Recently we had the pleasure of sitting down with Durban’s culinary delight Marcelle Roberts, whose reputation as a chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur is far-reaching. Follow along in this special Women’s day feature –An Interview with Rockstar Restaurateur Marcelle Roberts, who shares her insight into the hospitality industry, her growth in the industry and what it takes to be a success.
GAAP: Can you give us a little history of how you got where you are today?
MR: After school, I studied at Christina Martin. I did the chef course there. And from there on, I spent a year in the UK, the Channel Islands, just cooking, cooking, cooking in different restaurants. When I came back to South Africa, worked at the Tala Game Reserve for a bit, worked in a restaurant in Pietermaritzburg and then got the job as head chef at Cafe 99 in 2001. That’s where I met my husband, Sean. We subsequently bought the business from André in 2004 and then also opened a little pizza place in Davonport Road, called Pizzetta. Around the time when I fell pregnant with our first child, we sold Pizzetta and opened Unity and S43, which was just when the craft beer scene had exploded. And then COVID hit and now we’re back down to one restaurant!
GAAP: It’s great that you managed to consolidate everything to keep your business going.
MR: Especially in these times, I think. A friend of mine owns a large venue in Cape Town and they have still not been able to open. Focussing on one smaller restaurant is probably the best decision that we could have made for us. I think that this (Unity) is the best-sized restaurant to have at the moment. The smaller the better.
GAAP: I love the fact that you have retained some of Café 99 by incorporating a few of the menu items into your menu here.
MR: Yes, even though the atmosphere of the two restaurants (Café 99 and Unity) are very different, we still have some ’99 regulars! It is also about offering people a wider selection. I moved one of my chefs down from Café 99 to Unity and she knew all the dishes, so it worked out perfectly.
GAAP: At what point, did you start transitioning from chef to running the business or do you still manage to get stuff in the kitchen?
MR: I still do, but not that much. I’m more into teaching at the moment. Some of my staff have been with me for a very long time. And just empowering them and teaching them and I think it’s just kind of a gradual transition where you start teaching rather than doing everything yourself. I’ve managed to refine a system of writing my recipes and teaching the team how to do it. Also, when our long-standing front-of-house manager left about a year before COVID, when many restaurants were already struggling, I decided not to replace him. And that’s more-or-less when I moved out of the kitchen and got involved with the front-of-house and helping out there.
GAAP: Your social media marketing is on fire. Do you do it yourself as well?
MR: (Laughs) No, A friend of ours does it. Liam. We send him the content and he comes up with the witty bits and the videos and all of that stuff. He’s brilliant. He manages to come up with the funniest, craziest but engaging content.
GAAP: That’s it. The content is really engaging. It provides that something extra that pulls people into the restaurant, which really is important for restaurant businesses at the moment.
MR: Yes, and also trying to keep it positive. We appreciate the continuous support, be it is important to us that people must come here because they want to at the end of the day. We enjoy what we do and aim for our social media to reflect that. So hopefully that is enough for people to come and have a good meal or have a good time. Social media is great for promoting upcoming events. Restaurant Week, for example, is coming up again next month. It will actually be running the entire month. It’s actually a really nice concept. We get a lot of newcomers coming through that platform because it’s so big. It’s been really good with generating foot traffic.
GAAP: When you and your husband acquired Cafe 99 what was your biggest challenge?
MR: (Laughs) Telling people that it’s okay that André (Schubert) is not here anymore, ha ha ha. People came into Café ’99 to see Andre. He was there 24/7 and would sit and chat with people for hours and hours. When I came to Café ’99, André, Martin Lombard and Marco Nicho were the godfathers and rockstars of the restaurant scene. They were such mentors. And they were best friends. So, that literally was the biggest challenge. Telling people that it’s okay and that despite our young age (we were only about 23 or 24), we are super passionate. That was the main challenge. The other great challenge was joining a kitchen brigade that had been there for years, since 1999. So, to try to get in there, win their trust, work with them, tell them what to do. A lot of them were older than me.
GAAP: Did you always plan on becoming a chef?
MR: (Laughs) No. I was supposed to go to Stellenbosch to study music. But after years of violin lessons and playing the piano all the way up until matric, I think I was burnt out from all the practising. It came to a point where it was really hectic, and I had to give up playing sport in school. By the time that it was the December holidays after matric, I had decided against studying music. My mother was furious, but both my parents came around eventually. I had always loved hospitality, particularly cooking, so applied at Christina Martin and went for an interview. They only had 36 students and it was very difficult to get in there. But it was all meant to be – somebody dropped out, so a position became available. I am very happy that I stuck to my guns, because clearly this was meant to be.
GAAP: So, as an artist, you change your medium from music to food?
MR: Yes, totally. It’s a creative outlet. And I’m a sociable person. I like people around me. It’s the perfect environment to be in.
GAAP: Is there a particular memory from your childhood that you can pin as the moment you fell in love with cooking?
MR: Well, I grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. My family weren’t great foodies, but my gran and mom were really good cooks. My grandparents lived next door and my aunt and uncle were down the road. Sunday lunches were a massive family affair. When I was about twelve I started making desserts for those family lunches. In high school, I started baking cakes to sell at boarding school. So, I think that’s kind of where it came from. There’s something very special about being social around food. I have these amazing memories of my cousins and my grandparents and my granny always baking biscuits and doing it with her. Yes, I think it’s the love aspect with it.
GAAP: If you could do anything else now and branch off into a completely different career, is there anything else that you would like to do?
MR: I have thought of it. Especially during hard times, like with COVID. But I don’t think so. I’m quite happy. I have started branching into the consulting work side of restaurants. I opened the restaurant for someone in December. And I’m busy working on a project now in Umhlanga. I’ve done a couple of menu changes now also in the last few months for people. I mean, it’s the same but it’s different. And I think if I had a lot of money, I just love to do charity work and help people.
GAAP: How do you find the balance between working and your family?
MR: It’s hard but you make it work. I have the most amazing nanny, who’s been with us for a long time. Sean and I have also adapted the way we work together. Were used to working together every night before we had children, but then got into a routine of alternating when they arrived. I have also learned to let go and to delegate. I’m very much a hands-on mom as well. My youngest son is such a chilled kid and I think it is because I came back to work in the kitchen with him in a pouch. Both my children have spent a lot of time with us in our restaurants and I hope that it’s shown them the value of hard work. They enjoy coming here.
GAAP: Do you have any advice for young aspiring chefs?
MR: Yes, They must never give up. It is hard work, you must just be prepared to work hard and stay inspired. The most important thing is to keep up with trends. Things are forever changing – food goes hand in hand with fashion, with interior design, all of those kinds of things, they all change at the same time. And I think restaurants are changing a lot at the moment, with the way that they run with this pandemic, because it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Ghost kitchens are a big thing now. I’ve got my little Poke Bowl ghost kitchen in here that we started. It is also important for young chefs to learn the importance of not just working in the kitchen, but also to get involved with the front-of-house, learning how to run a business. You need to have that dream of owning your own business. And it’s totally achievable. Also, cleaning (laughs). It may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but I’ve seen so many students coming in and they think people are going to clean up after them. As a chef, it literally is almost 75% of your job to be clean and now more than ever with Corona. But yes, I think it’s a very tough time now to inspire young chefs because of all the restaurants that are closing down. But things go in cycles. I do believe that we are at the cusp of change. And like I said, restaurants are changing the way we’re running, these things are changing. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s going to be a lot more intimate. And people are also going to have a lot more own, private functions, private cheffing. Being clever with setting up businesses where you don’t have high rentals, like ghost kitchens, delivery services and chef dinner boxes, with recipes and ingredients already prepared, have all become incredibly popular. There are actually quite a few new platforms that are coming about. Online ordering, for example, has become increasingly popular, with so many people working from home. Things are going digital and we just need to embrace going forward.