Isla Cooks Cape Town

by Tia

At the age of three, Isla Rechner was obsessed with a cooking show that featured a “lovely woman with a broad Scottish accent”.

While still in her pre-teens, she started dabbling in the kitchen, gaining more confidence with each passing year, and in her teens and throughout her 20s, she hosted many a dinner party, testing out recipes on friends and family.

Originally from Kloof in KwaZulu Natal, Rechner qualified as a journalist, before embarking on her tertiary qualifications in hospitality at Capsicum Culinary Studio’s Durban campus, under Chef Eric Beruiller, from where she gained a patisserie diploma and was awarded graduate of the year in 2010.

She honed her skills even further when she started running a pastry stall at the Shongweni Farmers Market as well as opening a private catering business in the Durban area.

In 2014 with the itch to travel too strong to resist, Rechner made the big move to London, working first at one of acclaimed chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s eateries, before being hired as a pastry chef at the King’s Cross branch of Granger & Co. It was not long before she was promoted to Group Pastry Chef for all four branches of Granger & Co a role which she says she “utterly relished”.

The advent of the Covid pandemic and a bad case of homesickness saw Rechner return to South Africa at the end of 2020. She is now engaged, the mother of twins and residing in Sea Point, Cape Town. But her passion for baking and cooking still runs deep and she continues to practice and refine her culinary talent much to the good fortune of the Mother City residents who can now utilise her services and taste her cooking and baking.

Although always on the go, we managed to get her in one place long enough to ask her a few questions:

The last time we spoke was in 2020 when you were Group Pastry Chef for Bill Granger’s Granger & Co restaurants in London. What was your experience there?

My overall experience at Granger & Co was a really positive one, being there for as many years as I was. It truly became a family set up and I developed close bonds with many of the chefs and waiters across all the restaurants. Head office also had an incredible group of people that I am still in contact with. As with any job there were highs and lows. The highs included my ability to have a great amount of creative input with the pastry displays, the people and the buzz you get from a busy service. The lows, understandably, included the advent of Covid that rocked our industry to its core.

When and why did you leave?

The pandemic forced us all to stay at home and this gave me the time to think about what I truly wanted in the long term. As much as I loved London and my job, I felt really homesick, and I left the UK in December 2020 to come back to South Africa. Initially, it was only meant to be for a few months to recalibrate, but three and a half years later I am still here and loving it.

What are three key things you learned during your time in London?

I would say my skill set regarding managing people was a great education; time management, which is vital for a chef is something I picked up due to the high numbers of covers we would do during a shift; also different applications as well as interesting ingredients also had an influence. Before Granger & Co, my knowledge of Asian ingredients was somewhat limited, but it has to be in my top three favourite cuisines now. And finally, the art of simple yet striking plating. Bill really created dishes that were the epitome of sunshine food.

Can you tell us about your journey since leaving Granger & Co

I started my time back home initially in Durban where I was an independent consultant for a few restaurants. I also got involved in food pop-ups at local restaurants, private cheffing in the Durban area and I worked at a private game lodge for a wonderful Danish family. In August 2023, my fiancé and I relocated to Cape Town, where I carried on my culinary journey. I also gave birth to twins at the end of last year.

Apart from the fulltime job of motherhood, how are you keeping busy?

I have continued to do my private cheffing as well as a few other enterprises that are currently in the works, which include freezer meals and desserts. I am also creating content for my Instagram page @islacookscapetown! Cape Town is a foodie hub so there are so many avenues I can go down to flex my culinary muscles. I am also planning a recipe book with meals that have been inspired by my travels and local experiences.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting a career in the hospitality industry?

Be a culinary sponge, read as much material you can lay your hands on regarding food, and delve into cuisine that is totally different to what you are used to. Travel will also help with that because as you immerse yourself in different cultures, food is inevitably tied in with it and you will be become a more rounded chef. Also prepare for hard work! If you love it, it doesn’t really feel like work but sometimes you can have long shifts and that can be very tiring. I think the industry is really striving for more balanced hours, but it will never be a career that is a 9-to-5 from Monday to Friday.

Who has been your greatest mentor and why?

My pastry lecturer at Capsicum, Eric Beruiller, a gregarious Frenchman that really took me under his wing, teaching and nurturing my talent. Second would have to be my first head chef at Granger & Co, Mark Welch. I had never really experienced the fast pace of a service kitchen until I started working for him. He showed me how to lead and how to cope while still keeping a happy demeanour and he became a great friend. It would be remiss of me not to mention the group executive chef at Granger & Co, Anthony Ekizian, another Frenchman. He was a true inspiration and mentor when I was promoted to head office. I really grew in my role and as a chef due to his guidance.  

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