The magnificent obsession of the Ras sisters of Sprigs

The magnificent obsession of the Ras sisters of Sprigs
Fiona and Clare Ras welcome us to Sprigs café. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

For 22 years and counting Clare and Fiona Ras have been evolving their destination eatery in Kloof. And so it is that their magnificent obsession continues.

“You could say we’re obsessed.”

Clare Ras’s comment, at the same time candid and comical, comes when I ask her and her twin, Fiona, what they do when they get home from work. Work being running the restaurant they opened 22 years ago. That evolved, from small to bigger to bigger still. From restaurant to restaurant with food shop.

And that continued – continues – to evolve. Food and cooking and inventiveness. And creativity around food. Plus customer service around food. You get the picture? This being the six-days-a-week beating heart of what they do. With energy and passion and commitment.

These being the observations of an outsider who has looked in, intermittently, from near the beginning. Once spending a weekend with the pair of them at a private game lodge deep in the Zululand bush when they did a lot of the above. Food things. Cooking, in that case over fire, alchemy created in three-legged pots. Feeding everyone. Even though they, like me, were invited by mutual friends to enjoy the bush and not officially there to cook.

So probably I should not have been surprised when, in answer to my question, Clare says that when they get home: “We cook.”

At which point I do believe I echoed: “Cook?” Followed by: “Every night?”

If incredulity were a flavour or spice, it was there, in my voice, in dollops. Eliciting Clare’s “obsession” reflection.

And which, come to think of it, is probably the key “secret” ingredient of their early and ongoing success. 

Clare, left, and Fiona Ras, inside the Sprigs shop adapted for Covid. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

In December 1998 the Ras sisters – I will say Fiona and Clare, in this order, seeing Fiona is 10 minutes older – opened Sprigs in the Fields Shopping Centre, Kloof. They moved into a little empty shop that had been home to an Italian restaurant. 

“They’d done a bit of a run in the middle of the night. When we went to look, there were still pots of food in the kitchen. It was terrible. A mess. We put in a proposal. Six weeks later, we opened. It was small. Only 23 chairs. And on the other side of the centre to where we are now.”

They were there for two years before they moved. Same shopping centre. A much larger space. What became, and is, the café/restaurant side of Sprigs.

After five years they expanded into the adjoining shop and created a demo kitchen. But while there was enthusiasm, not enough people booked and “it wasn’t working so we turned it into the deli”. The food shop. More about this later.

They published their first cookbook, Sprigs Fresh Kitchen Inspiration, in 2008. Their second, Entertain, in 2009. At one point they published their own magazine “but it was too costly”. They were by then, anyway, firmly established as a greater Durban culinary destination. 

Head waitron, Brilliant Kleinbooi, and the legendary baked cheesecake. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“Yes, we still have people who will drive from Umhlanga each month for coffee and cheesecake,” confirms Clare. Their baked cheesecake is legendary: creamy, dreamy and not too sweet.

How do they get the flavour and melt-in-the-mouth texture so often missing that for the most part I have given up on ordering cheesecake?

“We don’t refrigerate them,” she says. “We bake every day and as needed. Some days, two to three.”

The cheesecake they serve with topping, on the other hand, which might be caramel and nut praline or chocolate ganache with dried cranberries and almonds.

“Those we bake the day before so they firm up in the fridge just enough to hold the topping.”

Fiona, left, and Clare Ras take time outside to chat. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

I see Fiona and Clare rarely enough to need a reminder each time who is who. Even though their differences quickly emerge when I do see them. “Fiona has the short hair. Mine is longer and I wear the earrings,” Clare tells me as a shorthand refresher.

They opened Sprigs together. Fiona manages the kitchen. Clare the front-of-house. Defined roles. Similarities and differences. How their lives have evolved.

Born in Durban, they tell me food and cooking was a family affair growing up. “Our mom did many courses, not professional but out of interest, with (the late legendary) Christina Martin.” For many years Martin’s eponymous culinary academy was the go-to school for culinary success. 

Growing up, the sisters say, there were dinner parties and “our lives revolved around food. At lunch the conversation would be: what’s for dinner”.

Let us eat cakes, including this new-to-the-menu Earl Grey tea, orange and chocolate sponge. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Their dad bought a farm near Underberg where they spent most weekends as teenagers. “We had a veggie garden, a couple of milking cows, chickens and ducks.” They would cook with the fresh produce. Bake using the fresh eggs.

Meanwhile, appreciating their differences, their parents sent them to different schools. Fiona was “very sporty” and wanted to go to boarding school so for her it was Pietermaritzburg and Epworth. “I stayed home in Durban. Went to Maris Stella. Loved it. Beautiful memories,” says Clare.

Fiona Ras in her kitchen-with-a-view: previously of the lunch buffet, now flowers-for-sale. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Fiona “always knew” she wanted to cook. Work in kitchens. Be a chef. From high school, she went straight to train professionally with Christina Martin.

Clare has a mild form of cerebral palsy. It affects her legs. Her walking. To the extent that – jump forward to pre-Covid and the past few years – when they go on what is usually an annual hike with friends (the Whale Trail and the Wild Coast Hike are two they’ve done), she is fine with the walking part but needs her gear carried.

Back then, she was considering a career in occupational therapy. “But I loved cooking. I went for an interview with Christina Martin. She accepted me so I enrolled. I hadn’t thought of a culinary career. Then once I got involved…”

Nonhlanhlo Zondi delivers on an order for two savoury veg tarts. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Clare, when qualified, went on to work in fine-dining at The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia. Fiona, meanwhile, worked at the then-five-star Royal Hotel in Durban.

For their 21st each was given a European Contiki Tour. Popular then with young first-time travellers and still happening, I discover when I Google.

They set off with visas that, following the tour, would permit them to work, for two years, in the UK and to travel, on their South African passports, to France.

While living and working in London at restaurants and doing private cheffing they were inspired by Margot Boyce-White’s acclaimed Covent Gardens vegetarian restaurant, Food for Thought, “which opened in 1974, the year we were born” (and closed in 2015). And Books for Cooks in Notting Hill. “A little café in a bookstore.”

“By then we knew we wanted to do something ourselves when we returned,” says Clare.

“We loved these two places. Went to them as often as we could.”

They were also taken by the concept of paying a set price and being dished a plate of food that they were introduced to in the unlikely setting of petrol stations on the autobahns in Germany.

On annual trips to the Cape the Ras twins seek out unusual wines for their list. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“You will love Sprigs,” I recall a friend telling me – must have been 2004 when I was back in Durban for a couple of months from the San Francisco Bay Area, my then-home – before insisting we go there for lunch. “They have this incredible spread. All these lovely fresh creative dishes they make. You choose what you want to eat, they weigh it and you pay by weight. Have it with a glass of wine.”

Only since Covid have they stopped offering this buffet, which evolved and changed with the seasons, with dietary fads and fashions (“people are more into keto now than Banting and we’re doing a lot more gluten-free and vegan than we used to”), with new recipes developed. Always keeping the menu fresh and interesting, the meals wholesome and delicious. The focus on flavour and freshness.

The wall menu behind the barista’s bar-with-wine still reads Lunch Buffet R260kg.

It is such a signature for them, “We’re leaving that there, hoping we can introduce it again sometime,” says Clare.

Covid, not surprisingly, has led to many adaptations.

They were forced during the initial hard lockdown to shut for two weeks. Then they got their essential services accreditation. “But, remember, for a period one was not permitted to cook food and retail it.”

So they cooked Monday to Thursday and sold Friday and Saturday. Meals-to-go. People could pick up. Alternatively, they delivered: “all over Durban and as far from Kloof as La Lucia and Umhlanga”.

“That’s how we managed to get through.” 

This was before they streamlined the deli items and added a greater variety of fresh, wholesome, seasonal, made-from-scratch packaged dishes: their signature style from when they launched. Many items for home use they can sell bottled and jarred. And not just theirs.

To make up for all they have had to cut back including the by-weight buffet, they have become stockists of homeware, gifts, planters, flowers. A Mungo textiles home kitchen range.

The Ras twins regularly search South Africa for beautiful artisanal produce for their shop. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Annually for several years now the Ras twins have gone to the Cape four or five times on what are essentially treasure hunts.

“The Oranjezicht market is a favourite place. We usually start by walking the market with friends. Always looking for things to share. Restaurants, cafés, wineries: we get inspiration from them all.”

They haven’t been travelling since Covid. But with many people staying home, they have made a point of remotely finding interesting things to add.

“One positive thing Covid has done is inspire more people to cook. To try different ingredients. People see a recipe on the internet. They come in for advice. They want to try new things.”

Clare points to an artisanal organic olive oil that has just arrived. And new chocolate bars just in.

“We took tables and chairs out of the deli area and a lot of tables out of the restaurant. For distancing,” she says.

It is a good airy space and people are returning to eat from their scaled-down breakfast and lunch menu. To meet a friend for a savoury tart and a glass of wine. To pick up this week’s dinner specials, portioned for four or for eight, depending on your family size.

To buy bread, coffee, turmeric chicken curry to go, lamb tagine with butternut and almonds, an Asian soy-braised beef short rib phyllo pie, a Greek oxtail pasta bake.

Barista Thembi Hlope prepares an iced coffee. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Or simply to hang out and breath and have a coffee, cake and a change of scene.

“Kloof is a special place,” says Clare. “There is very much a sense of community. Incredible support.”

Which they’ve appreciated more than ever during the past few difficult months. Being able to offer what they do best. And engage in what they do best.

“We were both in the kitchen for a while last year. Lucky we can both cook really well. That was a huge benefit during Covid.”

They miss the casual regular supper evenings they used to have with friends. “We haven’t had anyone round since Covid. We’re quite fortunate that the shop gives us a social side. We see people.”

Outside of work, it’s been family. Their mom in Hillcrest. Their dad in Kloof. Their brother and nephews in Hillcrest.

At home and getting inspired by their abundant books for cooks. (Photo: Supplied)

And themselves. Which takes us back to their downtime. Their evenings. Their lifestyle these days.

“We both do gym, separately. Private. One-on-one.” Essential for maintaining stamina for the job. And good head space.

They have a herb garden at home in Hillcrest. No veggie garden. “Because we have monkeys and they destroy it.” They purchase veggies for Sprigs and home from Early Moon at The Mushroom Farm in Hillcrest. “They supply us and take some of our stock.”

They didn’t set out to live together as they do. But it’s how life has worked out. And it works for them, not least when they get home from long days at “the office”.

When, Clare says, “we cook”.

And yes, she confirms, every night. “Simple. A lot of vegetables, salads, fish and chicken. A little red meat. We play with new flavours. And you know, unbelievable as this may sound, we often don’t get a chance to talk all day so we sit down to eat, to chat, with a glass of wine.”

They get inspiration for new dishes scanning Instagram. “We might try something. Add a bit of this or that. Turn it into a restaurant dish.”

They also get inspiration for their catering menu (which is fun to browse) from their cookbook collection. “We probably have 500 or 600 cookbooks,” Clare guesses.

“No, a lot more,” says Fiona. A few at Sprigs. Most running in shelves up a wall at home.

“We take cookbooks to bed with us,” laughs Clare.

Cooking. Food. Their magnificent obsession. Their passion. Their success. DM/TGIFood

Sprigs The Food Shop, 13 Old Main Road, Shop No 1, Kloof. 031 764 6031


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