As the son of a German chef and confectionery teacher, James Gaag was exposed to cooking from a young age in a family where meals were always events. After finishing his A levels, he initially wanted to be an engineer but hated math, so he enrolled in a one-year course at the renowned Silwood School of Cookery, where his mother taught and, after the first lesson, he was so hooked that he never looked back. He completed the demanding three-year course, working part-time in a café to pay for cooking school, graduated top of his class and was appointed as an ambassador for Silwood.
Since then his career has rocketed. He competed in and won both the Sunday Times and Show Cook competitions, along with a handful of other culinary competitions. Whilst studying he worked in many of the top restaurants in South Africa, such as Jardine’s, Greenhouse, Terroir, Maze and Nobu. He joined La Colombe in 2010 where he rose through the ranks to sous chef. In 2013, he left to gain a year’s experience at legendary chef Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford. On his return in 2014, he was appointed head chef of La Colombe. In 2014, the whole operation moved to Silvermist Wine Estate in Constantia. The restaurant is light and airy with a minimalist palette of whites, greys and greens decorated with funky potted plants and spherical hanging lights. In April 2018 James Gaag was appointed Executive Chef when Scot Kirton stepped down. He said, “It is fantastic to finally realize my dream of running La Colombe. Taking over the reins is something I have aspired to for the past 8 years.” In 2019, La Colombe took 1st place for the best restaurant in South Africa in the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards. Executive Chef James, now 31, said, “My team keep me on my toes and inspired every day. The pursuit of absolute excellence is what drives us. La Colombe is my home.”
James Gaag’s food philosophy is all about flavor and the finest ingredients. Each dish is seasonal, immediately delicious and inviting, not overworked or overcomplicated, a seamless alignment of balanced flavors and visual appeal with world class service. He credits Scot Kirton, his travels around the world, his surroundings in Cape Town and his staff as his greatest inspiration.
There are many enticing dishes on the menus offered, such as a sweet potato, wagyu drippings and oxtail bread course. Kerala style quail stuffed with langoustines, labneh and coriander; springbok, mushroom and liver parfait sandwich; Bahibe, blood orange and smoked almond but most playful of all is Chef Gaag’s now signature dish Tuna ‘La Colombe’ – the tuna tataki is presented in a sealed ring-pull can and diners are encouraged to guess the ingredients, although they are actually listed on the back of the can.