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Kayla-Ann Osborn gets set to put KZN South Coast on the culinary map

Kayla-Ann Osborn gets set to put KZN South Coast on the culinary map
Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn celebrates her soon-to-open cooking school and restaurant, Kayla-Ann’s. The empty wine glass? Read on for the reason. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Celebrated Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn has come home. To Scottburgh, where her heart is. Since February, while consulting at upscale Durban and North Coast eateries, she has been creating her eponymous restaurant and Kayla-Ann’s School of Cooking. And, and, and…

Odds-on you’ll agree, if you’ve spent any time in KZN, that there are North Coast people and South Coast people. If you haven’t spent time here, take it from me that this be true.

On both sides, north and south of midpoint Durbs, there’s diversity and individual differences. And exceptions that prove the rule. But all things being equal, which it goes without saying they aren’t, you are either one or the other. With South Coast people being more Liquorice Allsorts, relaxed, unpretentious, idiosyncratic, off-centre, quirky, less stuffy. “And, and, and…” to quote an abbreviation Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn uses. Often. In her matter-of-fact “you get it” South Coast “so let’s just get on with things” style.

I have written about more eateries up the North Coast than down the South Coast, what with built-up and ever-expanding Ballito being party and restaurant central. Umdloti following suit. And the concrete jungle the once-sleepy village of Umhlanga Rocks has turned into? Words fail.

Three spots down the less-accessible and more-sprawling South Coast have been on my TGIFood bucket list for a while. Watch this space. They will feature sometime. But meanwhile, or let me say first… One of KZN’s most lauded and talented chefs is, we (the royal) predict, about to put the South Coast on the KZN culinary gems map.

Mural artist Giffy creates a local statement at Kayla-Ann’s featuring the signature purple-berried Umdoni a.k.a. water berry tree and a violet-backed starling. (Photo: Supplied)

“I grew up in Scottburgh and the owners of Umdoni Point, this great new eco-development, approached me and said, we’re doing this and we know you’re from here and now you’re back [from Stellenbosch and three years as executive chef at Delaire Graff]. Are you interested in opening a restaurant? So we’ve been working on it since February.”

“It” being “the original stone manor house on what was the Gwala Gwala estate (one of several farms and land tracts bought by the developers), which we’ve been busy revamping. It’s beautiful.”

She has kept the original kitchen but removed walls to open it up. You can see through to it from the lounge, with its high ceilings, exposed beams perfect for her hanging monkey lamps, and on one of the walls, a statement Giffy mural. “Did you know, his primary focus now is the Umdoni bush?” I didn’t. Only that the Durban-based muralist specialises in nature and birds.

The vast kitchen is also open to the bar and to a private dining room, which has a view through a massive open window to her pass, “where I plate”. She has kept the original doors, which have been restored. The wine cellar fits snugly in a passage under a staircase. “Really cool. So, not right away, but hopefully soon, we’ll do wine-pairing dinners.”

Monkeys will light up the rafters at Kayla-Ann’s, here with a dessert featuring a last-of-the-season orange with 54% cacao barry ocoa and fennel. (Photo: Wanda Hennig and supplied)

Showing me around, she waxes lyrical on the lie of the land both inside the restaurant and outside, where there is a lot of construction going on. Bowling greens, swimming pool, pickleball and paddle-ball courts all in progress. And a clubhouse, for people who buy homes, many still to be built, and live on the eco-estate. The owner-developers, same as former owners who have sold into the development, are all local people who, when she talks about them – for instance, someone who taught her at primary school – sound like extended family.

“They bought the front land, then the area behind, and the area behind that. So what you have is literally all ocean and then up to and including the bush. Animals: the buck, the birds, the forest, nature, and, and, and.” And seasonally, the offshore highway of whales. “The logo for the development is a little whale.”

There was much debate over the naming of her restaurant, which will have “soft” openings from mid-November to formally open, still as a work-in-progress, in December.

“The names I really liked” – her favourite was The Swinging Monkey – “but people are so full of shit about monkeys…” she chuckles breezily. “They said, you can’t! So after about six changes, it’s Kayla-Ann’s.” Which made sense, this already having traction. And last week it was confirmed that Cairn Hanafey, who has worked at Chef’s Table and Circus Circus (Durban) and Bouchon and Scala (Cape Town) and is married to one of her sisters, will return from the Cape to join her as head chef.

A quickie Scottburgh greengrocer stop to pick up supplies after fetching daughter, Emersyn-Ann, from the Montessori school. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Meanwhile, she has also been doing the groundwork, registering and setting up Kayla-Ann’s School of Cooking, which will open with its first intake – she has accommodation for 10 students – in January 2024.

She is also due to give birth to her second daughter in January. Which is why, if you look at the opening picture to this story, she is celebrating with wine and an empty glass. “Pregnant, so not drinking right now!” Her under-construction office at her restaurant has been designed with space for a cot. She expects to be working tethered to the new baby for the first few months.

Down-to-earth, cool, calm, unfazed, unpretentious, she’s one of those rare people who just get on with things and get things done. I only learn when I tap on her LinkedIn that she is “drowning somewhere in the middle” of an MBA, her words when I call her on it, which she is doing through Edinburgh Napier University. Between everything else.

Griqualand lamb rump, Osborn’s favourite “most underrated” cut, on roasted tomato and new season zucchini purée, turmeric-pickled baby onions; dished on a Mervyn Gers plate. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

When I last wrote about Kayla-Ann Osborn for TGIFood, in July 2019, she was executive chef at The Chefs Table, then KZN’s top restaurant. She had “opened” that restaurant three years previously, at the age of 23. At the time, this was the only KZN dining establishment (ranked number 15) to make it onto the Top 20 South Africa restaurant awards list.

Shortly before Covid, she accepted the Delaire Graff executive chef appointment. Was there for three years, “achieving culinary greatness with her philosophy of an all-sensory dining experience”, to quote from an article about her Stellenbosch menu. 

Back in KZN this year, she’s been doing private catering and consulting: at 9th Avenue Waterside, The Alton and elsewhere. Perhaps it was inevitable she would return. And to the South Coast. As she told me in 2019, she grew up in Scottburgh with her two younger sisters in a house with “strong women – my mom and gran”.

She has vivid memories of her gran, her cooking inspiration, teaching her how to make apricot jam squares. “How the raw pastry mix of sugar, butter and flour would go into the oven and emerge delicate, golden and meltingly crispy.” The alchemy of inspiration it was, as it set her on her career path. To the 1000 Hills Chef School, where the relentless “in-the-kitchen cooking” under the school’s founder, “Chef Dixi”, is in part a template for her soon-to-launch cooking school.

“We were in a restaurant environment from day one. Everything was done from scratch, properly and either for the students to eat or for the school’s restaurant. It was hectic, it was real and when you walked out of there, you could cook.

“Unfortunately what I’ve noticed the past few years, at Chefs Table and at Delaire, is that I’ve had hundreds of interns come through, from six weeks to six months and from different chef’s schools. And all that is happening, bar one or two of the very good schools, they are paying the chef schools but not learning to cook. I’m doing all the teaching.” If not placed with a chef willing to train them, “they just go to corporate hotels where they pull pastries out of boxes. But they need to be hands-on, to learn in the kitchen.”

Chef Kayla at home with pullet eggs and her lone rooster in her hen-food garden of non-GMO maize, sunflower seeds and beans. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

In part, the cooking school idea came about, she says, through visits to Enaleni Farm, near Camperdown. [Read Richard Haigh’s connection with soil, animals and life.] “That’s where I’ve gone when I needed inspiration. I’ve been to the best restaurants in the country but there is nothing like going to Richard’s farm and tasting what he’s grown.

“He pointed out this big hole in the industry, in modern-day living, that we don’t focus on health, we don’t focus on what’s in our soil, how what you’re eating has been grown, what you’re getting from what it is you’re eating.”

Her menu, her food: “It’s always been produce-driven for me, not concept-driven.”

“To be able to cook,” she says, “you need to be taught what to look for in terms of ingredients. Where was it grown? How? What is it going to do for you? A vegan might feel righteous eating vegetables but if pesticides were used that killed the birds, or if orangutans were killed when the forests were depleted for palm oil for no-milk chocolate, it’s important to know these things.

“I also think, in the culinary industry, people need to understand there is not just one path. We have all these chef schools training students, some who are not made to go into fine-dining kitchens or restaurants. Meanwhile, home industries are dying. And small niche bakeries. And cheesemaking is a dying art.”

The legislation to set up a school is a big pain, she says. But she’s been doing it and will offer her students accreditation through Highfield International, which is UK-based and internationally recognised. “The cooking I can teach. The health and safety and the business side, which I think is very important, they offer substantial courses. And I like that they offer components students can add as they build their careers.

“I’ve been given an area for dairy cows on the estate. And for chickens and dairy goats. So there is going to be a big component of cheesemaking. Artisanal products. Sourdough. That kind of thing.”

Scottburgh and Umkomaas being fishing towns, her menu will celebrate locally caught fish, here a crispy skinned slinger, atchar and mussels. (Photo: Supplied)

“We live in a conservancy area in Scottburgh, like literally in the woods,” Osborn tells me before I visit. To get there I must head for a certain landmark then drive up a short dirt road. I will see a gate, a big plot, two houses at the top, dogs, chickens, a goat…

So it is that I finally get to meet her mom, her gran and the sister who is the only person Billy the goat doesn’t head-butt. “He loves her. She rugby tackles him every week to remind him she’s the boss.”

This is where Chef Kayla-Ann grew up. On the beaches at sardine time. “It’s a frenzy when the sardines are running. The two most exciting days of my year are Comrades day and ‘sardine’ day,” she said in 2020, in a story on “the greatest shoal on Earth”.

She grew up running around the coastal bush and forests, collecting berries and plants – informally foraging, which outdoor kids do in the name of adventure and play.

“Umdoni is named for the water berry tree. They grow like weeds here. Little purple berries, quite tart and crispy. We grew up eating them and the mulberries and wild asparagus… and, and, and. It’s all in that forest.” Relevant for her new restaurant and school.

“And there’s a lot of endemic seafood that comes off the rocks. It makes sense for me to celebrate fish here given that Umkomaas and Scottburgh are fishing towns; there’s so much beautiful fish and guys with commercial licences who fish with lines and I can get from there.”

A big part of Chefs Table’s success was the relationship she developed with suppliers. She has relationships with many on the South Coast, from living there. But this will be a big focus: building suppliers on the South Coast.

Expect locally sourced flavours creatively presented, here queen mackerel, new season corn, a smoked mussel and coastal vygie. (Photo: Supplied)

The sizeable home kitchen at her mom’s, pretty industrial, is buzzing with busyness. Chef Kayla-Ann has been catering private functions up and down the South Coast since returning to KZN. Today’s prep is for 60 people for a 60th birthday the next day.

Osborn gives guidance for a dessert for which her mom is melting imported white chocolate nibs. Her gran says yes to some tasks, no to others (like peeling sweet potatoes). An intern is being told things like, “when you slice, do it like this (demo)… let the knife do the work.”

At some point her mom shows me the to-be-expanded vertical hydroponics system she has set up outside, using YouTube for guidance, to grow herbs for the restaurant.

“You can see,” says Osborn, chuckling cheerily, “this is a family operation.”

Her restaurant menu will be small and seasonal and will change, “probably every day”.

“We’re still busy with it. It will evolve. This side of the world is busy, but not busy like Umhlanga or Umdloti. The field I’ve worked in is fine dining so there will be fine dining.” Not her favourite term. “So there will be the more ‘curated’ area and then more casual eating. Yes, two menus.

“The ‘fine dining’ I’ll only do in the evenings, at least to start. I’ve never really had a platform to do, like, 20 seats. It’s always been big restaurants where I’ve had to try and balance all of it and serving everyone. And tasting menus. I’ve never really been able to create a tasting menu that’s just mine, that’s manageable, that I can do wild things with.”

Such as? “One of the things I love, and it’s a dish that’s stuck with me forever, I made edible mussel shells so they look just like mussel shells but they’re made out of crispy potato. And to make them is a flipping pain in the arse and half of them stick to the shell, and, and, and… But they’re amazing. It comes to the table, people think, oh it’s a mussel, then realise they can put the shell in their mouth. To do that on the scale of the previous restaurants I’ve been in has been impossible, so I’m really looking forward to doing that sort of thing down here.” And, and, and… DM

For updates and to plan your visit, follow Kayla-Ann’s on Instagram and Facebook and see Kayla-Ann’s website.

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig

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