Johannesburg Central Kitchen

PHOTO Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes WORDS Louise McCann

What does a heartfelt celebration of South African design look like? The answer is the revamped Nando’s Central Kitchen. It’s a creative collaboration on a huge scale between a home-grown brand and South African design, and it’s hot, hot, hot!

All of us love a South African success story, and the Nando’s story is a good one. The short version is that it began in Rosettenville, Johannesburg in 1987, when two ambitious men were so impressed by the chicken dish they ate at a restaurant that they bought the restaurant and started a franchise called Nando’s.

Fast forward two-and-a-half decades to last year, when Nando’s South Africa decided to revamp its spiritual home, the original bottling factory and “the heart of the Nando’s home”. Coming full circle, as in many a great story, home base is in Lorentzville, just along the drag from Rosettenville.

The UK-based Nando’s design direction team realised that for a successful revamp what was needed was an art director on South African soil who could find Central Kitchen’s true South. Enter trailblazer Tracy Lee Lynch, known for the forward-thinking African aesthetic she brings to curating brand identities, spaces and products. “The close connection between Nando’s and South African design was a no-brainer,” says Tracy. “Nando’s has every reason to celebrate and express its South Africanness. The heart of Nando’s needed a real South African heartbeat.”

Nando’s was up for the adventure and accepted her proposal without hesitation. The Nando’s Central Kitchen was to be no design showcase but rather a functional, hard-working space for a large number of staff. But it would be more than that. It would also be the meaningful articulation of a unique and authentic ZAesthetic that’s true to the feisty, adventurous spirit that Nando’s is known for.

Instead of spending their allocated furniture and fixtures budget on goods of indiscriminate origin, Nando’s channelled its revamp spend to support the South African design economy. The ambitious vision was that every piece of functional design in Central Kitchen would be designed and hand-made, at source, by South Africans. We’re talking bespoke tables, chairs, light fittings, doors, soap dispensers… the list goes on, crafted to embody Nando’s intrinsic values of “pride, passion, courage, integrity and family”. Tracy would lead and curate the process.

“I knew it was going to work,” Tracy says. “I was truly inspired by the company’s long-term commitment to supporting the arts and creatives, and excited about the incredible collection that Jeanetta Blignaut and her team at Yellowwoods Art were curating for Central Kitchen. There was an energy of excitement about Central Kitchen among all the good people already involved.”

These included exceptional Nando’s project manager Eve Bugler, project architects Albonico Sack Architects and Urban Designers, landscaper Sarah von Hone of Garden Gallery Landscaping, and implementation team onepointzero with JP Beukes and Anne Machlachlan of Foundation Interior Design.

Tracy began her part of the project as she always does, hand-picking a diverse team of talented creative collaborators to make the dream happen. Among them were more than 50 talented South African designer-makers. An exceptional year of conceptualising, liaising, communicating, collaborating, producing and delivering followed. It culminated in the launch of Central Kitchen, a massive interconnected campus of seven buildings, near the end of 2014.

“Celebrating South African design was both the journey and the destination,” says Tracy, “and it’s been incredible to have been a part of this. Working with immensely talented collaborators and a client that understands the value of supporting creatives and enriching the lives of its employees was a very inspiring process.”

To cut a fast-moving revamp story short, the result is extraordinary. What has been articulated is a ZAesthetic that is felt as much as seen. Central Kitchen’s spirit is evidently alive and thriving.

The project will go down in history as a pivotal South African creative collaboration. And that’s hot. Peri-peri hot.