Yesterday I enjoyed an interesting lunch with restaurateur Michael Townsend at Chef’s Warehouse & Canteen, one of the most low key restaurant entrepreneurs in Cape Town but with a fast growing empire which has focused on fish to date. Now he is opening a steak restaurant in Muizenberg, and if it is successful there, he will bring it to the city centre.
I have only met Michael once before, on Kalk Bay’s main road outside his La Parada, when he called my name as I walked past, and did not react initially as I do not know anyone living on that side of Cape Town. He persisted, having recognised me from the blog and previous writing I did for the Weekend Argus Ad Monitor column which I created many years ago. We have become Facebook friends since. Yesterday morning he contacted me, requesting a meeting. I suggested Chef’s Warehouse & Canteen, having just written the review. He had arrived early, and bought seven books relating to meat from the shop, with help from Chef Liam Tomlin. What he wanted input on was the appointment of a group Executive Chef, who can look after all his restaurants (two Harbour House, five Lucky Fish, and two La Parada to date).
He told me that he once was a student in Fashion Design, including dresses and handbags, moving to Johannesburg to join a company called Brandcorp, of which he became a director, and when it was listed on the JSE, he made his first good money. He intimated that he cannot hold on to money for too long, and is not materialistic, always wanting to put it into a new business. His first money went into Harbour House in Kalk Bay, previously called Canteen Tequila, of which he changed the name when they opened about 15 years ago. It did not run very well in early days, he admitted, and he sent his then girlfriend to work for Chef Franck Dangereux while he was still at La Colombe, so that she could learn from him. Things improved from then onwards. Michael is one of four sons and two daughters of Trevor Townsend, himself an entrepreneur who also cut his teeth in the fashion business, and moved across to cheese production when he married Michael’s mother (a Barlow), leading him to start the Simonsberg cheese factory. Michael’s brother James worked for the business for a while, but now is a buyer. His sister Melissa has done most of his outlets’ graphic design. Architect brother David will travel to Spain soon, to return with good Spanish food ideas, especially related to charcuterie, and to bring back a Spanish chef for La Parada. He plans to franchise Lucky Fish around the country. He has an in-house interior design studio which designs the new restaurants. Michael admits to being poor at Social Media, although he can Facebook! I learnt that he is a Santana fan, with his dad, and they loved the concert at GrandWest.
The steak restaurant will open on the beach road in Muizenberg, in a building for which he has negotiated a good deal. I suspect that Michael no longer has to arm wrestle with landlords, and that they call him to invite him to open up a restaurant. He raved about his good relationship with his landlords, who foot a large part of the interior design costs, and he gives them a percentage of the income in return, leading to good landlord/tenant relationships, and helps his cashflow. He has an interesting laid-back approach to his business, not focusing on the detail, for which he appoints others, including family members, but rather having the big vision, and always getting restless, looking for something new to open. At the steak restaurant he will offer a steak for about R85, everything else being charged as extras, which can be shared by the table.
It was a very busy day at Chef’s Warehouse & Canteen yesterday, the south easter forcing most patrons to sit inside. We enjoyed the breeziness outside, and saw a steady coming and going of patrons, and little of Chef Liam, who was stuck in the kitchen doing all the food preparation for his eager patrons. We saw Neil Grant of Burrata, and Michael ‘copy-and-paste’ Olivier wearing a Klein Constantia branded hat to a meeting with Vins d’Orrance owner Christophe Durand, who has an office in Heritage Square around the corner from the restaurant!
We ordered the Tapas platter, eight dishes shared for R220, the list of dishes being completely different to that of ten days ago: garlic chilli labneh with tomato; Bouillabaisse; lamb fillet with hummus; pig head schnitzel with quail egg, which tasted amazing but had an off-putting name; salt and pepper squid which was excellent, especially with its dipping sauce; a bland mushroom risotto; braised oxtail with gnocchi; and seared tuna.
Michael tried to get a word with Chef Liam about his latest project after lunch, and we agreed to meet again, to catch up. Michael feels geographically disadvantaged in living on the other side of the mountain, with everything happening in the city centre, reading Eat Out, Food24, TripAdvisor and our blog to keep up to date about his own restaurants specifically, and the restaurant industry in general. Michael Townsend does not seek publicity, shies away from meeting journalists, and leads a low key life focused on his businesses, family, and friends. He is a person to watch, already talking about setting up a guest house type hotel in the V&A Waterfront.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage