Robyn Chalmers.
Robyn Chalmers.
Image: Supplied

My love affair with cooking and food began, ironically enough, with the end of a love affair. Heartbroken and living alone for the first time in my adult life, I found solace in cooking. Years back, a friend had given me my first cookbook, Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef. With some trepidation, I started making his recipes and found I loved it. I soon discovered other chefs — Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Thomas Keller and many more.

Not only was I broken-hearted, but as spokesperson and communications director for a large company, my work life carried a fair amount of stress. Cooking transported me, though, and I was hooked. As I created ever more complex dishes, I began to dream of a quieter life: one in which I would grow much of my own food, live in a more rural setting, and be part of a smaller community.

It was years in the making, but the plan started to take form. The idea was to leave my job in 2018 and move to a small town in the Western Cape, where my husband and I had owned a home for some time. But we knew I was not the type of person who could do nothing — this would lead to tears for myself and my family!

An opportunity arose. For years, we had visited a wonderful and award-winning country restaurant whenever we had gone to our house in the Cape. It is beautiful, located under a mountain with a lush vegetable garden where vines, olives, almonds, and much more grow. One afternoon, after we had consumed much delicious food and wine, the couple who owned the restaurant idly mentioned they were thinking of selling.

“Oh,” said my husband, somehow roused by this. “You must keep us in mind — we’d be very interested.” Bemused, given this was the first I’d heard of it, I nonetheless nodded enthusiastically.

A few weeks later, as we were heading off on holiday to a beautiful Greek island, the couple let us know they were definitely selling. Were we interested? Lulled, perhaps, by the beauty of the sea, sand, and sun, we said yes. It was, shall we say, a surprising and somewhat impetuous decision.

And so we owned a restaurant. It was hugely exciting, though we knew exactly zero about being restaurateurs or cooking commercially. Friends either enthused or told us we were mad. Many discussions and much research later, we decided I would go to the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland after I’d left my job.

It has a great 12-week cookery programme, which teaches the fundamentals of cooking across many food styles and touches on restaurant management. Most importantly, the course took place on a 100-acre farm and emphasises a farm-to-table approach. It teaches how to grow your own food, how to harvest it and the importance of seasonality when it comes to preparing a menu — to cook what is naturally in season, preferably organic.

So in September last year, I found myself at Ballymaloe, stepping back in time to attend lectures for the first time in decades, to cook and be tutored every day in a kitchen with 86 other students from around the world. It was a magnificent and brutal experience — I have never physically worked as hard, or been as tired, or as engaged. The friends I made and experiences I had will be part of my life for many years to come.

I learnt so much. How to ferment food, how to bake — never a strong point — how to make bread, olive oil, cheese, wine, butter, and foods from sushi to tapas and so much more. I wrote a blog which provides insight into this amazing experience.

For all the learning, I came away from the course knowing I did not want to cook in our restaurant kitchen — it’s back-breaking stuff that’s really suited mostly to the young. We realised that one thing all successful restaurants have in common is that the owners are always there. You have to be present. We simply did not know enough to do it ourselves and we would need support with systems, ordering, and much more. Employing a chef and manager would put our profits under threat and we are way too grown up to be poor again!

We thought seriously about just how engaged we wanted to be in feeding people great food for a living. And our answer was that, actually, we were simply not equipped, and really not that keen after all. So, we are in the process of leasing our beautiful restaurant to a hugely talented person who will open her own special eatery under the mountain.

I am now a communications consultant and I actually have a few clients. We will watch with awe and pride as our restaurant opens later this year and, hopefully, thrives in the hands of someone who really knows what she is doing. We will be the most regular patrons, and the biggest fans.

Before her move to the Cape, Chalmers was communications director for AB InBev Africa and South African Breweries

From the June edition of Wanted 2019. 

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