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Cape Town chef-patron Liam Tomlin on his next move

by Ilana Sharlin-Stone 31 May 2024
Liam Tomlin - Claire Gunn

In a bold move, Liam Tomlin has closed The Bailey on Bree Street and is reinventing the space. He tells us more about his vision and mission.

You could say chef and serial restaurant innovator Liam Tomlin is the Godfather of Bree Street. Since opening Chefs Warehouse & Canteen 10 years ago with wife/business partner Jan, he’s seen it all: from an emerging hip restaurant street to the pandemic’s empty streets to today’s lineup of construction cranes and big residential builds. On the cusp of opening three new operations on Bree St – a revival of the original Chefs Warehouse & Canteen; Merchant, a restaurant that celebrates local food producers; and Room 91, a private events space – he shares his thoughts on the Cape Town CBD’s evolution and what would make the Mother City an even better city.

What was Bree Street like when you and Jan first opened Chefs Warehouse & Canteen 10 years ago?

It was exciting to be part of what felt like a very cool emerging neighbourhood, a kind of cultural hub full of energy. Back then, it was just George Jardine of Jardine Restaurant, who was the first top-end chef to open on Bree. At the time Jason (Lilley, now owner of Jason Bakery) was working with him. Then Jason opened a tiny hole-in-the-wall bakery on the side, and the rest is history.

Chefs Warehouse
A tapas spread from the original Chefs Warehouse & Canteen menu.

How have things changed for you?

In the beginning we thought Chefs Warehouse & Canteen would be a casual lunch spot, cookery school and retail shop. We ran out of space though, quickly dropped the cooking school idea and it took off beyond what we imagined. Over time, we expanded into a restaurant group, but back then it was just me and Jan there every day, running service. Our staff was a small family. Since then, new generations have come up and with that our roles have changed. Youngsters who worked with us are now killing it: Nate Coe (Thali), Jason Kosman (The Pot Luck Club), John van Zyl (The Melting Pot), and Marco Cardoso (De Eetkamer) to name a few.

Let’s talk about the overall metamorphosis of Bree Street.

After the initial years of growth, Bree Street went through tough times brought on by Covid-19. We lost some great restaurants (including La Tête) and some of the feeling of safety businesses relied on. I feel the tide is turning again, and we’re entering another great growth phase. Demographics have changed, and the new younger crowd we’re seeing needs to be taken seriously for operators to succeed. 

I’m bullish about Cape Town. There is so much big residential development happening. It’s the density we’ve been lacking. We need people living in the city centre to make it work, and they need to feel safe to walk and park. 

Liam Tomlin
Renowned Cape Town Chef-patron Liam Tomlin at work.

You are about to open three new venues on Bree Street. What was the vision there?

We are always trying to make what we have better and stay fresh and relevant. We’re going back to our roots with a reprise of the original Chefs Warehouse & Canteen in look and spirit. We’ll be championing local producers at Merchant, and opening Room 91, an events space for the CBD to meet what we see as a growing need.

What’s missing on Bree Street?

A more cosmopolitan scene … a mix of quality independent shops and sophisticated global brands. And art galleries.

Chefs Warehouse
Salt and pepper squid with chilli pineapple and caramelised ginger (left) & Risotto (right), two classic Liam Tomlin dishes from Chefs Warehouse & Canteen.

What do you love about cities?

The vibe. I’m a city person. I love getting up early in the morning and watching a city come to life, especially in Europe, where I’ll do an early morning recce of a market, or just nurse a coffee and take it all in.

What do we need more of in Cape Town?

We have one of the best cities in the world, but we need to properly address the limitations of our “season” and sell Cape Town 365 days a year. We need a gathering of creatives to talk about how we can attract people here in winter. We need to plan more big events like the Investec Cape Town Art Fair and Mining Indaba to take place in winter. More international airlines and flights servicing the city. More travel packages designed around winter. With the great value we offer, why not come for a restaurant tour … get into all the places you can’t in summer.

Chef’s Warehouse & Canteen, Merchant and Room 91, 91 Bree Street, opening Winter 2024

IMAGES: Claire Gunn

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