Starlings the gem behind the hedge

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Starlings is a place that truly fascinates me. I love coming here. Not only for the food, but for the overall package: a winning combination of a charming, low-key and well-trained service staff, thoughtful and innovative food options and an incredibly cosy and welcoming ambiance. And then there’s that little bit of magic floating around…

I think the key to its magic lies in the commitment to quality and freshness. One look in the little home-style kitchen you realise that there is no deep freezer. And after chatting to the manager, we find that all the meat gets used on the day of delivery. “Eggs too cannot be older than 2 days, or else they will not poach the way they do” says the charming manager. It is this kind of commitment that sets this breakfast-lunch gem apart from all others. You may find a restaurant that’s as beautiful, with delicious food, but the je ne sais quoi is really what goes into the simple offerings.

Starlings sources most of its ingredients from local suppliers. The eggs are from Homegrown out in Stellenbosch, meats are sourced from Ryan Boon, breads are are baked at Woodstock Bakery and Coffee is from the guys at Origin.

DSC_0543Dennis & Trish

“I am not a chef, but I can taste good food!” she says, smiling at me. I am excited to interview Trish, the owner of Starlings in Claremont, a true hidden gem that has become one of my favorite breakfast spots in Cape Town. This woman is a kind of light that seems to never burn out. An inspiring personality with beautiful childlike eyes. She won me over from the first time I saw her. 

What’s Cafe Starlings all about? 

Starlings is a classic neighborhood spot for breakfasts and light lunches. We count on word of mouth and mainly attract locals from near surrounding areas and many regulars. Local is where you come often and that works very well for us. Starlings isn’t a destination restaurant with a huge profile as we keep it low-key and prefer it that way because it suits us. Our brand stands for good service, quirkiness, organic growth of our business and consistently good, seasonal and locally produced food. Although nobody in our kitchen ever received proper culinary training everybody has a way with food here. 

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I am always stunned about well you guys keep up the friendly and warm service. Your service seems to shine out and I wonder how you do that. How would you describe your customer service style?

You simply can’t work here if you don’t genuinely love making people feel comfortable. We choose our service personal quite cautiously and something we look out for the most is whether a person enjoys to be servile. I love that word by the way. Do you know what it means? You should look it up.

We both know that a hospitable nature plays an important role when dealing with customers. However, we also know that Capetonians can be full of shit. Not to mention the annoying sense of entitlement. How do you cope with that?

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Customers want to feel important. Maybe Capetonians even a little more. You just have to know how to handle it. I think the best way to deal with a difficult customer is to disarm by firstly acknowledging the problem and of course empathising, secondly always staying friendly and professional. There’s nothing worse than taking things personally. At the same time, I try to empower my team by showing them that I have their back! We had a terribly difficult customer once who made a big fuss because his food took too long. We told him that if he wants fast he has to go to KFC. We don’t do fast here. Most people who visit us, come in and understand us. They look at the menu and read: “Thank you for choosing to have breakfast at Starlings. You probably know by now that your food takes ages to make, especially with larger tables. Thanks for understanding.” In most instances, this little information on our menu preempts complains. Luckily, we don’t see difficult customers very often at Starlings and in the vast majority of cases, our customers appreciate our hospitality. 

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Your menu is certainly not the biggest one, but it has everything the heart desires: Richard Bosman’s hormone-free bacon, zero-carb bread with linseed and olive oil and insanely tasty handmade sausages. What are your favorite memories of childhood flavors and which inspired you for your menu?

One of my favorite memories of childhood flavors is a good steak, topped with an egg and chips on the side! I absolutely love it. The ones that made it to our menu are the chicken livers and curried mince with poached eggs. I guess I also have a weakness for fresh herbs, especially basil, which I would call my all time favorite if I had to choose one. 

Where’s the coffee from is always the big question. Where do you get yours from and why?

Well, I am a fan of Joel. That’s why I opt for Origin. He’s the grand daddy of artisan coffee roasting in Cape Town and I am one of his loyal customers. He’s constantly travelling and sourcing new coffee varieties. I am not just very happy with Origins’ service but also with the quality of their product.  

 

Myles Heneke

Editor and Food Stylist

Food has always been my weakness, and by food I mean desserts and the feast of a special occasion. Of course this is no way to live (God only blessed Nigella with the wherewithal), but I do believe that there is a way to enjoy all kinds of food and still be healthy without being the least puritanical. For me it's simple. Use only the best quality ingredients (local, natural and sustainable) and decide what constitutes 'everyday eating' and what constitutes 'eating for an occasion'.

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