If Katmandu restaurant’s intent is to showcase world food, then they couldn’t have hoped for a better head chef than Steven La Fountain. He’s of French origin, has lived all over the world from Frankfurt to Vermont, married a KZN-born South African, and has a palate for all cuisines. He chatted to Melanie Reeder-Powell.
Steven La Fountain meets with us under the shady boughs of Katmandu’s spectacular outdoor space on a balmy Ballito day at the Ballito Lifestyle Centre.
He and his team are fresh off the previous evening’s Valentine’s Day rush, as well as the re-launch of their newly tweaked menu, which Steven has refined to ensure a more streamlined process for his chefs. In a mixed-use space that can currently seat around 270 people, with the potential for larger functions, streamlining and planning is key.
I’ve interviewed many a chef in my career, and broadly speaking there are usually two types; a high-energy, high-profile personality; or the under-the-radar, slightly quieter authority figure, who knows what’s expected and gets on with it. Steven seems to be the latter.
It’s been three months since Steven took over the helm of Katmandu, jumping in during December, which as all locals will know takes nerves of steel. Luckily, Steven is no ordinary chef.
He served as a United States Marine for “six years, two months and 40 days” he states unequivocally, making it clear he has a penchant for precision.
His father was an air force man, and Steven’s childhood was marked by a move to Frankfurt, Germany, where his father was stationed, before moving on to Connecticut, California, and Vermont. Steven followed suit as a young man, but preferred to rise through the ranks the old-fashioned way in the military, adding jokingly that he wasn’t “the Top Gun type”.
“I toured in Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as an 18-month tour in Somalia,” he explains, and while the military was to be his career of choice, after an incident in Somalia he decided enough was enough. He transitioned into law enforcement of a different kind, and became a police officer in New York, based in lower Manhattan, then Vermont for two years. Circumstance then intervened and Steven’s career did an about turn.
His family owned two restaurants, one of which was a steak house, and it was here that their executive chef took Steven under his wing, training him in knife skills and other culinary basics. He apprenticed for three months, before leaving law enforcement entirely, and heading to The CIA for four years. “That’s The Culinary Institute of America,” he laughs, “not the other CIA.”
I would have believed him either way.
It was in Vermont where Steven met his now wife of 10 years, Rashika, a South African from Pietermaritzburg, who was also in the hospitality industry at the time.
After Rashika gave birth to their son, her mother flew to the US to help with the baby. Steven marvelled at the special bond they had, and this seemed to play a role in their decision to move to South Africa.
“I’ve now been a resident of eight years, four months and 10 days,” he states, again displaying his head for specifics.
His career has since taken him from Polokwane, to Sandton (where he worked as executive sous chef at the famous Bull Run), and Umhlanga to Ballito. His friend and mentor, Steven Kruger, who he worked with at Beluga in Umhlanga, is also a stone’s throw away at 45 on Eat Street, the Lifestyle Centre’s other new eatery, revealing an even deeper sense of synergy to Steven’s new role.
Rashika also has a degree in psychology from UNISA, but these days she has taken on the full-time hospitality management post as mother to their two children.
“They are my life. They are what I live for,” adds Steven.
His culinary preferences are as diverse as his travels. “Being of French origin I love French cuisine naturally, but I’m like a sponge,” he adds, listing Italian, Mediterranean and Indian foods as among his favourites.
“I like to keep up with trends, but my main passion is training students.”
When in Sandton, he took six-months of sign language lessons, and trained deaf students in culinary skills. “One of my chefs went on to become chef of the year,” adds Steven, and it’s clear that this is truly where his heart lies.
“I like individuals who are willing to learn,” he says, adding that “being a chef is not about being in the spotlight – I want the rest of my staff to enjoy the light with me.”
Just before I leave him to get on with his Friday evening prep work, it occurs to me that Steven is the perfect brand ambassador for Katmandu. His life’s travel, encounters, and his family (by marriage and otherwise), are the epitome of the post-modern human – an amalgam of food and cultures that is all the richer for these experiences.
It’s been three months since Steven took over the helm of Katmandu, jumping in during December, which as all locals will know takes nerves of steel. Luckily, Steven is no ordinary chef.”