Johannesburg: Kerb drills in a time of accelerated change

Johannesburg: Kerb drills in a time of accelerated change
Chef Ence Willemse of NCW. Photo: NCW

Pandemic. It’s what we think about, chat about. That and food. The hoarding of it, any potential lack of it, the hunger for it, the comfort of it – and will our favourite restaurants still be there when it’s all over?

Our restaurants are battling, many holding out, not keen to surrender to the epidemic attack until the last safe moment. Some are being strategic, running parallel let’s-see lines of possible business, making contingency plans, mop-up plans, all sorts of plans, planning from day-to-scary-day.

Already there are interesting trends showing up, of restaurants making more than takeaways. They are making collections or deliveries irresistible, delicious and beautifully presented meals to salve our quivery new lifestyles. Some have been restructuring their restaurants to keep us from having to stay at home too much.

Then, boom! The night before last (March 18), just as they were making more plans to accommodate the new government directives about numbers and booze, Joburg businesses received The Final Statement of the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg. Breaths were held at point number nine, on page three.

“The City has decided to strongly (in bold type) encourage bars, nightclubs, taverns, restaurants, cinemas and other areas of public entertainment to immediately cease operations and provide off-premise consumption…” (Then, after a bit about the Joburg Metro Police enforcing adherence to the National State of Disaster guidelines… “The City welcomes those establishments that have (sic) on their own accord taken the necessary preventative measures to cease operations in light of the Covid-19.”

Joburg restaurants seldom take breaks during the year, maybe just over the Christmas-New Year period, and even that has waned over the last years. An enforced break is a prospect of horror for the many chefs and restaurateurs who are not generously backed.

David Higgs and his partners had already ceased their operations for now at Marble and Saint voluntarily, messaging: “By taking this drastic action we believe we can positively contribute to slowing the spread of the pandemic.” It can be seen as the “rest” option. Before the Joburg Mayor’s statement I’d realised that other owners and chefs were wondering if they should feel guilty about being cautiously open. Most couldn’t afford not to be, at least in some way. Now it’s not a matter of guilt so much as a precarious state of resistance.

A new kerb drill

Chef James Diack is known for his fresh, family-farm-produced ingredients and products that are the basis of his various menus at Coobs in Parkhurst, “the smart one”, Il Contadino in Parktown North, “the rustic European-continental one” and La Stalla in Melville, “the baby Contadino one”. He’s the go-to chef about seasonal, responsible eating, and that won’t stop or stop him from getting the word and the food out to us in some way or another.

“In the days to come, we’ll see whether this works better than the actual restaurants: it’s called The Kerbside Collection.”

From all three restaurants, people can access the actual restaurant menus on their respective Facebook and Instagram sites, pick whatever they want, from breakfasts to dinners. Customers then pull up at the kerbside of whichever restaurant it may be. Il Contadino, especially, has a sort of neat kerb niche, which perhaps gave James the idea. The card machine is sanitised right there and the handover is clinical and clean through the car window. James even had the Health and Safety guys to help him run through the process. At the two bigger restaurants, he’s designated kerbside waiters and the manager attends to La Stalla’s kerbside collectors. “No one need leave the safety of their vehicle.”

Meanwhile, his restaurants, as he says, have never been “like London bistros where you can tap people on their shoulders at other tables”. There’s (normally) plenty of loose space between people and tables, so restaurant attendance goes on with sanitised gloved assistance, “for the foreseeable future”.

Collections, deliveries and guilt admissions

Marthinus Ferreira from with his top-notch degustation or tasting-menu restaurant, DW Eleven-13 in Dunkeld West (DW), is providing something quite different from his normal fare, something very appealing, to be collected by arrangement and immaculately clean prepayment. Choose a real roast chicken or tender lamb shoulder, for four, accompanied by three cheffy veg and gravy at home. His actual restaurant remains very hygienically and spaciously open “for now”. (The City’s new statement of course may force hands in this.)

The Dark Kitchen, brought to Johannesburg by restaurateur Larrie Hodes, features natty “nine-slice pizzas”, the ninth slice delivered in its own separate slice-shaped box. Apparently beer, wine and champagne may accompany the delivery. Maybe before 6pm?

Gourmets’ delight, Farro in Illovo, was staying open, run by Chef Alex Windebank and his partner Eloise who is more than front-of-house, seemingly responsible for some of the best copy to come out of the Covid-19 furore. The post began: “We are open. We probably shouldn’t be. We feel it is our social and moral responsibility to close our doors and let this health crisis pass…” But after the mayor’s Final Statement, yesterday’s post simply stated, “Bye for now”.

The philosopher’s turn

NCW is one of South Africa’s fine tasting-menu restaurants, situated on the Koppies side of Melville. Owner-chef Ence Willemse is taking a remarkably sanguine approach to “this time of accelerated change”, seeing the economic negatives, naturally, but also the social responsibility pluses we could gain by “considering each other more, from a little distance. There’s always a balance”. In his case it might be about his suppliers and staff “all down the line”, as well as his patrons.

Every patron is being contacted by phone “to explain and reassure them”. Nice touch at a time when real touch is missing. Ence has closed off the actual restaurant part of his restored heritage place, now making use of the art gallery side of it. There are four private, separate dining rooms, with spacious 12-seater dining tables, where he’s seating a maximum of four people within each.

On seeing the Joburg mayor’s announcement, Ence contacted the Restaurants Association of SA, who contacted the legal adviser to the minister of health, who clarified and advised on the conditions of NCW’s remaining open, this too to pass onto his patrons. In any case, Ence says he’s only working on a fortnightly decision-making basis and turning over many matters “one minute at a time”.

A nice numbers problem to have

While most Joburg restaurants have suffered mostly because of the recent nigh absence of tourism, something Cape Town might not suspect is that the mainstay of Joburg’s hospitality industry, Chaf Pozi in Soweto, is having to limit its numbers once again in one week. Situated at the base of the famous Orlando Towers, this shisa nyama is a mighty popular hangout. Zama Zwani, one of the owner partners, was just limiting her seating to below 100 when the new government ruling of not exceeding 60 people came into effect.

Zama reckons she’s fortunate to have outdoor seating “that is safer” as well as staff who don’t need to travel by enclosed public transport to work. They all live nearby. Chaf Pozi has had to cancel their special events and the weekly student ones but, on the other hand, customers have also asked Chaf Pozi to start deliveries, so Zama’s roped in Mr D.

Let’s have something special

Johannesburg’s doughty Emma Chen at The Red Chamber. Photo: The Red Chamber

If The Red Chamber in Hyde Park is iconic, it’s not as iconic as Emma Chen, its owner. PRON or the People’s Republic Of Noodles in Linden is “much vibier and younger” but both her restaurants are under siege.

“Come and visit. I can picture me sitting at one end of the restaurant and you the other, and we’re texting each other. Just kidding”, she suggested.

Emma says the Red Chamber’s numbers took a big dive “in January already because of the Chinese connection”. Emma’s been in South Africa since the Eighties. She imagines the Red Chamber might have to shut before PRON but that both might have to resort to providing collected dishes of different kinds. She’s been dreaming up how to provide good cheer from The Red Chamber so long.

“Delivery services are ‘not us’ and they’re costly – I’d rather discount our food to our customers because people are hard hit now.” 

If Emma can persuade the shopping centre to allow her to have cars stopping at the Woolies entrance, the drivers could be in for treats hermetically delivered through their windows.

“People long for comfort foods like our Peking duck – and I’d love to throw in some wine. I’m thinking how that could work. Because we need some cheering up. Our South African wines work so well with my food since it’s not the usual ‘Chinese food’. Let’s make our existence as enjoyable as possible!” I’m wondering how the new booze laws might affect that part of the enjoyment.

Not resting, exactly

Gerald Garner at a Zwipi event, within the Thunderwalker. Photo: Thunderwalker

The Thunderwalker is Gerald Garner’s concept collection of restaurants, Zwipi, the Scatterlings Arcade and the Town Banqueting Hall, all within a beautifully restored Edwardian building in Johannesburg’s inner city. It’s going back into careful mothballs as a venue until 18 April “but a further announcement will be made at the end of March”.

His press release notes: “Case studies in Germany and South Korea have proven that it took one infected person to attend one group event to spread the disease in the end to over 1,000 people. We do not want to be an operator, or a venue known for something like this!”

Especially for pan-African dinners and storytelling evenings, The Thunderwalker is a tourism magnet and there’s not much of that at present. Instead, Gerald the Irrepressible has conceived a personal service delivery menu of exciting dishes, artfully presented, starting on Friday 20 March.

Orders for Friday- and Saturday-delivered dinners are by WhatsApp only. They include Pomegranate Duck or lavish platters to share between three or four people, of braaied meats, fish, vegetarian or vegan items. Or more casual plates of a particularly well-known chicken bunny chow. The Thunderwalker menu features a toothsomely strong suite of sweets or desserts.

Day-by-day understanding

Chef Coco in the Épicure kitchen. Photo: Épicure

“Though coping is difficult,” maintains owner-chef Coco Reinarhz of his African-cuisine venue, Épicure, “We are slowly-slowly understanding the gravity of what the pandemic is teaching us. Yes, what about the staff?” All things and people considered, Épicure is resisting the temptation to close, staying open at present in a very opened up way, with space cleared throughout the restaurant, sanitised cutlery and glassware only placed on the table when patrons arrive “so that they may be assured it is safe, for themselves”. People at home, he maintained earlier this week, may also order straight off the menu on the website and have their cuisine arrive via Uber Eats. Coco sees an opportunity to “take the time to consider and to spring-clean a little, for now”.

The unforeseeable future

It’s what’s keeping Joburg’s restaurants, cafes and bars under siege, dithering somewhere between resistance and rest, this week. Next week… ? DM


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