What I know now: Karen Dudley

By TASTE, 28 October 2016

The one-of-a-kind chef behind Woodstock institutions The Kitchen and The Dining Room revisits some of her most defining food moments and reveals what really happened when Michelle Obama popped in for lunch.

I’m a born-and-bred Capetonian. My mom was the cook in our household and the kitchen was her domain, so I didn’t really get a look in. At school, I wasn’t the girl who was baking for the cake sale.

My father hoped I’d become a businesswoman, but when I went to study at UCT – first a BA, then social work – I began to understand that food could be the vehicle to connect with people. I’d invite people
over and make home-made bread – flat Armenian breads that I slathered in butter. Bread wins you friends.

After my studies, I volunteered at a retreat in Washington DC. There was a chef called John O’ Neil. He wasn’t a diva-ish sort of chef and took me under his wing, teaching me basic skills, letting me cook.

I returned to South Africa around the time of the first elections. I was having such a nice time in the States and then my father phoned me and said, “Are you going to be in the grandstand or are you going to be on the playing field?”

I started running a conference centre in Constantia. It was on a seven-acre estate, but there was nothing there, so I decided I’d get people to come with food. I used what I learnt in DC. I had nothing:
a two-plate burner, this funny old stove. I wasn’t getting paid, but could use the petty cash to buy ingredients.

A friend from London asked me to come and help at her deli. It was on Chelsea Green, a hot-to-trot area with lots of tall, rich ladies with little dogs. The food wasn’t terribly exciting – lots of tikka chicken – but there were also great things that I hadn’t seen before, and I didn’t have to worry about the petty cash! I had all these ingredients and resources at my disposal, so I started to play.

I began to take myself seriously when I came back from London. I started a small catering business. This was the nineties: lots of roast vegetables, chicken marbella and chopped hazelnut meringues.

When the Neighbourgoods Market opened in Woodstock, I started selling food there. Then one of my friends there told me about this place he saw for sale down the road.

The space was an old fish shop. Newspapers on the floor. Fat fryers with orange oil in them. There’d been a fire. Perfect. Now, we feed about 150 people a day, and still cater for parties. My team is astonishing.

Shortly after Michelle Obama visited The Kitchen in 2011, a myth arose that she came across us by accident. What people don’t know is that she has a team that plans every minute of her day. They visited
beforehand, twice, asking things like, “Would you ever close your shop?” and “Is there a back entrance?”
One morning in June one of her aides came and said, “Ms Obama is coming.” The road was closed off for 40 minutes. There were sharpshooters on the roof. Three massive SUVs pulled up and there was Ms Obama. And her kids, mom, cousins, the ambassador, chief of staff and the press secretary. Her kids had Love Sandwiches, her mom stole the ambassador’s honey-mustard sausage and Michelle had “burglar” (bulgur and lentil) patties, five salads and hummus. As I was telling her what was on offer, she sort of did a double-take. I think she realised: “This is going to be fun.”

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Article by TASTE

The TASTE team is a happy bunch of keen cooks and writers, always on the look out for the next food trend or the next piece of cake.
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