Food writers rarely get to turn down a fried scorpion or a habanero chilli. You nod and say “yes, please, and thank you”, all the while dying a little inside. Every now and again, though, your worst expectations are shattered, and you are surprised by what you've put in your mouth.
I heard about a restaurant that would challenge my conventional taste buds. Two months after opening, La Tête in Cape Town has been listed as one of the Top Restaurants in the World to Watch by CNN.
I was intrigued.
As I enter the Bree Street eatery, the unpretentious surroundings are the first things I notice. It’s refreshing. Transparency is fully enforced here, with the open-plan kitchen. The spotless walls embrace the white spaces and simple wooden tables and chairs.
Brothers Giles and James Edwards’s vision lies in the name of the establishment. La Tête loosely translated means “the head”. Nose-to-tail restaurants are popular today, but they’re a tough sell to the uninitiated.
“People generally know what they are coming for, through social media and the press people are aware of what’s going on here. So, if you feel like steak, come for some ox heart. People are surprised at how great it is. It has no fat on it, it’s leaner and cleaner,” says head chef Giles, 34.
La Tête's gutsy menu includes pickled pigs' ears, devilled kidneys, pig head pie, and black pudding topped with a fried egg. The meals are inspired by the season and the availability of sustainable fish, meat and veggies, so it changes often.
On to the starter of pickled pigs' ears then. The pickling process helps create a refreshing starter. The soft crunch and slightly tangy flavours awaken my taste buds from their slumber. A tantalising start into uncharted waters.
When the crispy pigtails arrived, I was feeling a lot braver. Turns out, this was my best dish on the menu. The succulent meat and a delicious crispy coating melted in my mouth. In terms of texture, you’d struggle to tell it apart from pork-rib meat.
The pig head pie was as hearty as a good ol’ fashioned pork pie - only much better. It was served cold with a side of greens, prepared to perfection. Dessert was a decadent plate of freshly prepared madeleines. The uncomplicated madeleines were sweet enough, light and airy, and a perfect end to a heady meal, pun intended.
Chef Giles knows that his restaurant pushes boundaries, but he also knows that it works.
“Eating here is an education. So, when you come in and ask for steak and there is no steak, it is our responsibility to come over and explain. Yes, there is no steak, but here’s what you can have instead,” he explains.
The journey of La Tête started when a young man decided to follow his heart after a magical dining experience. Giles grew up in Cape Town, but was born in Johannesburg. He chose to study philosophy, politics and economics at UCT. After a year, he took a three-month holiday in London where he worked at a pub during his stay. As fate would have it, on the last day of his holiday he walked into his dream.
“My brother took me out for supper on my last night in London. We walked into St John’s restaurant. We had a host of offals, crispy pig liver and the famous bone marrow salad. I sat in this space and I was amazed. The evening was an experience. It wasn’t just the food, it was the interaction with my brother. The waiters were part of that experience, the open-plan kitchen and everything,” said Giles.
When he returned to South Africa, he told his parents he would be returning to the UK to pursue a career in food. He enrolled for a culinary course and, after his graduation, returned to St John’s to ask for a job in the kitchen. He was turned down. He worked at several other establishments in London but regularly returned to St John’s to ask for a job.
After being turned down three times, the head chef eventually gave him a chance at another restaurant in the chain. Two months later, a position opened up at St John’s and Giles stepped into his dream kitchen.
“I loved every moment of it, but five years down the line, I realised I had to open up my own restaurant,” he said. And thus begun his foray into being a restaurateur.
My dining experience at La Tête has taught me that there is so much flavour packed beyond the everyday fillet. There is much more to this Pandora’s box of real people and real food. And, best of all, it needn’t cost your entire month’s grocery budget.