The hallmark of creativity is curiosity. Always asking, ‘What would happen if?’, Luke Dale Roberts’ team at Salsify at The Roundhouse in Cape Town, led by Head Chef Ryan Cole, is rooted in an inquisitive desire to explore and experiment
There’s a palpable, crackling energy galvanising the young team at Salsify – as well as an infectious enthusiasm. With 29-year-old Ryan Cole (who worked with world-renowned Chef Luke Dale Roberts for over three years as head chef at The Test Kitchen) at the helm, the team is characterised by an impressive grace under fire.
‘The Test Kitchen’s like a finishing school for me,’ says Dale Roberts, the visionary behind the award-winning restaurant. ‘These young chefs do two to four years there and they’re ready to fly. Ryan’s a sponge and, technically, he’s brilliant. He’s also well organised, highly creative and a strong leader. He’s got all the right attributes.’
Four to five days a week, you’ll find Dale Roberts at The Test Kitchen, which was recently crowned Best in Africa and also named 50th at the World’s Best Restaurants awards in Barcelona. More recent accolades are the 3-Plate Award by the JHP Gourmet Guide, as well as the SWISS Culinary Innovation Award. As with his other restaurants (The Shortmarket Club, The Potluck Club and the newly launched, no-fuss eatery The Commissary), he’ll check in on Salsify every morning, but he’s just there to give it a push in the right direction and act as a sounding board.
There’s a natural creative flow between Dale Roberts and Cole that’s been apparent since day one. ‘If you see us work together, there’s such a vibe. We’ll start out talking about a water glass and end up discussing a cocktail that comes down from the ceiling and levitates,’ says Cole, who’s fired by a febrile imagination. ‘Luke’s just a brilliant chef and mentor.’ The head chef is supported by an exceptional team, including General Manager Markus Fiedler (ex The Test Kitchen), Sous-Chef Kyle Hendricks and Sommelier Nash Kanyangarara (notably from the Constance Moofushi Hotel in the Maldives).
Quick to shirk labels, Cole explains that Salsify is much more than its ‘root-to-leaf’ or ‘nose-to-tail’ pigeon-holing. ‘For example, I’m doing fire-roasted asparagus from Tulbagh and I’ve incorporated parts of the sunflower to create a hollandaise, miso, snow and crumb. It’s an asparagus dish, but it’s really about the life of a sunflower. Root-to-leaf is more about ticking boxes as opposed to discovering them, which is what I’m trying to accomplish here. I’m interested in the study of an ingredient; finding new perspectives on something we’ve seen 1 000 times.’ After working with Dale Roberts, this constant search for the new becomes the norm, he explains. ‘So even if we create an amazing dish, we don’t want to keep on repeating it. We’re never stagnant.’
Cole has a respect for sustainability and seasonal produce that was nurtured by his father, a retired fisherman who owned a commercial boat called Mammy Blue. ‘At Salsify, we get all our fish from Abalobi. There’s a story behind it and we know where it comes from,’ he says. The micro-seasons in the Cape also give the à la carte menu development its direction. Enter the enigmatic Ross the Forager, who regularly enlightens Cole about ingredients that are fleetingly in season, such as the nasturtium bud which features in his lamb tartare dish. ‘It keeps everything alive because it forces your hand to be creative,’ says Cole.
In terms of the interiors, Salsify is all about the unexpected. A historic building with a chequered past and classic opulence with a nod to the Victorian era, it’s strangely complemented by edgy graffiti art by Louis de Villiers, aka Skullboy. The tour de force forming a cohesive whole from these seemingly incongruent aspects is Dale Roberts’ partner and wife Sandalene, whose company Naturalis created the contemporary furniture and leather cladding for the walls.
‘The Roundhouse is a difficult space to work with because of its heritage status and unusual shape,’ she says. ‘Initially, I was quite demoralised. It had stippled walls, dead corners, weird dry walling and all these regulations.’ Adopting a shoot-from-the-hip approach, Sandalene usually begins a project by focusing on the walls. ‘But I couldn’t skim them, so I couldn’t use the textured products that I love,’ she says. ‘It all came crashing down. I’d lie awake at night and stress.’
A bolt of inspiration struck when New York-based De Villiers’ work, which she’d seen in Jo’burg, flashed through her mind. Serendipitously, he’d just landed in Jo’burg for his solo show. ‘We met up and the rest is history,’ she says.
And so the pieces began to fall into place. Through the art, they decided to tell the story of The Roundhouse and its rich history. Lord Somerset, Governor of the Cape from 1814 until 1826, used it as a hunting lodge and meeting place for liaisons with Dr Barry, a celebrated doctor who, it was discovered upon his death, was actually a woman. This inspired the 1,3m bronze sculpture by Otto du Plessis of Bronze Age, which takes pride of place in the restaurant’s centre. ‘The sculpture depicts Dr Barry in a yoga pose called The Tree with a female body and a male pheasant’s head, a nod to the building’s hunting past,’ says the artist.
Salsify, which seats 56, is poised to take Cape Town’s fine dining scene to another level. ‘We’re ready for something new and we think the city is ready too,’ says Dale Roberts. Adds Cole, ‘We’ve got Luke’s mentorship, but he’s said to us: “Guys, do you.” It’s amazing, it’s scary and it’s pretty cool.’
Salsify at The Roundhouse, Roundhouse Rd, Camps Bay, Cape Town. 021 010 6444
Text & Production: Fiona Davern Photographs: Adam Letch Assistant: Vanessa Letch