Name: Chef David Higgs
Q. How would you describe your style of cooking? What inspires you?
A: My style of cooking has evolved over the years – previously it was fine-dining, but now it’s all about fire. Fire has brought an entirely new angle to my cooking – the flavour and dimension that fire gives the food, and how the smoke provides such a variety of options with flavour profiles. It’s interesting, challenging and ever-changing. Overall I would say my style is relaxed and honest. I seldom use recipes (although I know they are important…) and prefer to cook from the heart.
In terms of what inspires me – wood and fire. Cooking on wood fires is not just a fantastic way to prepare food, but it inspires the ritual of gathering around a fire. In South Africa, people love cooking with fire and it’s what makes our food culture different from the rest of the world. I’ve long been fascinated by what makes South African fare unique, and I believe it’s down to us being flame enthusiasts – the timeworn ritual of cooking on wood fires, and gathering with friends. It’s the core ingredient for the food we serve at Marble –meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and breads.
Q: Describe a typical day in your restaurant?
A: A Marble day starts early – before 8am – with placing orders, sourcing products, researching new products. Then we start getting ready for lunch service – cleaning the entire restaurant and prepping the food. We also try out new recipes and play around with new dishes in the morning and early afternoon. Our guests start arriving for lunch from 12h00 and are normally done by 3pm, and then we start prepping for dinner service. I usually try and take some time off in the afternoon and head back for dinner service, when we brief the staff and then serve dinner. Dinner guests usually arrive around 6pm to enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine in the Marble bar (which has incredible views of Jo’burg and the sunsets). Our day normally ends around midnight.
Q: What have been your proudest moments as a chef?
A: There have been a few. Obviously winning Young Chef of South Africa in 2003 from Chaine de Rottisseurs will always stay with me, as well as being member of the South African National Culinary Team and representing South Africa at both the Culinary World Cup in Switzerland and the Culinary Olympics in Germany (1997 to 2004).
Coming from a background of industrial catering, catering and teaching; I only got into fine-dining in 2006/2007 – not that long ago. And, it was about pushing myself and proving to myself that I could do it, and do it well.
My time at Rust & Vrede, and doing so well there, was a culmination of my career and will be an incredible and memorable part of my journey.
Lastly, and most recently, being about to take the step to join my business partner, Gary Kyriacou, at Marble. I’m working on a completely different level – a huge number of people and large volumes of food. Being able to make something your own is really special.
Q: What has been your biggest learning curve?
A: Cooking on fire, especially in a restaurant the size of Marble, is something of a science. It’s not like gas, where you turn it on and the heat is instant, constant and evenly spread the whole of service. We must nurture and “work” the fire the whole night – hot spots change constantly, and our team has really had to learn how to manage the fire to achieve the perfect dish. Alongside the physical intensity of cooking on fire, understanding that you can only get away with the best product on fire. Anything inferior will not do – the fire kills the product.
Q. What are your favourite ingredients?
A: I grew up in Namibia, and I have fond memories of cooking freshly caught fish on a beach fire. Fish is still one of my favourite ingredients. I also can’t cook without lemons or limes.
Q. What is your favourite dish that you enjoy cooking?
I do spend my life braaiing – even at home – but I love it. I also love classic casseroles and stews such as lamb curry or a beautiful vegetable stew. They’re hearty meals you can eat for three or four days.
Q: Six people (dead or alive) who you would like to cook for?
A: My Father
Robert de Niro
Q. What trends / challenges are restaurants facing in 2017?
Service: an ongoing challenge is service issues and the continued focus on education and training for staff.
Increasing food costs: The cost of food and trying to get it to the customer with as much value as possible. On the one hand, everybody is working hard for their money and food is getting more expensive. On the other hand, we’re trying to run a business – one that employs between 110-120 people.
Live-fire cooking: this is, without a doubt, one of the biggest international trends now. South Africans love to braai on weekends – making a wood fire and adding charcoal, or not. The concept of cooking on fire is popular for many reasons. First, fire touches all the senses – it’s visual, you can feel the heat, and it gives the food a distinct taste and flavour. More and more fine-dining Chefs are using it in elements in their cooking.
Cocktails: there is a definite resurgence for making the classic cocktails properly.
Small plates: there’s a growing trend towards eating smaller plates of food, rather than one big plate. It seems everyone is doing lots of little sharing plates right now.
Simplicity: simple cooking. Molecular gastronomy has almost been turned on its head. Cooking on fire is so primitive – rather than having 20 different flavours on one plate, you have fewer flavours but they are more defined.
Versatility of vegetables: vegetables are being recognised. Chefs are being more experimental – using interesting vegetables, like celeriac, and cooking them using different cooking methods to create incredible vegetarian dishes.
Q. Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
A: Being a Chef is an incredible career, but it’s not easy. Initially the pay isn’t great and the hours take a lot of getting used to. You’re on your feet all the time and there’s immense pressure involved. Within the profession there are many avenues – you don’t always have to be a Chef in a restaurant – you can go into catering for example, but it’s equally grueling and stressful. As you move up in your career, being a Chef is not only about cooking but about the long-term running of a business and managing staff. It’s certainly not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding when you see how people are enjoying your food and the experience. Being a Chef also opens many doors to travel internationally, when you have that skill behind you, you have so many options.
Q. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
A: I’m excited about what is happening in Johannesburg right now from a food and eating out aspect – the sector is growing rapidly and it is very encouraging. I love how people are enjoying the space at Marble – the bar and the restaurant. I think Johannesburgers have a lot to look forward to over the next year and it’s great being part of the energy.