1. It’s been an incredibly tough year for the restaurant industry, something you’ve experienced first hand following the decision to close The Kitchen. What have the past few months looked like for you?
It has been tough… the hustle! It’s hard when you believe you’ve been doing what you’re destined to do and then you have to remake your world and find the energy to start again with something new. It has been a harrowing time that has left me a little tender and also somewhat relieved. And it has been a time of holding the faith, keeping the propeller turning, and the vision big! I have loved doing consulting work (I am really good at this!) and helping people with their food spaces.
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2. You recently announced your ‘Karen’s Box’ project, can you tell us a little about these?
During lockdown, I had the time and leisure to concentrate all my creative energy into many little jars and bottles of dressing, relish, mayo, butter: alchemy! I have been channelling all my flavour passion into little bottles that transform any meal! We eat very simply at home, but my little bottles of flavour make the simplest of meals into something extraordinary. I believe that Karen’s Box for Cooks will be of such value to home cooks longing for the ease and joy of something fantastic and a little different to pimp their meals. It’s an adventure borne out of reprieve, time and what I love doing best… perfecting flavour! It’s looking to be quite an expansive exercise with collaborations with food platforms who will take the box to anyone in need of an injection of flavour fabulousness! Most exciting has been the opportunity to work with small farmers and producers – kilograms of fennel for fennel jam (Umthunzi), vegetables from Eikelaan Farm (Tulbagh) through the inspired Eliza Eats and using resources that I already have, favourite suppliers and calling in my crew for projects. Here we go!You can find my box here!
3. Though there’s been some immense heartbreak this year, there have also seemingly been small pockets of positivity for the industry. What have been some of your highlights watching this industry support itself in such a challenging time?
Yes. It has been thrilling to see delivery platforms getting fine produce to many more people! And professional and home cooks are honing their skills and listening to what it is that people need. And still we need to drive for excellence and real deliciousness. There has been a lot more communication and collaboration between players in the industry. I’m hoping that eaters/customers are growing in their understanding of what it takes to put good, wholesome food on a plate. There is fantastic work still going on in big kitchens and small community kitchens to feed hungry people. Our real success is still bound to everyone doing better. Many in our industry have gone from having stable jobs to having none at all. This has been devastating.
And there are lessons: restaurateurs have to stop swallowing costs in the hope of things being better and setting prices that ensure profit and business growth. The real producers in the industry: the cooks, prep staff, cleaners need to earn better.
Some of our leaders are taking a role in stronger advocacy on behalf of workers in our industry. Let’s keep being kind and encouraging each other in this work that brings joy to so many. I believe the industry will emerge stronger!
4. What advice would you have for someone who might be going through a similar difficult time you did before closing your restaurant?
It is very hard letting go of something you believe to be good. As South Africans, we have a sort of cult of tenacity. It makes us extraordinary. But sometimes, like when you’re playing Bananagrams, you have to let go of your terrific word to shape something new and better to win the game, and sometimes even believing that it will be better – this is real grit. There is no shame in leaning on friends and loved ones. There have been rough decisions and ongoing difficulties but there is comfort in being able to be helpful and of service to others and, most of all, learning and listening. There is also no shame in not having immediate answers but just being faithful to doing the right thing every day and being brave when the time comes and your boat finds its new destination!
5. Pantry kits aside, what can we look forward to seeing you do next?
I have no end of new recipes and ideas coming to me! Time and space has made this possible. I would love to compile all my new recipes into another book centred on vegetables. I have loved doing videos and online stuff… I feel I can really connect with people this way. I would love to have a TV show (there, I said it!) where I can showcase farmers and producers and make fabulous food showcasing all the marvellous people and the wealth of produce we have in South Africa.
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6. As we wrap up the year and look ahead to the festive season, what do you think is going to be on your Christmas menu this year?
I have a yearning for duck. All those crispy bits! I have two great recipes in my third cookbook, Set a Table. One is a duck salad (a winner!) and the other, the showcase koeksister-ed duck (think spiced syrup glaze and then a tart green sauce). With a rich main like that, we will do one or two simple salads…. And yes. Okay. Aunty Barbara’s roast potatoes!
7. Lastly, what is your favourite South African dish?
At Christmastime, my mother does a ridiculous traditional South African trifle. I find myself standing at the open fridge on Boxing Day eating the leftovers. My mom makes extra for me and my brother to take home to our families (wink, wink). She doesn’t realise that we are giving ourselves to the solitary pleasure of the sherry-soaked cake and the fresh cherries, the jelly and the proper custard!
To keep up with Karen, follow her on Instagram