THE KITCHEN, REVISITED

‘We made a beautiful thing’ – Karen Dudley

By Kim Maxwell 5 June 2020

Shopping bags packed full of goodies for Karen Dudley's staff on The Kitchen counter, just before lockdown. (Photo: Supplied)

In her restaurant that everyone loved and wanted to be in, love was how the sandwich was made. Karen Dudley relives her journey with The Kitchen.

When news broke that The Kitchen would not be reopening in June after lockdown, people were shaken. Messages and calls to founder Karen Dudley came flooding in. There is still a steady stream. “An institution! Best, best, best salads in town!” and “The food, the decor, the style, the people … it always felt like my special place.” This popular Woodstock eating spot offered nourishment, comfort and hope at a time when people are greatly in need of some.

For Capetonians, and many regulars from elsewhere, the compact eating space was a place for a coffee chat. Or for joining the ever-present queue to grab delicious, colourful food on the go. Where you’d squeeze in a quick solo meal on a wobbly bench, while waiting for the car aircon to be regassed. Where eyes obligingly scrolled over Dudley’s eclectic and vintage trinkets bursting from shelves and walls, and fashion students’ laughter would be interspersed with snatches of ad agency pitches. So much more than a restaurant café, The Kitchen was about a community. And there lies Cape Town’s loss.

“I’ve been coming to this decision. I’ve been feeling very broken,” says Dudley with an audibly quivering lip, days after news got out that The Kitchen’s story was over. “I take one look at the rack of baking trays, or the coffee machine and … It’s just years of love and care, and our community. I’ve been packing up and had people walking past the shop and just burst into tears. It’s people we see every day, people who arrive at Cape Town International and take an Uber to us before they even go home.”

“There are lots of fancy restaurants in Cape Town, but they don’t have people going there every day. It’s this community and this meeting place. It’s always been about good food and friends, and people and hugging, and having really good coffee. And seeing what’s behind a mask; connecting with someone beyond a mask.”

Dudley opened The Kitchen in Woodstock’s Sir Lowry Road early in 2009. At the end of 2014, she opened the adjacent space as The Dining Room, offering slightly more formal seated dining. At the time, she described the decor as “tongue-in-cheek nostalgia”. Two years ago, that space was reincorporated as an extension of The Kitchen, filled with casual tables and chairs. She had 14 full-time employees.

The Kitchen closed temporarily before lockdown, in March 2020. The solitude allowed time to reflect, and Dudley came to the difficult decision not to reopen.

“You’re going to make me sad talking about my love sandwich,” continues Dudley. “Basically, a love sandwich is about making a sandwich for what a person needs. It’s truly in every way a bespoke sandwich because it’s made completely for you. It’s the way it’s assembled and connects with you profoundly. So if you came to me and said: I just want Cheddar, then I’d build you a phenomenally huge Cheddar sandwich. If you don’t like tomato, we don’t put on tomato.

“And that’s where the love is, it’s about how the sandwich is made. The sandwiches invariably have a bit of love potion (our dressing), and also maybe pesto, red onion, leaves … you can decide.

“We were very famous for our salads too, the gammon, honey-mustard pork sausages, and really fresh yummy things.” Her bittersweet brownies and tart lemon squares were legend.

What to order

Dudley making the Love Sandwich. (Photo: Supplied)

The Kitchen didn’t have a set menu. Did Dudley create the salads and food items herself? “I think I’m kind-of behind recipes; I’m a real curator of things. We’d find a recipe we connected with, and it would mutate into our own recipe. It was a real collaborative thing.

“One of the great delights was when Phatiswa would bring me the salad options we were trying out that day, on little saucers. I’d bring the recipe, they’d make it, then we’d all say: do we like it? Everybody in The Kitchen had to like it. Invariably I’d say: we’ll do this salad with capers and anchovies, then take that dressing to add to it. Then they’d go: yes Mama.”

Could you find gluten-free and vegan? “I was not a banner-carrier for anybody. And for sure, if you were vegan, you’d find something to eat. If you were vegetarian, there were a host of things to have. And if you ate meat, your bases were covered. But basically, we just made things that were kind-of healthy but without that grainy smell you get in health food stores. Mostly just delicious and pleasing to us.”

Some of Dudley’s bounty includes orange fennel salad with praline almonds, red rice with red onion, or a miso, mint and pickled grape salad (all recipes are in her Set a Table cookbook).

Chef Bertus Basson, owner of Overture and Spek & Bone in Stellenbosch, is one of many long-time fans. “It’s simple. She makes great salads for lunch, her honey-mustard pork sausages; there’s no pretence in her food. Every time I’ve gone to her restaurant, I’ve left feeling better than I did before.

“Whether you’ve got a babalas or you’re just running around and popping in for a quick lunch, The Kitchen was a constant. Once you’ve had a Karen Dudley salad in your belly, you feel better about yourself.

“It was that kind of place: everybody happy; Karen happy. She’s like a mother figure of simple food in Cape Town.” The Kitchen and Karen Dudley, summed up.

“It’s sad when somebody like Karen, who’s changed food so much in Cape Town, doesn’t make it. She started her business from nothing; she’s self-made. She’s worked hard. She didn’t have somebody coming to her saying here’s R10,000: start a restaurant,” says Basson.

Personality and preferences

Karen Dudley in another kitchen … the one at home. (Photo: Supplied)

What don’t people know about her? That she has a lot of energy, and really loves people, is obvious. “I’m a flower and music person. I love to sing. If I wasn’t doing food I would probably be arranging flowers, or singing or doing radio documentaries.”

She hates washing dishes. “I don’t want to spend time washing up when I can be with my family,” she says. Two dishwashers were installed when they renovated their home kitchen. “They’re not very beautiful and we don’t have a scullery. But I think the double dishwasher thing works. It really has made a big difference. We have one dishwasher called George, the other called Washington. So now we can say: unpack George; unpack Washington.”

When Michelle Obama visited Cape Town in 2011, an urban myth did the rounds. It suggested that the First Lady’s party “got lost” trying to find upmarket dining venue The Test Kitchen, and just stumbled on “that other kitchen”.

Not so, says Dudley. “We were ‘investigated’ a few weeks before her visit. They asked how many we could seat; did we have a back entrance. My girls said they’d never come to Woodstock; it’s a security nightmare.

“But they did. They closed the main road for 40 minutes while she was here, which was unheard of. Arrived in three different SUVs. It was definitely intentional. There were sharpshooters on the opposite roof.

“If you’re a regular politician’s wife, you go to the Mount Nelson. But if you’re Michelle Obama, you’re looking to make the biggest impact. She understood the power of her endorsement. We played our regular music. We were making sandwiches for her two girls, and she brought her mom. I think she was saying she was coming to Woodstock, a growing area, to a black woman-owned business. Locals have often stopped me in the street and said: did she really come to us?”

That “us” is what gave The Kitchen a pulse. It represented food quality and creativity in a slowly transforming yet predominantly blue-collar neighbourhood; narrow alleys and rough elements alongside colourful homes with flecked paint, edged with broekie lace. The Kitchen offered quality daytime eating in a gritty suburb punctuated by the cries of passing minibus gaatjies, bustling pedestrians and hooting cars. This wasn’t trendy Bree Street with flashy shopfronts and branded burger or bagel bars. But rather high-impact tarmac tenanted by car mechanics, cheap cellphone accessories and fabric haberdashery stores, near poky pawn shops and graffiti’d cafés selling OMO and lotto tickets.

“We brought good stuff into the neighbourhood. We brought business and safety and we were the right kind of gentrifiers, but how many people can afford that on a regular basis? Even eating out is a thing. So yes, people understood we were part of the community. But in terms of our regular customers, you’re still looking at the 2% who can afford to eat out. Food is expensive. We were already swallowing costs. And the costs were going up and up.”

Closing shop

Dudley’s staff at work in The Kitchen’s kitchen. (Photo: Supplied)

It leads to Dudley’s reasoning behind closing The Kitchen. We might not have restaurants for a while, and that’s what made me come to this decision. Aside from the fact that having to try to keep my kitchen alive, while paying rent, was just not sustainable.

“Restaurants sans masks, how will we do it? How will we put our lips to a cup with a mask?” she asks. “Perhaps we’ll have food in other forms. We can still cater, but that market is completely saturated. But I don’t think we will have restaurants as we know them, for a while. I’m waiting for the fog to clear, but the market of restaurant supporters is going to be smaller, so we’re going to need to adjust our expectations and live differently.”

Is this a reset for Dudley? “I’m 52. To be honest with you, catering work and food work is intensely physical. You need a different kind of stamina. We’d have young people coming into the shop (to work), and at the end of the first day they’d be finished. It’s emotional, physical, creative, you’re constantly thinking of solutions for things. At The Kitchen, we didn’t have a set menu. So we were having to recreate, find something new. Constantly driving energy.

“Yesterday I had a meeting with my landlord, which was quite gruelling. He was saying he’d survived in business, he’d ‘weathered the storm’, so why couldn’t I? I said: do you understand the restaurant and hotel industry? People are not weathering the storm. Nobody has large sums of cash hanging about to pay big rents without any income.

“You know what the most damaging thing is? The way it unfolds to damage our futures. When I started my business, I had no debt. I did a few parties, I bought a few things. I did a whole lot of parties, I bought a coffee machine. But now we have debt we never had quite so badly before. So when we’re wanting to start something new, it’s going to be really hard.

Dudley says people trust her, so she’ll find her groove again. She has options. “They’ve loved our food and they know it so well. So I’m hoping we’ll be able to do that again. We probably just need a little hole in the wall, to cook. Or perhaps we’ll do something else entirely. We need to renovate our minds to something more sustainable and kinder.”

Carrying the burden

Limited options for her staff are a bigger burden. “UIF is helping for a bit, but how long will it last? For me, the intellectual property is all in the bodies of my cooks. They cook with devotion. That’s the real power. So we will cook again; I have no doubt. But first I’m taking a bit of time to grieve The Kitchen.”

The long daytime hours, plus extra catering gigs, took their toll. Business wasn’t easy, even before the pandemic. You have to make a lot of love sandwiches to cover costs. “It’s not like we were making packets of money – I kind-of joked, we were paying the staff, paying the creditors, then making more food. And then doing it all over again.

“So this move has forced something. This reset – it’s what I mean by ‘we need a renovation of our minds’ – we almost have to be letting go of this disillusion that it was okay. But we’ve come out of love, and at The Kitchen we’ve made a beautiful thing.

“The food we do: it’s kind of the reason all the chefs came to us to eat. They knew it would be good and sensual and true. Sometimes they’d look at me: I was getting to do all the food they couldn’t do. I could connect with people through food.” She pauses. “This thrill of doing the thing you’re destined for, the thrill of being able to connect with people so proudly. It’s an intangible thing.”

Dudley has produced beautiful cookbooks, and is active on Instagram and YouTube. She believes her future will involve being an authority on food and recipes.

“Here’s the thing: I’m going to have to figure it out. Most of all, I’m going to listen more to what people need. There are things I can do. I have skills and options, but I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll end up doing after The Kitchen,” she says. “Fortunately I have a little bit of a following. I’m leaning into the community of people who love my food and love me, and listening and figuring it out as we go.”

She recalls a moment. “I remember one of the early days and the shop is pumping; there are queues of people and it’s quite stressful … And there is a guy sitting with his plate and just having a moment with his food. And I suppose I just lived for that time when someone could eat something and go: that is just so good. Or, that love sandwich is just what I needed. It was like home, and belonging.

“It’s been such a busy time, I’m longing for more of that – of not being able to do things.” She’s enjoyed the lockdown reprieve, seeing more of her children Maggie and Ben. “I adore my husband. The sweetheart,” she says. Family is her sanctuary.

“So many people are saying to me: we can collaborate on this. I want to keep these considerations going, but feel the need to be really considered about the next thing. One friend said she wishes I could go on the Spanish Camino. But I’m on my own Camino right now. It’s the thing of discovering what you hold on to and what you let go of.”

A final comment from Dudley. “The sadness of and loss across so many businesses. And our new masked reality.” She’s become emotional again, but there’s hope and defiance. “We will gather again.” DM/TGIFood

To support Karen Dudley’s Kitchen Staff Survival Fund, go to shop.karendudley.co.za

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