Joanne Gibson chats to the dynamic duo behind La Colombe’s soaring success
It can be hard to keep track of openings and closings in Cape Town, but one restaurant has not merely survived the departure of two high-profile chefs over the years, it has soared to even greater heights in a new location – La Colombe (‘the dove’ in French).
Devoted customers feared the worst when French chef Franck Dangereux flew the coop in mid-2006 (to open The Foodbarn). He left big shoes to fill, but Englishman Luke Dale-Roberts had big feet of his own, confidently adding Asian influences to the existing mix of classic and contemporary French cuisine. He took La Colombe to 12th place at the 2010 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards – only to leave shortly thereafter to establish The Test Kitchen.
Fortunately, Dale-Roberts’ former sous-chef, Scot Kirton, was able to step in, having run La Colombe’s sister restaurant, River Café. ‘When Luke left, I hurried back – and I haven’t looked back since.’
Last year, he was named South Africa’s S.Pellegrino Chef of the Year at the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards, praised for ‘pushing the boundaries with a sense of calm skill, focus, dedication and passion’. Not bad for someone with no formal training, having started out in the kitchen at Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek (a holiday job that lasted five years), followed by a two-year stint under Gordon Ramsay in London.
‘When I came home in early 2007, I sent out my CV and one week later had an interview at La Colombe. “This will be the best restaurant in the country,” Luke told me. “Do you want to be part of it?” I did, and I still do.’
The restaurant’s move from Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate to Silvermist Organic Vineyards, at the top of Constantia Nek, was stressful. ‘We had to wait six months for our kitchen to be built.’ But steering the ship through this time of frustration and sometimes negative speculation, having already survived both chefs’ departures, was restaurant manager Jennifer Hugé. Originally from France, she joined La Colombe in late 2003 – as a runner! ‘My first day was crazy. I wanted to leave. But Franck took me aside and he said, “Please stay. It will be amazing.” And it has been.’
She admits to having been devastated when Dangereux left. ‘For me Franck was La Colombe, so when Luke arrived, I was a bit concerned at first. His food wasn’t classic French. But I loved it.’
Evidently Dale-Roberts loved her too, soon appointing her as front-of-house manager. ‘He could tell that I cared as much as he did about getting everything right. And then he left and I cried all over again!’
As stressful as the move over to the new premises at Silvermist was, Hugé says it was the best thing that could have happened. ‘We’re financially independent here, which gives us the freedom to do what we really love.’
In Hugé’s case, this means coming up with La Colombe’s ‘legendary’ food-and-wine pairings – one innovative example is the poached oyster, lemon, samphire and apple dish, which is served with a 2014 Dirty Julie Verdelho.
In Kirton’s case, it’s developing more dishes similar to the seared-tuna tataki, which is cleverly presented in a metal can with a pull tab. ‘The point is that we can’t just serve you a plate of food; it must be something you’ll remember in 10 years’ time.’
However, this is not innovation for innovation’s sake: ‘We will never take anything off the menu unless there’s something better to replace it.’
Is it any wonder La Colombe is fully booked every day, with up to 40 people on the waiting list?
<gutter cred> Photography: Courtesy image