TGIFOOD

FOREIGN AFFAIR

La Colombe staff’s Spanish voyage of food discovery

The intrepid La Colombe travellers with Angelo Scirocco, head chef at Brugarol, far left. L to R: Matt van den Berg, Scot Kirton, Peter Thomas Duncan, Melissa Osborne, James Gaag, Cheri Kustner. (Photo: Supplied)

Since 2014, Scot Kirton and James Gaag have travelled, gathering ideas for their dishes and presentations. In May they took five staff members with them to eat, shop and have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Excited, privileged, honoured, grateful… these are some of the feelings of the La Colombe staff members who travelled with their bosses Scot Kirton and James Gaag to Barcelona and San Sebastián in Spain in May. It was two weeks of eating at top restaurants, marvelling at the produce in the markets, and shopping, shopping, shopping.

If that conjures up images of people laden with colourful glossy bags of different sizes, or even a chauffeur loading them into the boot of a Rolls Royce convertible, it’s not quite Pretty Woman, but it’s also not quite inaccurate.

Apart from eating, which is the most important part, obviously, the majority of the balance of the time was spent shopping – in decor shops, department stores, and even toy shops.

“Most of the inspiration comes from this, walking into shops and seeing things you’ve never seen before. We fill suitcases,” said Kirton. 

Yes, the toy shop part is real. If you’ve eaten at any of the La Colombe group restaurants – of which there are now seven – you’ll know there is a flair for the dramatic, often whimsical, and novel ways of delivering your meal to the table. What was discovered in the toy shop will be developed and it could take six months, it could take a year, but one day it will have you clapping your hands with glee when that course arrives. You heard it here first.

“Most of the time, a dish starts with the plate, or something to serve it on,” said Gaag.

“We do things backwards; we find the cool thing, and then we find something to go on it,” said Kirton. 

Cheri Kustner, sous chef at La Colombe, was on this trip, and she related: “Before, Chef would come up with whacky ideas and now I can see his thought process. It’s a very interesting way of coming up with memorable dishes.”

Past and present plating treasures have been turned into a feature wall in the entrance foyer of La Colombe. This was part of the annual “close and revamp” process, which coincides with the overseas trips.

The new feature wall at the entrance to La Colombe shows the plates and vessels, past and present, which have been used to elevate and enhance the visual display of dishes. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Kustner knew something was up before being officially invited. Gaag came to her and asked her if she had a passport. “I knew he was up to something; he was acting all fishy; he’d ask random questions then run away,” she laughed. “My stomach just dropped! I knew it was going to be something like I’d never experienced before, maybe never again.”

Kirton and Gaag went to Madrid earlier this year and Kustner said she didn’t think another trip would happen so soon, so she was suitably shocked (in the best possible way). The “whole thing was outrageous”, with cultural and sensory overload.

“Where to start? De Librije in Zwolle, as one of the first fine dining experiences overseas, it was indescribable. I really was speechless. I was more stunned with each course, like fish with a sliver of bacon, and tiny brunoise potato puffs – every single detail was perfect and I think of when we do things here, getting every chef to do every little thing as perfectly as possible… and when you’re on the other side of the table, sitting there as a guest it really does make the biggest difference and that’s a big thing for me to bring home.”

A market which materialised overnight in Zwolle. (Photo: Cheri Kustner)

Aaron Farquhar, manager at PIER in the V&A Waterfront – who was brought on board two days before departure because Gaag was man down with the illness – also singled out De Librije as a highlight. “The food was amazing, insanely tasty and perfectly presented. Service was friendly and polished,” he said.

(There was a stopover in the Netherlands due to Gaag later joining the group once he got the all-clear.)

“I felt incredibly privileged to be part of the trip at such short notice. The group really invests in the development of its staff (kitchen and front of house), which I find is instrumental for its continued success.”

Farquhar also enjoyed the old town in San Sebastián, with its small busy streets and vibrant tapas restaurants. “I found it interesting and immensely useful to be able to compare our local standard of dining to some of the big names internationally. I intend to apply minor adjustments to our service back home. The small details count. Being able to relate internationally to our calibre of guests helps too.”

PIER head chef John Norris Rogers, who has been on previous excursions to Denmark and Japan, said: “I think the biggest thing I have learnt on these trips was how important the entire experience of being at a restaurant is as opposed to just being focused on food or the focus just being on great wine and service. Tying those elements together is what makes a restaurant special, in my opinion. Leaving a restaurant and knowing you won’t forget it soon because of the way you were treated and food you tasted is to me what makes a great restaurant. 

“It was a very important lesson for me and something I keep in mind with my work within the group.” 

Choosing Spain for this particular outing wasn’t a difficult decision, and it’s not the first time but the fourth: Madrid as mentioned above, then Barcelona and San Sebastián separately. “We found it’s given us so much and made us grow and learn. I think we’ve taken the most inspiration out of Spain. Then we decided to take important people with us so they could experience the same thing,” said Kirton. “You bond with your staff, become closer. And for me personally, it’s to give these guys the opportunities – no one did that for me. They deserve it, they work so hard.” 

The smooth kitchen service at Amelia, 2 Michelin star restaurant in San Sebastián. (Photo: Matt van den Berg)

Melissa Osborne, general manager at La Colombe, echoes Kirton’s sentiment about connecting with her colleagues. “We had moments of personal bonding which has strengthened our working relationships and has added to the cohesion as management,” she said. 

“Being able to spend time outside of the kitchen with the team was a massive highlight interacting on a more personal level and being able to ask questions and learn from them in space like this was invaluable,” agreed Matt van den Berg, sous chef at La Petite Colombe.

“I don’t think I could have felt more spoiled than to be chosen for the trip. It was wonderful to have others around that lived and breathed food, wine, and ambience. We were all experience-seekers, together,” said Osborne.

“My takeaway is that it’s obvious to see when someone loves what they do. I feel grateful to be working in such a fun and exciting industry of fine food.”

The trip was a continuous, stimulated highlight of culture and art, continued Osborne. “The food market in Barcelona was an exciting place I would definitely want to return to. I also enjoyed people watching more, while I was away, because of the eased-up mask restrictions.

A ‘chicho’ pastry at La Boqueria, Barcelona. (Photo: Cheri Kustner)

The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, or La Boqueria market, in Barcelona is legendary. Head chef at La Petite Colombe in Franschhoek, Peter Thomas Duncan, said “strolling through La Boqueria and seeing all the fresh produce from dragon fruit to clams, and enjoying Jamon Iberico to Cava before 10am” was his major highlight. “That’s what we need in South Africa.”

Daily fresh seafood selection at La Boqueria Market, Barcelona. (Photo: Matt van den Berg)

Duncan, like his colleagues, was grateful for the opportunity to be part of the trip. “However, I was very excited and nervous about the unknown food experience that awaited me. It was absolutely one of my most memorable travel experiences I’ve had. It has changed my perspective on food dramatically,” he said. “It has enabled me to think more outside the box in terms of how produce is cared for and presented, and this will guide my future work with the group.”

Over the years, Kirton and Gaag have eaten at about half the top 100 restaurants in the world, and many Michelin-star establishments. This may come as a surprise but those coveted stars don’t always guarantee an out of this world experience. I’ve heard this from “normal” diners as well. I would probably find that enormously disappointing, especially if it was the one and only Michelin star restaurant I could afford and chose. 

“Sometimes we just don’t ‘get it’,” said Kirton.

“It can be different to our style, and often very ingredient driven,” said Gaag. “We work with different ingredients – tomatoes in Spain are not the same as tomatoes here. Citrus fruit, the A and B grade fruit is exported; we get the C grade. 

“South Africa is surrounded by the ocean and the fish we get here is what? Black bream, yellowtail, cob, now and again some of the red fish, no shellfish other than crayfish…mussels and oysters and that’s our limit. In Spain, at just a normal little market, the fish counter will have 40 or 50 different varieties of fish, razor clams and goose barnacles and cockles – stuff we just don’t get. And most of it is alive.”

For Van Den Berg, having a space and platform for inspiration and learning while dining at the best restaurants in the world, was “truly  a dream come true”.

“Sometimes as a chef you become so focused on the food, you forget about the bigger picture and how important it Is to have a fully-rounded experience. This has made me realise how important the interaction between kitchen and front of house is. Ultimately smooth teamwork is the end goal.

“As inspiring as it was, it cemented my belief that South Africa’s food industry is still among the top in the world. I have walked away from this whole experience happy to know that our team is up there with the best in the world.”

Bread service at Restaurante Lasarte, 3 Michelin stars, Barcelona. (Photo: Matt van den Berg)

Looking outside our borders and over the seas is one way the La Colombe group restaurants stay ahead of the game. Looking towards a spring completion, another is a development kitchen currently under construction at La Colombe, on the Silvermist Estate in Constantia. It used to be a farm shed but in a few months it will house a fully equipped kitchen, a temperature controlled chocolate room, a charcuterie room and a mushroom room. A table will be set up as in the restaurants to try out and test different presentations.

The reasoning behind this is that there is seldom enough time, and too many distractions, to create new dishes in the restaurant kitchens themselves. The development kitchen will be a dedicated space to create new dishes and concepts, and an incubator for ideas. Plus all those goodies and gadgets acquired on the travels, just begging for a dish to be laid upon them, will be displayed on shelves, ready and waiting for their purpose.

And that is why La Colombe has itself featured among the top 100 restaurants – in the world – on more than one occasion. DM/TGIFood

For more information, click here.

Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman

The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.

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