Karen Dudley

When you meet the heart and soul of Cape Town’s The Kitchen, you know your instincts were right. If The Kitchen sounds familiar it’s because this is the restaurant that achieved national exposure when Michelle Obama popped in during her visit to SA with her daughters.

Now cook/owner Karen Dudley has written a cookery book titled A Week in The Kitchen (Jacana, R225), and when I first read it from cover to cover, I went and bought two more as gifts for friends. I knew they would love her approach and ethos.

“It’s a book for cooks,” says Karen, who immediately upon meeting envelops me in a warm bear hug.

She’s that kind of individual and has managed to get that across in this one-of-a-kind local cookery book. The Kitchen is a front for her catering business and the food served and spotlighted includes what she calls Love Sandwiches and her legendary salads. Her big reward is her regular clientele who have all become part of one large family.

The book tells the story of her culinary travels, which happened almost haphazardly, as if her life in the kitchen was meant to be. But after spending lots of time cooking in the US and UK, her heart was responsible for bringing her back home to Cape Town. “I miss it when I’m away,” she says of the Mother City, and even if you don’t live there, you know what she means.

But when she’s travelling like she did when promoting this book (with designer Roxanne Spear and photographer Russel Wasserfall), she also catches up with new food. “You have to keep upping your game,” she notes.

She’s one of those chefs who knows she must tap into local tastes and promote food that’s familiar to our palate. That, she knows, will also keep the tourists streaming in. “It’s important to be working with something that you know,” she says.

Writing this book, though, wasn’t something that came naturally. It was important for Karen to get across what she and her food were about. That is the most remarkable thing about the book. It’s as if Karen’s put her heart on her plate and the pictures as well as the food speak through her book.

Recipe books are a dime a dozen and when you find a way of making something that stands out from the crowd, it’s rare. Karen believes it is the combination of teaming up with a designer and photographer that helped to give the book a unique quality. She says she wouldn’t dream of doing another if Spear and Wasserfall were not involved.

When she grew up, the kitchen was her mother’s domain and nothing indicated that cuisine was going to be her future. But because of her background and the community she grew up in, she has always related to food. “I was also given the gift by my parents to understand what is good,” she says. That and the joy she derives from pleasing people play into the success of The Kitchen.

For her, food is a celebration of flavours and textures and the people in her employ all work towards the same goal.

“There has to be a similar story going on,” she says, and when you look at the pictures in the book, which were chosen to work almost like a photo album, you can see there’s a unique spirit. Yes, it does show. It’s that kind of place, and with everyone on board they’ve managed to translate and capture the energy and exuberance on the page.

Part of the place is the look, which has also become part of this food memoir. From old-fashioned crockery we all recognise from our childhood to other trinkets, it’s a look that’s embracing.

“I’ve been collecting for years and years,” says Karen, but it’s more than that. You have to know what to collect and how to display it to make an impact. Because of the ambience, people have started bringing her objects. “I’ve received the most wonderful gifts,” says Karen, and everything becomes assimilated and forms part of the whole.

She knows she has struck gold. She believes that once you’ve eaten at The Kitchen, nice is not good enough any more. “It should be a profound experience,” she says.

If you page through A Week in The Kitchen, how could it not be exactly that? It’s simple, says Karen. Anything they serve should be the best of its kind.

Her book already spreads that message, and once you meet Karen Dudley, the deal’s done. This is someone who will make anything she does work in exactly the way it should. She’s that glorious – and so is her book.