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The winner of this year’s Eat Out BIRKENSTOCK Chefs’ Chef Award went to Ryan Cole, head chef and co-owner of Salsify at the Roundhouse in Cape Town. In celebration of Ryan’s win, we caught up with him to discuss what philosophies and milestones have shaped him into the chef he is today.
Ryan’s first taste of the culinary world came at the tender age of four, through popular cooking shows on TV. “It was just normal people cooking, but it was the creativity, diverse ingredients, and exotic nature of the industry that captivated me,” says Ryan. Job shadowing at the Vineyard Hotel during high school was his first experience of the chaos of professional kitchens and solidified his passion for the fast-paced realm of cheffing, setting off what would be an illustrious career in cooking.
From there, Ryan’s only trajectory was up, and he went on to work at two Michelin-starred The Square in London before making a name for himself on home soil at La Motte and The Test Kitchen and, eventually, opening Salsify. “Opening Salsify was a huge milestone,” says Ryan. “We achieved a top 10 ranking in its first year, which was a significant moment.” Post-COVID especially, these achievements mean much more, but Ryan doesn’t let them define him. “They’re always appreciated, but at the end of the day, our biggest achievement is that our guests love what we do,” he says.
Considering the accolades Salsify has received for the second year running, Ryan is doing something right, both in the kitchen and out. Compassion and kindness run from the back to the front of house, with sustainability at the core of what they do. “[It’s] about what was here, and what is here now, and how we can ensure that there’s still abundance for the future.” This ‘comprehensive mindset’, as he calls it, extends to how he runs his team, too. “We emphasise a cohesive team culture where both kitchen and front-of-house roles are equally valued.” Where most chefs think of sustainability only in terms of ingredients, Ryan takes that a step further for the betterment of his restaurant. “Sustainability, in this context, goes beyond what’s on the plate, aiming to ensure that the business is well balanced, has endurance and is built for the long run,” he says.
This outlook has undeniably earned Ryan respect from his restaurant staff, as well as from the wider industry. Ever the ‘chef’s chef’ he says that genuine connections with fellow chefs and restaurateurs are “paramount” and believes firmly in being a cheerleader for the industry. “As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”. The stronger each individual restaurant is, the stronger the restaurant industry will be, and we all benefit,” he explains.
Looking forward, the industry, and its future, are bright because of chefs like Ryan Cole. Leading by example, fostering meaningful relationships and embracing compassion in everything he does has served him well. His advice to aspiring chefs underpins this ethos. “Being a chef is fundamentally about serving people; we’re in hospitality, we feed people,” he says. “Embrace the fact that you are in the business of people, and remember, it starts and ends with you.”