Although Dudley’s been delivering lunches just three days a week, she says it’s been demanding since she’s driving from one end of the city to the other. She belongs in the kitchen, after all, not behind the wheel. “Oh, for the peace and quiet of Level 5,” she jokes in a WhatsApp message when we were trying to set up a telecon date.

When we do finally chat, she switches to hands-free so that she can carry on cooking. I can hear the chopping and stirring and tapping of spoons against the edges of bowls. And also the long pauses as she contemplates the reality of the situation. “My commitment is to stay healthy and look after my family. And to be honest, it’s wonderful to be able to cook for my family. In that sense, it’s wonderful to be at home.”

***

Hearing her voice on the other end of the line is a tonic. Dudley in person is effervescent and a natural nurturer. Over the phone, she brims with energy, too. And yet she admits that physical separation isn’t ideal. “I really like contact. I like being physical with people. I like to hug and touch people, and joke with them. I love to read people by looking at their faces, and I find the new masked reality is really difficult for that. Because you can’t read people, you can’t know what they really want.”

“I think it’s very important to stand naked and unafraid, clear and clean before the future,” says Dudley.

She says being away from The Kitchen’s daily hum has taken something from her. “I miss seeing people. All my friends, who would come to the restaurant. And all the new people I would meet every day. Every day a new person. There’s always some minor celeb. Or some skandaal. I miss people I suppose.”

Dudley says she somehow knew that what was coming would be bad. Worse than the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic suggested. “I decided to close The Kitchen a week before the lockdown because I realised I can’t ask people to come to work on a packed bus and guarantee their safety. I didn’t even know how to close down. I just knew we would have to work it out. And I knew it would be devastating. I knew. I kind of had post-apocalyptic vibes in my brain. We would need to farm, we’d have to go to a cash economy, I saw these things… But I didn’t know just how expensive it would be. I just knew it would be bad.”

Despite the consequences of having her business shuttered on her livelihood, she has tried to stay focused on the positives. She recounts the simple joys of lockdown level 4 – like finding new walking routes for herself and her dogs. Since her usual haunts – on the mountain and in Newlands Forest – aren’t available, she’s been discovering all the neighbourhoods within walking distance of her home.

“I’ve been enjoying that sense that it’s Open Streets every day. Children on their bikes and toddlers walking in the middle of the road because there are no cars.”

Such hopefulness aside, there are moments when I can hear a weariness in her voice. And if I’m not mistaken, disquiet and possibly deep sadness. Not because of what she’s lost and what’s slipping through her fingers (“There are big decisions about what you hold on to, what you let go of. Do you keep your stainless steel tables? Do you let go of your furniture? Do you keep ADT? Do you keep some kind of insurance? Do you sell your van, or keep it?”), but because of the task of trying to keep her staff fed, paid and alive.

“I have a 63-year-old bookkeeper who has no real pension, and then I have young ones, breadwinners with children, and it’s been immensely difficult trying to navigate this. To be honest, I’m trying to just stay sane and not get caught up in the hype, just trying to do the day-to-day and be as responsible as I can with the resources that I have. And I have tried to keep some money dripping through, especially to my Malawian and Zimbabwean employees who have no UIF. That’s all I can do for now and what I’m going to keep doing.”

Because, she says, it’s unlikely that restaurants will be seeing customers for another 12 months. Or more. “Not in the way we’ve been accustomed.”

Dudley says that when she first knew The Kitchen would need to close, she took whatever cash there was (“it wasn’t much, but fortunately we didn’t have massive creditors besides the landlord and the telephone bill and the banks who are the biggest guys”), and divided it up between all the staff. “Just to give them  something. And I packed up parcels of all kinds of necessities – oil, sugar, whatever I could. And I put books in everyone’s bags so they could have something to read. Nobody knew how long it was going to be.”

Karen Dudley (Image courtesy of Karen Dudley)

When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, no one could have foreseen that The Kitchen would ultimately be forced to permanently close.

Dudley says the economics of “pivoting” (a word she says is inadequate to describe the current situation) to become a delivery business don’t make sense to her. “Certainly in my case, it won’t pay the rent. Restaurants and catering companies work on scale. On a normal day, I would be seeing 150 people; 80 to 100 people at my shop and then I’d be doing a corporate lunch or two, a dinner party or two, an event or two, every day. So, I’d serve food to between 120 and 150 people in a day.

“In my business, I see a lot of diverse people, a complete cross-section of people. Locals and foreigners. But that is going to be different in future. We have to look at what we are going to offer, what we are going to do and who’s going to have money to pay for that.

“Now, I can only do deliveries. There’s packaging, the margins are smaller and we’re dealing with an increasingly depressed economy. Maybe 1% of  the market still has money to do lunch and dinner. These last two days, I had nine deliveries. Which means I am making meals for around 18, maybe 20, people. And those 18 or 20 people are getting so much extra love. Because they are getting 10 times more packaging – because they’re getting a main, some salad, little sauce bottles…

“Even though I only have two or three people working, they have risked their lives on public transport to come in – and they are not going to get compensated for that risk. Instead, they are working fewer hours, so they’re not getting as much money.

“And I am then doing the deliveries. From Higgovale to Kirstenhof in a day. Do you understand? Even if those deliveries increase, how many deliveries would we have to do to get even close to the 150 people that we would see? I’m sorry – it’s very bleak – but to be very frank, the delivery business is not good business. And if you use Uber Eats as your delivery service, they’re taking 30%. So, already your margins are tight, and now you have more packaging, and you’ve got Uber, and you have more marketing to do, and you’re risking your people. So it is pretty bleak.”

The heaviness in Dudley’s heart is understandable. And yet she returns to her notion of standing naked and unafraid in the face of the future. For her, this means recognising the opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past. To heal old wounds.

“Trying to cover up reality with things that were kind of broken and putting on our game faces, is not necessarily good. We have to think about things in completely different ways, and if it means we live out of our gardens, so be it. If it means we take in the old people to live with us, that’s good. Whatever it is, it’s a different way of thinking that we have to adopt. We have to discard the illusion of security, bulking ourselves up with things that make us feel secure.

“In my business, I see a lot of diverse people, a complete cross-section of people. Locals and foreigners. But that is going to be different in future. We have to look at what we are going to offer, what we are going to do and who’s going to have money to pay for that.

“I scorn the word ‘pivot’. There is no such thing as a ‘pivot’ right now. We are closing things down and starting things up again. We are going to have to start afresh and anew, with a new mindset, a new everything. And as Capetonians, we are in a good space to make these things happen. It would be so good for us to think together about these things instead of covering up and making as if the pandemic has been our failure.

“We have come through things. And we have some amazing people who are incredibly resilient. That’s what makes Cape Town special. We have people who are tough, and who know how to live on nothing. It makes me think of when I started my business. I started with nothing. It was basically guerrilla kitchening in a burnt out old fish shop that we cleaned up. We built up our shop from acid-washing the floor to installing the light fittings… All in a building where people had been stabbed. I didn’t think anybody would come.

“I started with no help, no real capital. It was a case of you do a few parties, you buy an oven; you do more parties, you buy a fridge; you do quite a few more parties, and then buy a coffee machine. You basically stock, cook, deliver. Stock, cook, deliver.

“We started in the recession and somehow people came.”

A decade on, with her business now permanently closed, the question is whether we still need The Kitchen?

“Yes,” says Dudley, buzzed once again. “We need The Kitchen. People need to gather, they need to come together. Especially Capetonians. We like to gather, we like to see each other. We need that kind of community. Banks don’t understand this, but we are like the anchors of culture.

“I kind of have made a religion of the table. I’ve made a religion of people gathering around a table. And my belief in all the things that happen around a table. The possibility of conversation. The possibility of listening to each other. Of arguing without upset. That all happens at a table and we are made for that. We are made for communion, we are made for connection.

“I think that if people are learning to live in their offices and work in their homes, there’s going to be even more isolation and loneliness than ever before. So when we are able to get together again, we have to do it properly. Sit at the table with strangers. Give new meaning to what that table means. Get to know people. Connect with strangers over some delicious thing.

“If we are going to be in restaurants again, we need to go large. Because you can be at home all you like with your one person. You can be as romantic as you like at home. But if you are going to go out, go large. Gather the whole family, summon a big bunch of friends. Have your private conversations at home on Zoom, but when you come out to eat, go large.

“For me, the joy of making a Love Sandwich for someone is kind of like the joy of flirting with them. Whether it’s an old man or a young kid, there’s a joy of the repartee with an unmasked face. That joy of connecting with them. I miss that.” DM/ML

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