Roberto de Carvalho of Roberto's Signature Restaurant. Picture:  Peter Unsworth
Roberto de Carvalho of Roberto's Signature Restaurant. Picture: Peter Unsworth
Robert's Signature Restaurant recently celebrated its first anniversary. Picture:  Peter Unsworth
Robert's Signature Restaurant recently celebrated its first anniversary. Picture: Peter Unsworth

terri dunbar-curran

IT’S been 15 months since he opened the doors of Roberto’s Signature Restaurant in Long Street and chef Roberto de Carvalho is looking back at them with pride. Occasionally he’s a little surprised that they’ve managed to keep going, but mostly he’s pleased to be giving people what they want.

When he opened Roberto’s he planned to offer a menu of dishes inspired by his and his wife’s heritage, with Mediterranean, Portuguese, Greek and Italian flavours. However, as time has gone on, that plan has metamorphosed into something different.

“People have been asking for more Portuguese dishes. It’s definitely moved me into putting more of them on the menu. I’ve already got a Portuguese-style pork schnitzel and I’ve also added a feijoada, a pork stew with beans. To most it may sound uninteresting, but I’ve struggled to keep up with production.”

Feijoada is a stew with three types of smoked chorizo and a variety of pork. The idea to introduce it at the restaurant stemmed from a visit from his parents a while back. His father asked him to make it especially and the family couldn’t stop eating it. “I thought I should try it at the restaurant, it can’t just be my strange family that likes it,” he laughs.

Interestingly, most fans of the new dish are Afrikaans, with one customer remarking “Ek is van die plaas, dis my tiepe kos”. (I’m from the farm, this is my kind of food.) Besides adding the occasional new item to the menu, De Carvalho doesn’t get as much time to experiment in the kitchen as he used to. In the decade he spent as executive chef at the 12 Apostles Hotel he made time to flex his creative culinary muscles.

“What I did there was try to cook or look for something new to cook at least twice a month. But now I don’t get time to sit in the office trying new food all the time, I’m everything. It can be manic, but after a year of doing it I’ve got myself into a programme,” he says, adding with a laugh that he’s also lost a lot of weight in the process.

After 16 years of working at five-star hotels and travelling, the expectation would have been that he would open a fine dining establishment, but he is adamant that he wanted to create somewhere casual. “The food here is not pretentious. It is what it is, everything is in the flavour.”

When it comes to keeping up with trends, De Carvalho prefers to stick with what he knows his customers enjoy. You won’t find him emulating chefs whose dishes look more like minimalist artworks rather than wholesome meals. “I’ve been there and done that. That’s not what food was intended to be. You leave here content. You won’t pay R150 and leave hungry.”

Although there are times when he thinks, “What am I doing?”, he always remembers the reason he became a chef in the first place – to make people happy. He recalls how when he was a young boy his mother encouraged him to find something he loved doing then find a way to get paid for it. It’s been a journey of challenges, but he’s content with where it has led him.

Taking money he had saved for another venture which didn’t work out, he opened Roberto’s on a shoestring, opting not to take any hefty loans. “I decided to make it work with what I had. This was the first place I saw. I saw another 10 and then came back to this one. There wasn’t a lot I had to do.”

A lot of people when they open a new restaurant seem to think they have to change everything, but De Carvalho was delighted with some of the pre-existing decor, including the arty wooden partition at the end of the space. All that was needed was some creative lighting to make it more of a feature. He also decided to rope his friends and family in by organising a painting party where people came along to help give the space a fresh coat, and also enjoyed the first meal cooked at Roberto’s. “It was a great day, and all of those people still come back. They feel like they have some ownership of the place.”

That’s not the only way he flew in the face of normal restaurant practice, he also decided to open on Sundays. As the weather grew colder and his customer complement shrank to just a local pastor and his wife dropping in for their weekly Sunday lunch after church, he decided to stick to the warmer months.

Now that the weather is improving and the days are getting longer they’re open again. “There are a couple of tourists in town already,” says De Carvalho.

“A lot of other places are closed on Sunday, and so the tourists walk up and down town looking for somewhere to eat. They always come back on a Sunday.”

He has found that many of them will mention the restaurant to other tourists when they meet, and so the news spreads. Regulars among the locals also appear to have a snowball effect and he is thrilled that summer is finally here.

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