Award-winning Umhlanga chef Kayla-Ann Osborn is breaking boundaries as she heads up one of the most sophisticated and contemporary restaurants in the country.
When The Chef’s Table was named the 15th best restaurant in the country at the end of last year, executive head chef Kayla-Ann’s dream became a reality. As the youngest nominee and with hers the only KZN restaurant to make it to the Top 20, Kayla has more than proven herself as a skilled culinary mastermind. And all of this before she is even 30 years old.
Situated in the centre of the Umhlanga village, the 120-seater open-kitchen restaurant is ‘chef-run’, which means that Kayla-Ann heads up every section of the restaurant, including overseeing 12 qualified chefs and 20 interns.
Originally from Nelspruit, Kayla-Ann and her family moved to a banana and macadamia nut farm on the South Coast of KZN when she was five years old. And even at that age, Kayla says, her love and fascination for food was already evident. “The first thing I learnt to cook was my grandmother’s spaghetti bolognaise and that exact recipe, which I still use today, is actually appearing in this month’s Woolworths Taste magazine,” she laughs.
After school Kayla studied at the 1000 Hills Chef School under Chef Dixi, who she says was very tough on her students. “She was hard core and expected nothing less than the best from us. Having spent more than 30 years in the kitchen in what was a predominantly male-dominated industry, we had a lot to learn from her.”
Because the course was very practical, Kayla-Ann says that by the time she left the school she was able to comfortably run an entire section in a kitchen on her own. Her first job was at The Selborne Hotel on the South Coast, where she ended up being the most senior person in the kitchen. “We made all the food for the hotel, the catering and conferencing. It was crazy, but probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” she says.
But Kayla-Ann’s true passion was fine dining cuisine and, after a year, she moved to Pietermaritzburg where she became head chef at the well-known Traffords restaurant. When the restaurant closed Kayla-Ann was referred by a friend to restauranteurs Sean Gray and Soti Sonitis (who also own Circus Circus) to interview for the head chef position at their soon-to-open restaurant, The Chef’s Table.
“The interview last three hours and they really drilled me. It was clear that this was not a normal executive chef position and because it was to be a ‘chef-run’ restaurant, it was also a management role. Not to mention the fact that it would be an open kitchen with a menu that changed daily!”
But, after cooking for the owners, Kayla-Ann got the job. “To be honest I had no idea what I was doing! But they hired me and I was given the amazing opportunity of being able to set up an entire restaurant and kitchen from scratch. Not many chefs get to do that in their careers.”
Her goal, Kayla says, was always for The Chef’s Table to be named one of the top 20 restaurants in the country. “It’s amazing really. Most of the other restaurants on the list are 30 to 40 seaters, but we are a 120-seater and our entire team is very young – we are all under the age of 30.”
The Chef’s Table remains one of the most popular dining destinations in KZN and, apart from the great vibe and exciting open plan kitchen, it’s the food that ultimately keeps people coming back.
“Our food is most definitely produce-inspired. We work with fantastic suppliers who are on hand and available whenever I need them. Try as we may to be inspired by other things, the best inspiration always comes from the produce.”
Unlike most chefs, Kayla-Ann loves engaging with her customers. “It’s one of the things I love most about my job. Working in an open kitchen has changed my view on restaurants and I could not imagine ever going back to a closed kitchen.”
Despite her amazing achievements, Kayla is not one to take all the limelight and says she is privileged to work with a great team. “I have been incredibly spoilt by my bosses who have given me the opportunity to travel extensively and eat in London, Italy, France and Spain (all in the name of market research obviously!). Throughout my travels though, I’ve always found the most impressive and memorable experiences are ones with chefs who are full of humility. It’s taught me that if you do what you genuinely love – cook for your customers – the rest will follow.”
Text: Leah Shone | Photography: Chris Allan Photo / www.chrisallanphoto.co.za | Hair and makeup: Volenti Laurentina / [email protected]