As 2017 reaches the half-way mark (already) three of South Africa’s top Chefs – David Higgs, James Diack and Russell Armstrong – give their insights into the trends and challenges shaping the local restaurant industry so far. Whether it’s ‘cakeage’, cooking on fire, the authenticity of trends and faux food allergies; here’s the low down on what’s happening behind the scenes and in some of Jo’burg’s top kitchens.
Chef David Higgs
For Chef David Higgs, service will always be a challenge and the reason why he has a strong and continued focus on education and training for staff. He also sees that increasing food costs are making it more difficult to deliver consistent value to customers.
“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,” he explains.
Together with his team at Marble. Higgs has worked harder than ever to deliver consistently high levels of service while still cooking on fire – one of the world’s biggest trends and the moment.
“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,” he says. “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.”
He also sees a definite resurgence of properly made classic cocktails, and a growing trend of towards eating smaller plates of food, rather than one big plate.
Lastly, the versatility of vegetables is being recognised. Chefs like Higgs are being more experimental – using interesting vegetables, like celeriac, and cooking them using different cooking methods to create incredible vegetarian dishes.
Chef James Diack
James Diack, pioneer of provenance and Chef Patron of three of Johannesburg’s most successful sustainable eateries (Coobs, The National, The Federal) identifies his two main challenges ‘cakeage’ and faux food allergies.
Similar to corkage, where customers often have issues paying corkage for the wine they bring into an establishment – more and more people are bringing their own cakes.
“In the ‘old days’ someone would bring a bottle of 1977 Petrus because they wanted to enjoy it with your food. Now people are bringing inexpensive wines, and are outraged to pay R70 corkage. What customers don’t understand is that sometimes the wine glasses cost R135 each – if someone has paid the R70 corkage and they break the glass, I’m still only half covered,” Diack explains. “In terms of cakes, customers bring in cakes, which means we lose out on a number of desserts orders and even more important, the waiter loses out on that potion of the tip (but still must serve and clear the plates).
James also sees the proliferation of wheat, gluten and lactose intolerance. “Someone even recently said to me they were allergic to lettuce. It’s becoming bizarre and to the point that when people come in with genuine allergies or food related diseases (e.g. Crones Disease) the industry is almost too blasé and desensitized,” he says.
Lastly, changes to the menu create challenges for kitchens when people treat a menu like a shopping list and can change a dish so much, that it’s not even recognizable to what’s on the menu. Restaurants accommodate this and then customers complain the dish isn’t great.
“What the customer doesn’t understand is that, technically, they’ve asked us to make a dish we have never tried or plated before,” he adds.
His trends all shape around seasonality and sustainability – something he is intrinsically linked to:
Over the last four years since he opened Coobs, he has seen a definitive increase in the number of people are starting to really care about where their food comes from, and they’re clueing up. He says that customers want to know if their grass-fed steak is 100% grass-fed or finished on 20% corn. In this light, people need to make sure that what they’re being told is the truth – are the eggs genuinely free range, and is the chicken totally organic? Diack emphasises that it is important to remember sustainability is all about protection – protection of the environment, protection of our diners’ health and not least of all protection of animal health.
He also sees that suppliers are wanting to be part of the journey. “Suppliers want to know what becomes of the ingredients they supply, and how they’re cooked. This closer relationship and interaction ensures the industry will grow, and standards will increase,” he says.
Diack recently launched a Seasonality Calendar to educate South Africans consumers and foodies about the benefits of eating seasonally to enjoy fruits and vegetables at their best.
Chef Russell Armstrong
Chef Russell Armstrong, from Exclusive Books’ Social Kitchen & Bar in Hyde Park, identifies a few challenges created by the current global economy pressures.
“Globally, there is still an air of uncertainty which creates an overall concern about travelling. This restricted freedom affects the economy and people’s spending on food and travel. People are more considerate of where and how much they spend. We need less constraint toward spending,” he explains.
For Armstrong, who has worked in two two-star Michelin Restaurants in England and France, consistency of supply in South Africa is also a challenge.
“Overall in South Africa, restaurants battle to get the same high level of ingredients all the time – as we enjoy in Europe and Australia. In Cape Town, because the market is more educated, there is more awareness of quality produce and a willingness to pay for it. So, it’s easier to get specialized ingredients, of good quality, often. In Johannesburg, the restaurant scene is still is growing, so you often can’t find different ingredients of the same consistent quality all the time.
For trends, Armstrong questions their authenticity, and speaks to an inherent focus on simplicity and taste. “Trends, by their nature, are here today and gone tomorrow. It might be my age, but I don’t follow trends, I follow interesting food and cooking what’s good.”
In an interview with Fine Dining Lovers; Ana Roš of Hiša Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia who was recently named as The World’s Best Female Chef 2017, says, “Everyone should do their own cuisine, without sheepishly following the latest fad.”
Armstrong agrees with this statement wholeheartedly, “Trends aren’t more important than doing what you love or doing what you know is right.”