The owner of three notable restaurants in the Cape, Reuben Riffel has come a long way since his taste buds were first tantalised by the delicious morsels his mother brought home from her work at a local eatery. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Reading Reuben Riffel’s menu online for his eponymous restaurant at Cape Town’s One&Only is a torturous cyber affair. In between salivating and hankering for the Chef de Cuisine and media darling’s traditional Cape Malay pickled fish (served with spiced aioli and apricot jam), it seems improbable that Riffel wasn’t weaned on anything else but truffle oil.
Truth is that Riffel is a truffle lover, as evidenced by his mesclun lettuce salad, drizzled with the oil derived from that fungus that’s traditionally sniffed out by pigs. The tossed green leaves are served with parmesan, yuzu, soya and crispy garlic. Thinking about the delicate contrast of flavours and textures, it is quite a surprise to learn that the first time Riffel ate in a restaurant was when he was 15. And not a larny joint either.
“I never had a restaurant meal in my life before I actually started working in one,” laughs Riffel in a telephonic interview. “Maybe the Wimpy. Maybe my mum took me to the Wimpy when I was at school, but that was like my only experience back then.
“Growing up in Franschhoek, my mum worked in a few restaurants and she used to bring home quite a bit of off-cuts and stuff that was left over. This was usually on Sundays, so I started to taste the delicious little things coming back from the buffet. Even something like potato gratin… I had never tasted anything like that in my life before,” he says.
So, how did Riffel develop his palate? “Mum used to bring back crème caramel – but all mixed up with a bit of fruit salad in there. They used to do rotisserie lamb, and she'd get some of that, with a little bit of the salmon mousse with the cream. I had never tasted anything like that in my life before – those things were delicious.”
But Rifflel’s very first job was far, far away from the kitchen. “I worked with my Dad a little in the building and construction industry, but I didn't really enjoy that,” the chef says, in between services in Cape Town. Fortunately Riffel’s mother intervened and got him a job as a waiter in the restaurant she was working at.
By the time he was 19, Riffel was in the kitchen. “The chef was French, and his wife was South African – an Afrikaans woman who had worked the Roux brothers in London,” Riffel says. Michel and Albert Roux are, of course, those legends who are credited with causing a seismic culinary shift in the UK.
“It was quite a serious kitchen and a serious operation, with French-oriented food,” Riffel says. “There was lots of cream, reduction sauces and potent, strong-flavoured food. This was honestly amazing for my palate, I loved that. The chef then, for some reason, asked me to come into the kitchen and work there.”
Riffel watched the chef weave his magic, and the young apprentice started tentatively experimenting with food and flavour. He had an epiphany: “This is not just a job. This could actually be interesting. This could be something you can be proud of,” the young chef-in-training thought at the time.
One day the chef didn’t come to work. “I had to run the kitchen for almost two months, which was a steep learning-curve. When it came to the food, I think I really had it – I understood what people liked.” Riffel was 23 at the time.
“I look back at it as probably one of the best kitchens I worked in, because everything I know I learned there and so many of those things I still use today. And it’s more than just recipes, it’s a mind-set,” he says.
Something of a celebrity chef thanks to a local herb and spice company, Riffel has come a long way since his first taste of potato gratin. His first kitchen at Franschhoek Country House & Villas’ Monneaux Restaurant quickly became one of the Top 10 restaurants in the country. Riffel then moved to Cambridge, England, where the brassiere he ran won excellent reviews.
After moving back home, he opened his first Reuben’s and won a number of awards, including the Eat Out Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year awards. Despite his success and love of a certain pretentious fungi, there’s an honest simplicity to his cuisine which could be what’s made him an enduring staple in a province with fickle food fans. Riffle keeps it local, uses only the best seasonal produce, favours organic and sources carefully from nearby farms.
“England opened my eyes. Before I got there maybe my food was a little too serious. Perhaps I was trying a little too hard sometimes to be different. In England I just loved the small town and there was quite a big market and I had people arriving with fresh fare the whole time. I was cleaning my own kitchen, I was making stock and a lot of the suppliers came to know me…” Suppliers would sit and eat at Riffle’s table and would then discuss the treasures they could bring him to cook with.
“I had a guy that occasionally supplied me wild ducks. I had never cooked wild fowl before, but there I was cooking wild ducks, pheasants, pigeons and partridge. I had to study up on it because I wasn’t used to that back in South Africa,” Riffle says.
“I could order different fish every day from a long list of various types of fish, so almost every second day we had another type of fish on the menu. I could go to the market and choose specific potatoes that I wanted to cook. Our food was simple in that we didn’t try too hard to make it look too contrived or too haute cuisine. We really just focused on good quality ingredients, local stuff, and we tried to add a little South African touch in there with the clever use of spices,” the chef says.
Although Riffel started turning heads in 2004 when he opened his restaurant in Franschhoek to considerable acclaim, the big time would land in 2010 when Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant closed its doors at Cape Town’s One&Only, only 15 months into the business. Reuben’s – his restaurant which had garnered a reputation for fine yet uncomplicated cuisine with strong local flavours – stepped into the breach.
Today Riffel owns three restaurants – all called Reuben’s. Aside from epicurean parlour in the Mother City and his al fresco styled bistro in Franschhoek, there’s his restaurant at The Robertson Small Hotel.
Despite his humble beginnings in the wine valley and love of wholesome simplicity, you’ll always experience something exotic or unexpected about his cuisine. Like Riffel’s favourite fungus prepared with a Dijon vinaigrette for his beef tartar; or the parmesan truffle mash which goes well with his braised suckling pig shoulder and loin terrine, served with a smoked tomato compote, parmesan biscuit and pickled vegetable salad. DM
- “Cape Town Chef Reuben Riffel,” on The Wall Street Journal