Cafe 1999’s chef has opened a new Durban eatery named Unity and is contemplating even further expansion.
Café 1999, Silvervause Centre, corners Silverton and Vause Roads, Berea, Durban. Call 031-202-3406.
Marcelle Roberts is all ease and charm, and watching her happily ensconced in her home kitchen is like viewing a well-choreographed routine. With her restaurant Café 1999 going through a peak period as well as being in the final stages of catering for a highprofile wedding in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, pressure seems to feed, rather than fluster, Marcelle.
Her Berea home is not far from the restaurant. Originally a hotel, the building was converted into roomy apartments and the pillars outside the lounge herald the original entrance, while the urban garden is dwarfed by enormous palm trees. The black and white open-plan kitchen is striking and segues seamlessly into the lounge. The presence of a piano is a reminder of how lucky Durban’s culinary crowd is not to have lost Marcelle’s talent to the ivories. “I always enjoyed cooking but have played the piano since the age of four and was on my way to study music in Stellenbosch. After school, I decided against it and managed to get into chef’s school at the last minute,” she says.
After completing her studies at the Christina Martin School of Food & Wine,Marcelle says it was her first job at a restaurant called Christie’s in Guernsey that had the most profound influence on her as a chef. “It was an incredibly busy bistro and fine-dining restaurant operating from one kitchen. I was the youngest and the only female. One chef said to me: ‘If you last two weeks, you’ll be one of the boys’. Those words gave me the determination to push through. Besides that, we were spoiled with fresh seafood delivered daily. I definitely developed a passion for cooking fresh fish and shellfish at Christie’s.”
Marcelle’s destiny has been closely linked to vibey Café 1999. She joined the restaurant as chef in 2001 and met her husband Sean when he joined the front-of-house team. The dynamic pair bought it from original owner André Schubert in 2005, and their passion and dedication has seen it remain popular. In 2006 they saw a gap in the market for a pizza restaurant and opened Pizzetta in Glenwood. After a two-year stint they sold the business, but last year they again succumbed to the lure of creating a new restaurant and brand, although Marcelle remains in the Café 1999 kitchen.
The original concept was a bar which served food (Sean has even developed his own beer called Cowbell in conjunction with a local boutique brewery) but, with the high foodie expectations associated with the couple, it evolved into a laidback eatery offering anything from fabulous burgers, to salt and pepper squid, roasted marrow bones and homemade pies.
Cooking is the axis around which the Roberts’ home revolves. “We like to have friends over for long Sunday lunches. I do the cooking, and Sean does the cleaning up and organises the wine. We’re a good team,” she says.
Her advice to home entertainers is not to overcomplicate things and to prepare in advance, both of which apply to her chosen starter of a rustic beetroot tart with crispy goat’s cheese medallions, onion marmalade and rocket. Marcelle loves the combination of the earthy beetroot and sweet marmalade teamed with the pastry’s crunchy texture. It also has the flexibility to be prepared as individual portions or as a large tart.
Marcelle has become something of a local legend for her innovative ways with super-fresh fish and, in particular, tuna. “Fish is always a hit; everyone loves tuna. It’s the best-selling dish at Café 1999. I like making fresh pasta and any fish or seafood. Cooking fish is the easiest thing in the world because the less you put with it, the better.” She has opted for an Eastern interpretation for the main course of tuna, showcasing its versatility and ease of preparation.
With the imminent arrival of her second child, you’d be forgiven for assuming Marcelle would consider slowing down. “I used to think that when I was 30 I wouldn’t be wearing a chef’s jacket anymore,” she muses. “I’m past that age now but I’ve made peace with that … it’s just what I want to do.”