James and Tracy-Leigh Gaag carve their own slice of the Cape restaurant industry
He’s the executive chef at the award-winning La Colombe; she’s the owner of two Four & Twenty café delis, and it’s all in a day’s work along with parenting their son Jack.
There are jokes aplenty about “behind every successful man”: a strong woman (behind her, his wife), a surprised woman, a surprised mother-in-law, a woman rolling her eyes (Jim Carrey), and Aziz Ansari, who says he is riding the coattails, smiling and taking partial credit. Ansari is a writer, actor, comedian etc who was accused of sexual misconduct so that escalated fast and I apologise.
The saying is lousy with gender stereotypes and cliche, however, James Gaag’s wife Tracy-Leigh – while not behind him because she is equally successful in her career – played a part in the beginning of his.
“I was James’s teacher,” she said when I asked for the story of how they met. “That’s not the right way to open,” laughed James. “We were friends before you were my teacher.”
After a bit of back and forth and getting the story – which has more than one connection in the past – straight, this is what happened.
Tracy trained at Silwood School of Cookery. James’s mother taught at Silwood, and Tracy was her student. Tracy did her third year placement at La Colombe when it was still at Constantia Uitsig (where her second Four & Twenty is now located). Tracy went on to teach at Silwood. James was one of her first students. He is now executive chef at La Colombe, where he has been working since 2010 (departing only for a short stint with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in the UK). They also almost lived in Tokai at the same time as children, but not quite.
“I taught hot kitchen practical, and had four groups of 14 students. James was one of them,” said Tracy. James never received any preferential treatment from her (or his mom, who was hardest of all on him) but it wasn’t necessary: “He was top student, outright the best, all three years,” said Tracy.
Although they’ve known each other for a long time, James and Tracy were always dating someone else and the timing was never right. They even lived together at one point – James and his then-girlfriend, and Tracy. “We knew each other for 10 years and all of a sudden I got a call when I had parted ways with the last one and then I knew he was going to be my husband,” smiled Tracy. “He was always the golden boy but we never acted on it, we kept it professional.”
It was a timing thing, said James. He’s the greatest guy in the world, said Tracy, and if they are not just the most adorable couple I don’t know who is.
“Tracy is probably the most – what’s the word?”
“I don’t know what you’re going to say…. understanding?”
“Yes! I don’t think I would get away with half… I have hobbies which are time consuming and Tracy is very tolerant with me, hey.”
“Yes, I am.”
Married in 2018, they didn’t need to be engaged for very long – about a year. “We’d known each other for so long already, we knew. And two years later we had Jack. He is one year and three months old.”
Now imagine this, if you have ever eaten at La Colombe: James was not at all interested in being a chef. There was none of that “I knew when I was at school” stuff. “I wanted to do engineering, it’s about the mechanics of things and how they work. When I was young I would take something apart and put it back together,” he said.
“My mom has always been cooking and I was always in the kitchen with her watching what she’s doing but never did I think that would be my career. I applied for engineering and got in but then I realised it was all about maths and I despise maths. It’s my absolute worst.”
So James did a gap year but instead of backpacking around Europe, which is how I’ve always envisaged such things but apparently it’s more about building a foundation for the future, he signed up at Silwood. “It was the first lesson and I thought it was awesome and it changed my perspective completely.”
And who taught that first lesson? Yes, that’s right – Tracy, doing stocks and sauces.
“Since then I’ve never wanted to do anything else. Now my other interests are my hobbies, and it’s first and foremost cooking,” he said.
Those hobbies of which Tracy is so understanding are woodwork and fishing. I don’t know about you, but when someone says “woodwork” I think of wardrobes and 12-seater dining tables. Please tell me I’m also not the only one whose first thought is bulldozer when a medication says don’t operate heavy machinery. James is currently making beautiful pens out of wood, which are a lot more delicate and refined than a sideboard. Turning bowls too.
The mushrooms and acorns for La Colombe’s bread course, for example, while not physically made by James, are his idea. Months and months of design and planning go into every dish on the menu, and in this case it combines functionality, purpose and aesthetics. Initially, oak was used but the mushrooms were remade out of olive wood because of the pattern. “French oak is a very nice wood but it’s quite dull in terms of grain structure whereas olive is wild. It’s gnarly and has a pungent smell,” said James. Drawing on these two areas of creativity allows James to come up with unique presentations that are not just off the shelf plating.
“That’s what sets you apart – having a concept and something different someone has never seen before,” said Tracy.
Like the honey, I said, the final course of the current menu at La Colombe. “That’s very technical, how it’s made, cast from moulds,” said James. How do you even come up with something like that, I wondered? “We wanted to do petit fours based around honey…” he started to explain. “But to think of that Thing,” I said, shaping it in the air with my hands.
“What? It’s a beehive,” said James.
Of course it is. I lost my words for a moment.
“The first thing that attracted me to food was the technicality behind it, how to get things perfect,” said James, and he shared a bit about the intricacy of creating the honey lemon meringue (which is about the size of the tip of your thumb) and it’s astonishing. Obviously there is a NDA in play but besides, we don’t have to know all the magic that goes on behind the scenes. Often it’s simply enough to marvel at the result.
In another serendipitous moment, James’s other hobby, fishing, is shared by his father-in-law. “I’ve always been mad about fishing, I haven’t gone a month in my life without fishing,” said James, who goes out to sea on his boat, and does spear fishing as well. “There’s lots of snoek at the moment,” he commented. “I couldn’t have married a better person because Tracy’s dad is equally mad about fishing. And woodwork.”
Tracy owns Four & Twenty Café, the original in Wynberg, and the new one at Constantia Uitsig. The former celebrated its eighth birthday in April 2021, and Uitsig has been open a mere three months. It came about when teacher Tracy connected with student Marijke Duminy, who had previously studied law, hated it and decided to switch to food. Tracy was yearning to go to Paris; at the time she had a “deadbeat boyfriend who didn’t want to travel” (which James said can go on the record). Barely knowing each other, Marijke and Tracy went on a food journey and when they got back, they opened Four & Twenty together. After four years, Marijke moved on and out of the industry, and Tracy has been doing it on her own ever since, not only surviving the pandemic but expanding and growing.
Right at the beginning of lockdown in March/April 2020 I recall Four & Twenty being one of the first places to ride the wave of no sit-down dining and transforming into a grocery store.
“Before lockdown we didn’t do ready meals, we had preserves and things like that in the deli. We put a lot of effort into developing ready meals and we had the platform to do it. We started with fresh fruit and veggies, dairy, meat – we’re still using Frankie Fenner meats. We also had the infrastructure and people knew we did that sort of thing, but we went bigger,” said Tracy.
Remember what it was like back then, when nobody really wanted to go to the big supermarkets, and some of them even got shut down for days when a staff member caught the plague? A small, intimate neighbourhood shop was the answer.
“You could get your milk, cheese, braai meat, tomatoes, bread, lettuce, pasta, flour, sugar, you could buy anything,” said James and Tracy, filling each other’s sentences. “Now we’ve seen the things that are popular – 00 flour does really well – and what people want and shaved back a bit while trying to maximise on the seating. We lost a fridge and freezer here and there but sit-down is where the money is,” said Tracy.
The menu at both cafés is almost the same; Uitsig being smaller, has about five fewer dishes.
“We don’t have a fryer, we don’t have a salamander, we don’t make puff pastry here, that’s made in Wynberg,” said Tracy. “I’d like to say you can get all of your favourites here. The pantry is all dry goods whereas in Wynberg we have a deli fridge with meats and cheeses and milk and those things.”
The restaurant industry isn’t for sissies, so one has to wonder how the Gaags cope with both of them working in it.
“Obviously James’s hours are very long so that’s always a challenge, and with a baby. But when we met we had the understanding that I have a business and James is a very driven guy – he’s not going to change his hours and I was very much aware of that. We knew what we were signing up for,” said Tracy.
“Tracy’s known me doing this as long as she’s known me and because she is also in the industry I think it works because she understands what I HAVE to do,” added James.
“We understand the demands, and if one of us has a drama, or draining stresses like staff issues, we get each other. Those are the perks.”
They share the victories too. “Like James will say to me, ‘Bianca Coleman contacted me for an interview’ and I’ll say ‘wow that’s amazing’,” smiled Tracy.
An important part of their day is taking an hour for a family walk in the morning, and again in the evening if there’s time.
The burning question of course, is what is it like in their kitchen at home? They both cook, but it’s generally James. “I clean up behind him. He is so messy!” Said Tracy. In his defence, James said he’s used to having staff and a scullery at work so when he’s finished with a pot or utensil, he puts it down and it’s miraculously whisked off never to be seen again until it’s clean.
The Gaags do a lot of pasta. Handmade? “On no!,” “God no!” they say in unison.
There you have it: behind every successful couple is a packet of store-bought spaghetti. DM/TGIFood
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.