The actor and the Italian treats

A section of the inviting, charming Dolci Cafe in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.

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BILLY SUTER sampled the menu at the popular Dolci Café in Craighall Park, Johannesburg, where he got to talk to owner-managers Clayton Boyd and his wife, pastry expert Jackie Righi-Boyd. If CLAYTON BOYD is familiar you are probably a TV fan – since last November, the 36-year-old has appeared on the SABC1 soapie, Generations: The Legacy, as IT teacher
Robert Carlson.
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THAT Cape Town-born Clayton Boyd is as equally passionate about his Gauteng restaurant business as he is about his acting career there is no doubt. But how he manages to deftly juggle both professions is a bit of a mindboggle.

He smiles and shrugs when I mention this during a chat at his Dolci Café at 28 Clarence Avenue, Craighall Park, which, the night my partner and I were there, was choc-a-block full with a company function and a trail of regular patrons.

Turning both hands palms-up and with a tilt of the head, Clayton suggests that the show must go on, pointing out that he and his wife of Italian descent, Jackie Righi-Boyd, had to leave relatively early that night to be back at the restaurant at 7am the next day to prepare for breakfast customers.

Clatron Boyd, who is among the Generations – The Legacy cast on SABC1, in his Dolce Cafe restaurant in Johannesburg.

The charming Dolci Café, which Clayton and Jackie have expanded four times since opening, initially as a small Italian pasticceria, in September 2015, is now a trattoria, pastry shop and baking boutique all in one.

The team is dedicated to authentic foods, quality products and artisan cakes, cupcakes and Italian pastries. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner every Monday to Saturday, and breakfast and lunch only on Sundays.

Clayton and Jackie receive help from Jackie’s mum, the very Italian Luciana, formerly of Amarcord in Johannesburg and who, from the late 1980s to early 1990s, ran the popular Trattoria at St-Michaels-on-Sea on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.

Some of her signature dishes feature on the menu and the 76-year-old (she is proud of her age, she says) is quite the personality. Judging by her many interactions with diners, she is something of a drawcard for lovers of Italian dishes.

Dolci Café certainly keeps the family on its toes, but Clayton says he thrives on it. And in between it all he is constantly seeking new acting ventures – catch him in a new horror movie, Hell Trip, soon – as well as learning lines and filming for Generations: The Legacy, a soapie that is also broadcast in India and Jamaica.

He loves both his worlds, he tells us, as my partner and I sip welcoming prosecco – yummy white Italian sparkling wine, available on tap at the restaurant – and nibble at a starter sample plate offering tomato and mozzarella kebabs, the most deliciously crisp, golden-battered zucchini fritti (Jackie’s mom’s specialty), and tasty chunks of pork.

For a main serving, I could not resist the smoked salmon on mashed potato, with a parsley and lemon butter sauce, and it was cooked to perfection and an ample portion at R220. My partner was also more than happy with the veal and mushrooms (R165) which is thinly sliced and pan-fried in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, and served with spinach and slow-cooked tomatoes.

The Dolci Cafe menu is quite large, with a wide range of Italian specialities. There are also some surprises, among them South African Tapas (R59), a trio of biltong, droewors and Cape olives; and a chicken or beef burger with potato wedges (R94 and R104 respectively).

I’d recommend sticking with Italian, though, as there are some very interesting offerings, not least Polpette Parmigiana (R112), which has traditional Italian meatballs in a Napoli sauce smothered with melted mozzarella, and served on a creamy mash. Sounds delicious.

I also like the sound of Controfiletto (R149) which is a 250g sirloin marinated for 24 hours in a mixture of honey, soy and fresh ginger, and served with steamed vegetables.

Of course, there is a variety of pastas from which to choose, too. Or, if you’re after something smaller and more wicked, consider a coffee with a pastry. Alternatively, skip straight to dessert.

The puds menu is a good one and I can vouch for the tiramisu (R58), although the clear winner at our table was my partner’s choice of  the magical Dolci Della Nonna (R60), a house specialty. A recipe handed down by Luciana’s mother, it is a slice of heaven comprising pecan nuts, Amaretto, crushed biscotti biscuits, zabaione and marsala wine.

To contact the restaurant for a booking phone 010 900 2274.

HERE FOLLOWS MY INTERVIEW WITH CLAYTON BOYD:

WHEN AND WHY DID YOU GET INTO THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS – AND EXACTLY WHEN DID DOLCI CAFE OPEN?

Jackie and I have been in the restaurant, or food, business for a long time – separately and collectively. Jackie was raised in the business. Her dad is a chef and was brought to SA from Italy in the early ’80s to work in one of the old Italian restaurants in downtown Joburg.

Jackie’s mom, who would later become the far better-known chef, followed him and later started working in the same restaurant. They eventually moved to Southbroom, in KwaZul8u-Natal, and started the Trattoria there. (We recently spent a week there and the people who bought the restaurant in 1991 still run it.)

Jackie’s mom and brother then opened and ran Tre Nonni in Craighall Park and later Assaggi in Illovo.

I started in restaurants and food a week before my 18th birthday, first in the kitchen and then later moved to the front of house. While I was a student studying in America, I worked as a short-order chef at a university café then as an expediter, runner and waiter in an Indian restaurant.

A section of the Dolci Cafe restaurant

While I lived in New York I worked for about six different catering companies simultaneously as a waiter, so that I would always have work. It was really fun because every job was in a different location, some of them quite exotic.

Jackie went to the University of Cape Town and studied Industrial and Organisational Psychology, vowing she would never work in restaurants, but really didn’t enjoy corporate life.

I stayed in and around restaurants throughout university and my early professional life, as a way to make extra money while pursuing acting.

Dolci was born out of Jackie’s need to have a creative career, and my need to have more stability in my income. We opened the doors on September 5  2015 as a small Italian Pasticceria, also serving breakfast and lunch. Since then we have expanded four times.

HOW, WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU AND JACKIE  FIRST MEET – AND WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU MARRY?

Ironically Jackie and I met in a restaurant. While completing her studies in Cape Town, Jackie worked as a hostess at Balthasar restaurant On the Waterfront. I returned to South Africa in September 2007 and started waiting tables there almost right away.

There was actually a cute moment six months later where we were standing outside the shop during shift, talking and flirting, when one of the other waiters came over and said, “The couple in the window want to know when the wedding is”. We looked over and an older couple in the restaurant was sitting next to the window and watching our interaction.

We got married four years later. We moved back to Johannesburg in 2012, and got married that September.

IS YOUR WIFE FULL-TIME AT DOLCI CAFÉ OR DOES SHE HAVE ANOTHER PROFESSION AS WELL?

While Jackie has done other things, she is the heart and soul of Dolci Cafe, and as such is full time. I run the business in terms of finance and administration, but Jackie is the food and the flavour.

During her early teen years the family moved back to Italy, so most of Jackie’s high school career was in Italy. She returned for her matric year and then university, so she is the Italian in the shop.

When she decided to give up the corporate life, she also studied pastry part-time before we spent five months living in Italy for her to finalise her training in a pastry shop (or pasticceria, in Italian) in her home town of Ravenna.

Jackie Righi-Boyd, who puts the Italian flavour into Dolci Cafe.

Jackie’s mom, Luciana, has also recently joined our team. She is semi-retired, but for that generation of Italians it means she works pretty much as long as before, but isn’t on the work roster. Once Luciana joined the team, we increased the traditional Italian dishes on our menu.

TELL ME ABOUT THE STEADY GROWTH OF THE RESTAURANT – AND WHAT FURTHER PLANS, IF ANY, TO EXPAND OR PERHAPS CONSIDER A SECOND FRANCHISE?

We opened the small shop in September 2015 with only 21 chairs. We then moved outside and decorated the pavement in the front of the shop. Gradually we took over the front of the shop next to ours, and eventually the inside of that shop as well.

Once we had the two shops, we brought on a partner and started serving dinner as well as breakfast and lunch.

In April this year we revamped the back end of our original shop making the inside of the shop larger. On October 1 we went seven days a week. We now have 130 seats inside and outside.

We started with a very small budget, so we have grown as and when we were able. There are still some polishing and finishing touches we want to apply to our current restaurant, including revamping the outside section.

I also have a wish list of growth, but I have been told by Jackie that I need to let her enjoy the shop as it is for a while, before I throw us all into chaos again by getting bigger.

I’m not opposed to a franchise idea, but we are very specifically an owner-run restaurant and our personalities are tied into the success of our shop thus far. If we were to franchise we’d need to find a partner like us who would be the face and owner of the new shop. We believe in the personal touch.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND DEMANDS OF RUNNING A RESTAURANT – AND WHAT ARE THE REWARDS?

Like so many things in life, the challenges and the rewards are often the same thing. I think the hardest part of running a restaurant is people, but they are often the most rewarding and uplifting part as well.

We live in an era where you don’t need to know how to cook, to consider yourself a master chef. We are in an affluent area, and many of our customers have travelled to Italy, and most watch some form of cooking channel. As such we often have people with no restaurant or cooking experience critiquing our food both positively and negatively, as if they are Michelin-star chefs.

With social media and food blog sites and apps, restaurants are now subject to everybody’s opinion getting published online for the world to see, regardless of qualification. At the same time, these same people sitting in your shop having an amazing experience and coming back with their friends and family and telling you how much they love your restaurant makes it all worthwhile.

WHAT ARE YOUR THREE FAVOURITE DISHES ON THE DINNER MENU – AND WHAT ARE TOP SELLERS?

My personal favourites are the Tagliata di Manzo (sliced beef fillet with slow cooked Italian tomatoes and potato wedges), the homemade Tagliatelle Ragu (homemade flat pasta with the traditional Bolognese sauce) and the Cotoletta di Pollo (chicken schnitzel served with freshly sliced tomato, boiled baby potatoes in butter and parsley and a homemade cheese sauce).

It’s difficult to say what the best sellers are, as we are open all day and have three menus. Our breakfast menu, our lunch menu and our dinner menu, and then our specials menu that changes daily.

We have something for everyone, so things change dependent on weather and people’s mood.

Clayton Boyd as Robert Carlson, with Luyanda Mzazi as Lesedi, in the long-running Generations – The Legacy.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE DOLCI CAFÉ AND YOUR MENU?

Dolci Café is mostly a traditional Italian restaurant. Howeve,r we have sufficient items on the menu from South African restaurant culture that you can call us an Italian/South African community restaurant.

Breakfast in Italy is really just a pastry and a coffee, so our breakfast menu is very South African. Likewise, items like our hamburger and toasted sandwiches are not at all Italian, although our hamburger is an Italian Polpette (meatball) that we flatten into a hamburger.

We also have an extensive tapas menu, and many of the items on there are popular small meal dishes, but not specifically Italian –  like Jalepeno Poppers and Falafel. In Italy you get Trattorias and Osterias which are more local restaurants. Calling something a Ristorante implies that you are fancy.

While you will get some of the best, most authentic Italian food in Johannesburg, we style ourselves as a community restaurant where our regular customers will often come three or four times a week for various reasons, a glass of wine, a breakfast or a full meal.

WHAT FIRST SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN FOLLOWING AN ACTING CAREER – AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST TIME EVER ON A STAGE?

I have always acted and been around doing theatre at school level. When I was 12, I was one of four students from my primary school to be selected to attend Stellenbosch University Theatre Week, where students from around the Western Cape spent a week at the university working in different areas of the theatre arts.

I was also part of a touring play at that same age, where we took one of Aesop’s Fables and performed for primary schools.

The first play I remember being in, that was official, was when I was around five or six, at Pixie Play School. I played one of the three wise men in the Nativity play at the end of the year.

While I have been around acting my whole life, it wasn’t until I was 16 that I considered it as a career.

My folks weren’t keen on my choice, so they insisted I do a double degree to have a solid back up. Hence I have a degree in Psychology and Theatre. Once I got a full scholarship to get my MFA in theatre, and my folks weren’t paying anymore, they had to accept that this was my passion and my future… and they have supported me every step of the way.

HOW DID YOU COME TO STUDY ACTING IN THE US, AND WHAT WAS THE BENEFIT OF THIS?

Because I wanted to be an actor in film, more than theatre, I looked at universities in Southern California, but to satisfy my parents I also looked at universities in England. But British schools didn’t offer the double degree simultaneously; you needed to complete one and then the other. They were also very theatre based, without having a film school attached.’

Clayton Boyd (third left) in a scene from the new horror film, Hell Trip.

The universities in California had a film department and a theatre department, so while, as an actor, you had to do theatre, you could take classes in the film department and work with those students on their projects and short films.

So I decided to go  to San Diego State University from 2000 to 2004. I believe the big benefit of America in general is its size and competition.

They truly believe in training and working hard for things. They are not kind if you lack talent and won’t hesitate to tell you that you aren’t good enough to succeed in the industry. This really breaks your illusions of grandeur and makes you realise quickly that if you want to succeed, you have to work very, very hard.

They are also relentless about explaining that acting is a business. Stop the touchy-feely stuff and focus on it as a business major would. Brand yourself, know who and what you are and where you best fit in. Sell yourself to people relentlessly and network at every opportunity. These are traits that many actors I have met from other areas of the world don’t always grasp easily.

WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST PROFESSIONAL WORK AS AN ACTOR?

My MFA was at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. They paid for my masters, as well as giving me a stipend to live on. The theatre is a professional Equity Theatre (union controlled) and, as such, it is considered professional work, even though I was still a student.

Once I graduated and moved to New York my first acting job was as a non-speaking role on a documentary about Walt Whitman, where I played the writer and poet in a re-enactment of one of his poems. The show played on a series called The American Experience on PBS.

My first job back in South Africa was in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Maynardville open-air theatre in January 2008. I played the young lover role of Bassanio.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST TV ROLE AND WHAT DO YOU MOST RECALL OF THAT EXPERIENCE?

The non-speaking part playing Walt Whitman was my first role on TV. What was interesting about the role and the way they were telling the story, was it was an analysis of the poet’s life and his sexuality. I had to do a love scene with both a woman and a man, so that when they cut the piece together and someone was reading his poem, they would jump between both scenes and show that it didn’t matter about his sexuality if the poems were good. I

t was my first experience having to do a same-sex love scene, which was a little uncomfortable. Both I and the other actor I worked with are straight, so when the director called “cut”, it was a swing back to uber-masculinity!

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ROLE IN “GENERATIONS”, HOW LONG YOU HAVE PLAYED THE ROLE, AND HOW YOU AND THAT CHARACTER ARE DIFFERENT OR ALIKE?

Mr Carlson is Lesedi’s 11th Grade IT teacher. He is very caring and an outstanding teacher. He really cares about his students. I have been on TV with the role since the first day of school this year, so January 16.

Clayton Boyd

Like Mr Carlson, I would like to consider myself a good, and generally nice person, who plays very much by the rules. I don’t think I am as gentle as he is though, I have more fight in me, and can be more aggressive when the situation calls for it

In the storyline, his wife is the more aggressive one. When they need to fight, Mr Carlson remains very gentle and passive.

WHAT ADS HAVE WE SEEN OR HEARD YOU IN LOCALLY?

In 2009 I was in a Windhoek Lager ad where I played the groom at a wedding and the best man gave a terrible speech. In 2015. I played an obnoxious guy in a Hippo ad.

WHAT ARE OTHER TV SHOWS YOU HAVE FEATURED IN – AND WHAT HAS BEEN A FAVOURITE (AND WHY)?

Locally, I have had appearances in Shuga, Thola, Binnelanders, Donkerland and Isidingo, to name a few. But the best TV work I have done and been involved with was a series for the BBC, which was shot in Cape Town in 2011/2012.

It was called Leonardo and was about Leonardo DaVinci as a teenager. It was a fun series with swords and fantasy elements. I played Rocco de Medici the new and young Duke of Florence. It was the type of period and fantasy television I enjoy watching, so being a part of the filming was very special.

YOU ARE IN A NEW BIG-SCREEN HORROR FILM. TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE FILM AND YOUR ROLE.

Hell Trip is an international-quality horror film by Patrick Garcia that we hope will be shown in multiple countries. At the moment it has a general release in mainland Europe.

Patrick will be taking it to the film market in LA next month to hopefully get distributors around the world. In SA it had its premiere at Comic Con Africa in September.

I play William Reese, boyfriend to Sarah. He is an American tourist coming to Africa for the first time when things start going horribly wrong. It’s a sort of ’80s slasher-horror with some great humour and gore moments.

WHAT OTHER FILMS HAVE YOU FEATURED IN?

I have had small roles in a few features, most recently I was in a scene in Red Sea Diving Resort, which is a drama about Israeli special forces getting Jews out of Ethiopia in the ’80s. Chris Evans (Captain America) and Haley Bennet (Magnificent 7) are the two leads. I play opposite Haley Bennet in my scene.

WHAT HAS BEEN A CAREER HIGHLIGHT AND WHY?

There have been different types of highlights. My MFA had many moments, as hard as the experience was. Working in a professional theatre, doing play after play, often simultaneously was a great highlight and learning experience.

We ran summer Rep, so in the heart of the summer we had six plays running, and I was in three of them and understudying larger roles in four.

Leonardo was my most recurring role in a foreign series, and it had two fun sword-fighting sequences, which was fantastic. Also, having a recurring roles makes you feel more like part of the team as a whole, rather than coming into filming for a day and then leaving.

Generations has been my longest-running TV character, and the last two months have pushed me as an actor with the different story lines that I have been a part of, and seeing the reach of this show is incredible.

But by far the most inclusive and challenging and wonderful experience as an actor, and along the lines of why I chose to become an actor when I was younger, was Hell Trip. The whole cast and crew travelled to Limpopo and Mpumalanga to shoot the film. We were on location for 16 days solid and it was all about shooting the movie. I want more of these experiences in my life.

WHAT ARE AMONG PLANS FOR THE NEXT YEAR OR SO?

Next year I have three exciting projects in the wings. One I’m not allowed to talk about yet, as it is still in development. The other is another horror movie where I’ll play a supporting role, also produced and directed by the Hell Trip team of ACT Films and Garcia Films (Patrick and George Garcia).

The salmon on mashed potato dish at Dolci Cafe

Then I will be doing a little teaching at the International School of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I have an old teacher of mine working there and he is sending me over to do a week’s workshop for the students in Shakespeare and Stage Combat.

Otherwise, it is audition, audition, audition and hope the right roles come along, and that I blow them out of the water.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT IN THE PUBLIC EYE?

I haven’t had many public experiences that were embarrassing, but I did have a moment on Binnelanders that made their bloopers reel. Apparently it is on You Tube somewhere.

I played an estranged father whose child was always sick and the mother took him to a hospital overseas. It transpired that the mother had Munchausen Syndrome and was making the boy sick. Also, they weren’t overseas, just about 50 km away from me.

The scene was me walking into the hospital room where my son is in bed and I haven’t seen him in a year. I came in with energy and excitement wanting to hug my boy, but before I got to the bed, my feet went out from underneath me and I wound up on the floor under his hospital bed with all of the cast and the crew collapsing with laughter.

It was about 10 minutes before we could all get back to work, and the editors in the booth kept replaying the moment, which got us all laughing again. It was too funny to really be embarrassing, but it’s never a proud moment winding up on your arse in front of a room full of people.

WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’? AND WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘ABSOLUTE NO-NOS?

Absolutely fabulous is travelling around Italy with my wife; having a TV commercial renewed and getting paid again; and having your agent call you and tell you that you have been offered a role without ever auditioning for it.

Also fab is booking a role you worked really hard on; and seeing the restaurant I built with my wife full and buzzing with happy customers.

Absolute no-nos would be cruelty to animals, abuse of any kind, unnecessary rudeness (and rudeness is almost always unnecessary), a life without acting or travel, and giving up.

WHAT ARE SOME THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF, HOWEVER TRIVIAL, THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC DOES NOT KNOW?

I spent a week in hospital as a kid with asthma, so I still carry an inhaler with me. I have a passion for swords and sword fighting and used to fence while I was in university.

For a short while in high school I was into rock climbing and spent most weekends on a climbing wall. And I taught English as a foreign language in Italy for four months in 2014.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE INSCRIBED ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?

It may sound arrogant, but my first reaction to this question was Julius Ceasar’s quote of  “Veni, Vidi, Vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered. This would, of course, be my hope that I have in fact conquered the acting industry.

I have a long way to go for that to be a reality, but I’m working on it.

Heaven on a plate – Dolci Cafe’s Dolci Della Nonna (R60), a house specialty.

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