At narrow, communal wooden tables peppered with diners, plates are being shared with ‘oohs’ of delight. Most eyes are focused on arresting, diverse tapas bites, but the close proximity of diners introduces banter, fun and the clinking of glasses.
Decayed brick walls support shelves of noodles, imported Valrhona chocolate and unusual spices for sale. In the background, a tiny kitchen is filled with white-jacketed movement. Liam Tomlin – Chef and Owner of Chef’s Warehouse mans the pass and finishes artful plates. A deli fridge opposite opens to home-made pasta, stocks and preserved products for sale.
A connected second room sells kitchenware and books for cooks. This is Chefs Warehouse & Canteen. Outside, beyond the Canteen’s terrace tables, a former wine cellar on the pavement houses Street Food on Bree. Here, passers-by collect breakfast pastries and Deluxe coffee from a hatch, or move inside for lunch on the move.
Before Cape Town, Dublin-born Tomlin and British wife Jan ran one of Australia’s top restaurants, Banc, awarded Restaurant of the Year in 2001 in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Food Guide’. Tomlin also judged SA’s Top 10 restaurants as an Eat Out Guide panellist last year. After sitting through one too many tasting menus, he was inspired to go simpler, offering consistency and value in a casual environment with flavourful food. Chefs Warehouse opened in January 2014. You can’t reserve seats, and tables fill fast for lunch or tapas suppers. “I’m very hands-on,” says Tomlin. “I can’t expect my guys to work 16-hourdays if I don’t do it myself. There are dedicated people handling both tapas and street food and I jump between the two.” Tomlin’s exacting standards and modern take on tapas has earned Chefs Warehouse & Canteen a solid reputation in a short time. A round tray of eight dishes typically serves two, and the contents span Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines to Peruvian, Italian or French classics on a given day. There are always three fish, two meat and two vegetarian dishes. Plating and skilful details elevate simple bites to sensory surprises.
When he lived in Australia, Tomlin travelled to Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia. “I loved that the hero was food on the street, not a US$3 000 chair in a fine-dining restaurant. Street food is not about comfort or service. It’s about food being cooked to order, as fresh as can be,” he says. “I like that food in Asia and the Middle East is shared. It’s the way I like to cook and eat.” For Tomlin, getting back into a professional kitchen is exhilarating and he’s enjoying the positive feedback. “I’m cooking some of the best food I’ve ever done. It’s still fine dining, without the expensive glassware, R500 plates, or R100 000 wine cellar. My techniques, philosophy and search for the best ingredients haven’t changed. What’s coming out of the kitchen is as good as it always was, if not finer. The difference is we’re giving diners value, so they don’t pay for those tablecloths, fancy wine lists and sommeliers. I don’t want a restaurant that’s only for special occasions.” Tomlin’s newest cookbook Tapas includes recipes and photographs themed around a day in the life of Chefs Warehouse & Canteen. It’s due on shelves in October 2014.
For Liam Tomlin’s smoked ham hock, potato, avocado and onion salad with mustard-seed dressing recipe click here.
Chefs Warehouse & Canteen: lunch and tapas weekdays, 12pm – 8pm; tapas only on Saturday until 2:30pm. Street Food on Bree: weekdays, 7am – 3pm. 92 Bree Street, Cape Town; 021-422-0128; chefswarehouse.co.za