Karen Dudley’s journey from cooking at The Kitchen to cooking at home
With her fourth book due out in 2022 and sharing her knowledge through consulting, the effervescent chef has also shone a light on South African foodies in a five-part YouTube series.
Karen Dudley’s home smells exactly how you’d expect it to: of baking. There’s something delicious in the oven, a cake as it turns out. There’s already a freshly baked loaf of bread on the counter. For there shall be toast.
“I am going to toast you,” she said. I see now, writing that, it appears a bit sinister, but it’s in the sense of a salutation and of course a play on the word.
This is indeed a home, which is more than a house. It’s open and comfortable; there is a granadilla vine growing over the front gate, heavy with fruit; classical music plays softly from the lounge, and after an exuberant greeting, the dogs settle. In the centre of the kitchen is a huge counter. Dudley invites me to take a seat on one side, while she works ceaselessly on the other as we talk – making coffee, slicing the bread for toast, making a syrup for the cake, fetching plates from the massive floor-to-ceiling dresser holding what at a guess looks like hundreds of plates, lovingly collected over the years, and the cutest little coffee cups she got at the Rondebosch pottery market.
The coffee is excellent, and Dudley says it’s because of the cups. Suddenly there are half a dozen different sized jars and a round of cheese, and butter, and Dudley is spreading and slicing and feeding me carrot and cardamom jam; parsley, sultana and caper relish (which I love so she slides the jar across the counter saying, “I think you must have this.”); and funked-up Marie Rose with smoked paprika and smoked sun-dried tomatoes.
We touch our toasts together.
Spending time with Dudley is the easiest and most natural thing in the world. She’s radically open, emotions – laughter and tears – spill over each other spontaneously as the feelings move through her. Our conversation, which rarely pauses for breath, ranges wide and wild, mostly about food, from Brussels sprouts to butter, and all things crunchy, fatty and salty. We agree that the toast is ultimately merely the vehicle for transporting butter into your mouth. Especially those little bits of crust that fall off so you dig the knife into the butter and spread it thickly on that morsel. Dudley demonstrates but she’s preaching to the choir.
The point of my visit is to talk to Dudley about the five-part series sponsored by Nederburg, called I’ll Bring The Wine, which is available on YouTube. Four episodes have aired so far, with the final one next Monday, December 20, 2021. In each episode, Dudley meets a different chef, chats to them, chats about them, and tastes their food. It’s fair to say Dudley is anything but average, and a series such as this could easily have employed a “face”, given them a script, and made a series of advertisements. Instead, we have a host who is uniquely and authentically herself, who is personally invested in the subject matter, got to wear her own clothes and jewellery and therefore her own style, and best of all, isn’t scripted.
“If I had to have a script, I’d be terrible, Bianca!” exclaimed Dudley. “I would be terrible. It’s like a mondeling (Afrikaans oral at school) – you immediately get all stiff and stilted and you can’t do the thing. It was so amazing to have the freedom to engage with people about food, I’m genuinely interested. I really want to know about these people.”
The best interviews are conversations. Edited afterwards, sure, exactly like this one, but essentially something that flows back and forth, answers generating more questions. “It’s finding the nub of the thing. What is the question no one is asking?” said Dudley.
The first episode doesn’t waste a moment; it leaps right in with chicken feet, eaten by millions but rarely found outside of townships. The interviewee is Mmabatho Molefe, chef-patron at Emazulwini restaurant at Makers Landing at the V&A Waterfront, who has embraced her Nguni heritage and childhood and family favourite foods and given them a modern fine dining interpretation. She and Dudley ate chicken feet in Langa, then went to Molefe’s family home for a traditional stew, and then back to Emazulwini where Molefe prepared her Inkukhu namanqina, a terrine made with chicken feet with onion mayo, fresh tomatoes and brown vinegar jellies. It looks superb, sublime even, and for the foodie who wants to try it all, Pitso’s Kitchen, also at Makers Landing, serves up the walkies from the grill; before or after, head to Emazulwini to try Molefe’s version. It’s a dish Dudley describes as “so refined and so quiet”.
In the second episode, which focuses on award-winning chef Jackie Cameron, who now runs a culinary school, the ingredient is tongue. Chicken feet and tongue – somewhat controversial, or what?
The idea was to use a dish as a lens through which to view the food person, explained Dudley. “They wanted South African ingredients not commonly used but that would be truest for the person – reaching for who this person is through a dish. For all of them it is so real. That again sets up a feeling of genuineness and conviction.
“There’s a visceral experience. It’s interesting to explore the tension of humans that we must eat the animal, we want to eat the animal. But something has to die. It’s something deep in us, which is why there is ritual around food, and cooking food and the way things are slaughtered. There is always a bit of discomfort. Modern humans are removed from it. I grew up eating tongue and I love it.”
The series is beautifully shot and edited, a production to be proud of. Dudley contributed her creative input, with some guidance and direction from the crew. “It was so fun. I got to wear my own clothes, my own jewellery, and not too much makeup… I didn’t want another layer between us,” she said. In real life, Dudley wears only lipstick so to paint and plaster her would have hidden who she really is.
“I’ve done TV things before and been on shows, but this was different from being in a studio,” said Dudley. “I needed all my people skills and was so happy to be in that space. The other thing that was so exciting and liberating was that it wasn’t about me. I’m still in the service of others, however, but it released me and I was the vehicle and doing a job. It was so refreshing.”
The five episodes were shot over a mere two weeks so it was pretty intense, said Dudley. It was her first time doing something like this so she was totally up for it. “I was like, ‘let’s go, family here are frozen meals, feed the dogs and try to take them for walks, you’re going to be fine’.
“And off we went. The cameras never stopped rolling. I’d be walking though vineyards, on the beach, among the cows, driving in townships I didn’t know. Because I’m a chef I’m used to working all kinds of hours and going…” said Dudley, snapping her fingers, once, twice, three times in quick succession. “I already have the tenacity and stamina, and that worked really well in the setting.”
Of the experience, Dudley feels she was in the right place at the right time, after all the years of doing what she did: “And now I get to do this, to ask the questions, to talk about these people.”
At the end of the first episode, Dudley talks about the vulnerability of being a chef, and surrenders to her raw emotions on camera, in turn allowing herself to be vulnerable. “I think that chefs are a certain kind of breed. Most are slightly mad. Some are looking to put themselves on a plate, looking to impress you, “wow” you, leave you in awe.
“Some, like me – I’m looking to go for the jugular,” she said. Again, not sinister. Wait.
“What is the thing that is going to make this person have an experience? In that way, how can I connect with this person? I’m looking for a relationship. It’s pouring yourself out and getting love back. That was what made The Kitchen (her former restaurant) so incredible, this beautiful exchange of service.
“When you make something new, something different, take a chance, what will they think?” Dudley’s voice becomes soft and quiet. “Will they like it? What will they think of me? There’s this tenderness as you make this offering.”
The series is part talk, part cooking and part travel as Dudley visits KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town, the Karoo and Knysna. The other chefs are “Spicepreneur” Pashi Reddy of My Kitchen Rules fame; Dr Tapiwa Guzha, a Zimbabwean molecular biologist, who uses traditional ingredients like blackjack, sorghum, millet, edible clay, hibiscus and baobab; and Annatjie Reynolds, hailed as the Karoo Venison Queen, famous for breaking down an impala carcass in just three minutes.
Watch I’ll Bring The Wine here.
A teaser for season two of I’ll Bring The Wine has been shot, and for now, deadlines being what they are, Dudley is working on her fourth book, as yet untitled, which is due out in the middle of 2022. In it, she relives and writes about The Kitchen, which she closed early in lockdown (May 2020). It’s a cathartic exploit.
“At the time it was fairly traumatic; everything happened so fast,” said Dudley. “Everyone was lying on their couches and I was selling stainless steel tables and fridges and trying to raise money to pay out all my staff who had been working for me for 11 years.
“I basically was just hustling. In a way it went past in a blur. Revisiting it is interesting. And to be honest, it was a relief. Finding the money to pay 20 people, taking care of everybody, trying to keep your cold room stocked for who knows who will come in, the barista that doesn’t come to work. You don’t know,” she said.
“The book starts in the eerie quiet of my shop, with recipes to help with letting go. Now I make lunches for my sweetheart, actual lunch. The peace of toast. The solace of vegetables. My Brassica affair – broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Lipstick and earrings for Instagram, ASMR and the crunch. How I used to cook for a lot of people for my work; now I cook for my family for whoever is sitting at my counter on that journey.”
What an honour to have been a small part of that. Here’s a toast to you, Karen. 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.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved