Today we celebrated the life of one of our country’s most creative and maverick chefs, Bruce Robertson having passed away suddenly of leukemia on Monday, only four days after he received the diagnosis. Hundreds of restaurant industry friends, family, and past patrons gathered at the False Bay Rugby Club in Constantia, to pay tribute to the happy-go-lucky man.
A special marquee had been erected, with benches, a table with eats brought along by the foodies, and lots of wines supplied by Cederberg (he only served this brand ‘with altitude and attitude‘ at his former The Boat House, and most recent The Flagship), Spier (where his close friend Tony Romer-Lee is involved), Villiera MCC, and Flagstone (winemaker Bruce Jack and Chef Bruce jointly made a wine called Bruce’s Juice at one stage). On the marquee walls were blown up black and white photographs of Chef Bruce, including one of him dressed in drag! There were so many familiar persons attending, including Neil Grant, close friends Sue, Andrew, and Sarah Baker, Chef Peter Tempelhoff and his team from The Greenhouse, Twelve Apostles’ Horst Frehse, Lew Rood, Annette and Jeremy Nel, Chef Pete and Elize Goffe-Wood, Debbie Hall, Platter’s publisher Jean-Pierre Rossouw, Melvyn Minnaar, Arco Laarman, Cape Grace Chefs Malika van Reenen and Lorraine Meaney, John and Lynne Ford, Pamela McOnie, Porky Hefer, and Chef Bruce’s dog was there too. Only a handful of men wore black suits, the rest of the attendees wearing casual clothing, Chef Bruce would have approved, being the ‘Barefoot Chef’, who liked wearing a white button-down shirt, jeans, and no shoes!
Romer-Lee acted as MC, and thanked everyone for attending on behalf of the Robertson family. He read a poem which embodied Chef Bruce. Some came from afar to attend, including Chef Bruce’s partner Nicky Williams, but his brother Ryan had got stuck in Amsterdam, and could not attend. He thanked everyone that had made the memorial possible. While Romer-Lee was the GM of the Cape Grace, Chef Bruce applied for the chef job, and had to do a test meal. He was told that he had the job, on condition he shaved off his beard, according to hotel regulations. Chef Bruce told them he would not do it, and the hotel regulations re beards were summarily changed! He did not respect authority, and had a naughty streak, reflecting in his love for dressing up. His restaurant walls were full of industry accolades, and a short while ago his The Flagship was rated number one restaurant in Cape Town on TripAdvisor. Also, the latest issue of USA magazine Black Ink rated The Flagship as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world. Patrons eating at his restaurant arrived as strangers and left as friends. (Chef Bruce was named one of the 5 best chefs in Cape Town by Travel + Leisure in September, and on the day he passed away The Flagship received a 3* rating in the 2015 Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide). ‘Life won’t be the same without him’, Romer-Lee concluded.
Chef Bruce’s dad David Robertson thanked all for attending too, and spoke gently and proudly about his son, and said it was comforting to see so many attending the memorial, showing how precious Chef Bruce was to all. He had an ‘unabiding love and zest for life‘, he said. His sense of humour was enjoyed by all, and despite being very ill, he managed to make the nurses in the ward fall over themselves with laughter. He shared how tough it was to give Bruce a hiding as a child, finding a way to cover his behind with hands and feet. His career path led him from a stint in the Navy, to studying graphic design, and practising it at Hunt Lascaris. He headed for London, not flying, but traveling through Africa, cycling the last part. He told his dad that he wanted to cook good food, but the only meal he had made for his family had been a burnt braai! He walked into The Ritz London, and asked for a job. He was told that it would only be possible if his parents paid for him. The family did not pay for his costs, and Chef Bruce got a job at the hotel kitchen anyway! He loved people, but no one more than his daughter Jemima. He had no negative thoughts about others, and was touched by everyone who met him. He was a perfectionist, and could not tolerate mediocrity. He was all about ‘brand Bruce Robertson’.
Andrew Baker has been a very close friend, and spent part of Saturday with Chef Bruce at the hospital. He praised Chef Bruce’s brilliant marketing skills, using Ali Kreukel as a marketing mnemonic for his business. He was always innovative, creative, exciting, and a marketing whizz. Admin was not Chef Bruce’s strength, and margins and mark-ups were not as important to him as having happy patrons enjoying his offering. Andrew told the story of Chef Bruce being asked to bring a cheese platter to a function of friends, and with his typical humour he arrived with jars of Melrose cheese, and these were the centrepiece of the food table today! Andrew promised to take good care of Jemima. Jemima’s mother Sam Pugh shared how much her daughter and Chef Bruce adored each other. She did say that Chef Bruce was ‘useless at making Durban curry’.
Chef Margot Janse of The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français was also a close friend. She had a ‘dialogue’ with Chef Bruce, and said that she last saw him two months ago at The Flagship. He loved to tease, and he told the other guests that Chef Margot was opening a restaurant in Simonstown, a suburb which he loved. He could make her laugh out loud. He specialised in fresh sea-foraged food, and used his design background in his plating. She said he shaped ‘culinary South Africa’ at The Showroom, and caused a shock with the pickled animals on display inside his tiny Bunny Chow outlet on Long Street. Then he guided American gourmet tourists as the African Gastronaut, cooking amazing meals in areas without electricity or other facilities, having to fly in supplies via helicopter or getting his staff to carry them up mountains, including the Cederberg. He realised the need to settle down and be with his beloved Jemima, and opened The Boat House in a friend’s holiday house in Scarborough two years ago. Earlier this year he opened The Flagship in Simonstown. He had found his happy spot at the sea, Chef Margot said. She shared that they often joked about her son Thomas marrying his daughter Jemima. He left the world with a bang, just as he would have planned it for himself, she said. She reminded all of us to live life to the full, making every second count.
School friend Natalie shared her life with Chef Bruce from early days, read by her husband Paul Rudolph. Chef Bruce had bad eating habits, drinking lots of black coffee with far too much sugar. He pressurised himself in his creations, and struggled to switch off. He was ‘obsessed with symmetry’, and I recalled his ‘sideplates’ created with tiny tiles at The Boat House when I went there to review the restaurant. He was a gentleman through and through, and she saluted him.
Chef Bruce’s partner Nicky is setting up a Foundation in honour of Chef Bruce, and asked all who want to contribute to go to Chef Bruce’s Facebook page and record the interest to participate. The formal proceedings ended off with a video presentation by his mate Anton Crone from advertising days, being a collage of photographs, using the bouncy ‘Best Day of my Life’! The video has been be posted on Chef Bruce’s Facebook page.
POSTSCRIPT 9/11: The Sunday Times wrote a moving tribute to Chef Bruce today.