The message has travelled and people come from far and wide to eat at The Kitchen, as did Michelle Obama — a doll version of whom you'll spot standing on one of the tables among the other bric-a-brac that is integral to Karen's colourful story.
"I think we're in a very exciting time in South Africa, because we're finding our identity. In the past, we were very categorised — this is German, this is French, this is the one way that it tastes, is it bobotie…?" says Karen. "South Africans eat really well and the people who are having the most fun with food are understanding the way flavours sit beside each other; how one releases the other or sets it free. Here in the Cape, it’s like, 'bring it on'. Bring on that flavour!”
What is your earliest memory of food? My fabulous mom ruled the kitchen. Food is a big thing in our home. We were the classic coloured family and had big Sunday lunches. I grew up in Cape Town in Fairways, Heathfield, Zeekoevlei, all over the place, and travelled quite a bit when I was younger, so I saw the possibilities of things. My mother taught me what was delicious to eat, like butter and sugar pancakes.
When did your food journey start? I had been catering for years since about 2000, when I came back from London. While I was there I worked in a little deli just off King's Road and had no responsibilities. I could play with food. People started taking me seriously and writing about my risotto and I thought, "Ah! This is what I could do." I came back to South Africa and started making food for people. That went well and I became the flavour of the month and then flavour of the year. I'd make food for this posh lady in Constantia and then her friends would ask, "That dessert you made for Belinda on Wednesday, will you do that for me too?" So that's how it started. I'd been cooking from my home in Woodstock and it was getting busier, so I needed to find a space. We also started trading at Neighbourgoods Market at The Old Biscuit Mill.
Who eats at The Kitchen? We have this community of people who are quite discerning, so we have to up our game continually by creating fresh options and adding new things to the palate. Just always be hungry. If you're looking for something with a little edge, taste a little mutabal with a different take on baba ganoush. We have lots of colours and textures to excite you.
What are you sharing with us? It's my smoked snoek kedgeree ‒ a play on kedgeree with rice, smoked snoek, lots of love, onions and a bit of a curried vibe, finished with some egg. It's like a biryani rice with smoked snoek.
You do a bit of baking as well? A few nights ago, we made this thing at The Dining Room [Karen's nighttime, chef's table-style venue nextdoor] with Margie, one of my cooks. I asked her to make an orange-heavy, chocolate, jaffa-like cake and suggested we use this other recipe where we boil the orange and purée it. Margie agreed and made the cake. It was so amazing, I cried. I'm still thinking about it. You know sometimes when you can taste a person's heart in what you eat? I get emotional just thinking about that orange cake.