A good year for eating out

It’s been a year of big changes in the South African restaurant scene, which means we can look forward to an intriguing Eat Out Mercedes-Benz restaurant awards on November 16.

The most notable events were some surprising moves by the chefs of top restaurants. Jackie Cameron has left the award-winning Hartford House to establish her own cooking school, the Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine. The celebrated La Colombe has moved to an entirely new location. Chris Erasmus has said goodbye to Pierneef à La Motte to start his own restaurant, Foliage. PJ Vadas of Camphors has moved on to start a smokehouse and brewery, the Hog House BBQ Restaurant. Oliver Cattermole has left Mondiall Kitchen & Bar and Brad Ball has taken his leave from Bistro 1682 to take up the mantle at Peddlars on the Bend – these are to name but a few.

It’s very rewarding to see chefs from big-name restaurants taking the chance to try something new on their own – or on the side. They’re taking the time to develop ­themselves and their businesses by opening independent restaurants, or doing simple but exciting things such as a smokehouse (Vadas), or a pop-up, or a food truck. What are the reasons for these changes? In common with every industry, the restaurant business goes through certain cycles – some years there are few changes, and at other times it seems everything is about renewal and reinvention.

‘A dynamic restaurant landscape’

It may be down to the fact that we in South Africa are growing more entrepreneurial in spirit. It may also be attributed to the fact that many of these changes are among people who are, coincidentally, of approximately the same age and have cut their teeth and are ready to try something on their own. Whatever the case, this makes for a very dynamic restaurant landscape, because change creates momentum and opportunities for other players. All this movement involving the top chefs has created a platform for newcomers to seize the day, and to excel. Big shifts like these force people in the industry to survey the landscape of South African dining with fresh eyes and the members of the Eat Out judging team have really cast the net wide.

We looked at everybody who fitted the judging criteria and at restaurants that may not have been showcased before to see whether there were any standouts, any new players in the field. We’re seeing a lot of newcomers enter the high stakes – as evident in the list of nominees for the Eat Out Top 10, which boasts four brand-new entrants to the list: the Restaurant @ Newton Johnson, La Mouette, the Potluck Club and the White Room at Dear Me.

It’s been interesting to see what someone like Eric Bulpitt (formerly of the Roundhouse) is doing now at his new home, the Restaurant @ Newton Johnson. This atmosphere of dynamic improvement, however, is also thriving among established players. I am thrilled for a place like La Colombe, which is starting from scratch. I hope to see them settle into a place where everything just works perfectly – the setting, the mood, the food, the wine.

Playful and simple dishes

We’ll be watching to see what Chris Erasmus will be getting up to at Foliage, where he is indulging in his passion for foraging. The latter two restaurants, however, will not be judged this year – we stick to our Eat Out rule that a restaurant must have been open for a year to give the chef and menu time to settle in before we judge them. Looking back at the food we’ve enjoyed this year, we’re seeing a lot of dishes where the theme is one of playful and daring simplicity. Chefs are allowing their ingredients to really shine. A good example is Eric Bulpitt’s simple but beautiful smoked beetroot soup at Newton Johnson. Served simply with fennel flowers, it is a revelation of flavours and a confirmation of the fact that less can be more.

The chefs are also allowing their ingredients to be the heroes, because they are focusing more and more on cultivating relationships with specialist, responsible, top-class suppliers. The quality of South African produce is just getting better and better, which means that the food in restaurants is constantly improving. This local focus highlights the question that more chefs are asking: What is South African food? Clearly, it’s not just about one ingredient or dish. How can it be in a country as diverse as ours? It is about proudly South African storytelling, a celebration of our cultural and culinary heritage.

Look at what Margot Janse of the Tasting Room, Chris Erasmus of Foliage, and Kobus van der Merwe of Oep ve Koep are doing. All of them are, in their own way, hunting for and gathering local ingredients, mining our unique culinary heritage, and bringing those ingredients and ­traditions to the plate in new and inspired ways. They are focused on preserving the heritage of our food – and because they are travelling, building relationships with overseas chefs and sharing their philosophies, they are spreading the word. In doing so, thanks to excellence at home and a voluble presence abroad, they are putting South African food on the map.

A dearth of pastry chefs

Of course, not everything is perfect. There seems to be a dearth of top-quality pastry chefs at the moment. What the reason for this is I don’t know – perhaps the very technical nature of the job and the extremely rigorous training it requires are putting students off? Whatever the case, we’re not seeing any new, exciting pastry chefs in the field, not on the local front and also none coming in from overseas. The result is a lack of exciting desserts. We’re still waiting for the new next-big-thing in sweets, but in the meantime can we please place a ban on the macaroon and the marshmallow?

On the whole, however, I’m happy to say that the quality of South African dining is just getting better and better. It’s been a delicious and very rewarding year.

Abigail Donnelly is editor of Eat Out magazine and chief judge of the annual Eat Out Mercedes-Benz restaurant awards. She was also a member of the judging panel of the S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2011 and 2012

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