All’s FYN as Peter Tempelhoff shows how it’s done

All’s FYN as Peter Tempelhoff shows how it’s done
A fine dessert of Madagascan chocolate and young pine needle (from Table Mountain) parfait, and yuzu pears at FYN. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The road back to trading has been a long and arduous one for restaurants. And FYN lives up to its name on all scores.

Five months ago, at the end of March 2020, all the restaurants in South Africa were closed. There were no takeaways, no deliveries, and certainly no going out for a sit-down meal with a bit of wine.

It was a very weird time for many, as they realised they had no idea how to cook, and shopping for ingredients involved an operation of military proportions, with protective gear and the stamina to stand in queues for hours. Those who could quickly turned to the internet with its online shopping, grocery deliveries, and cooking lessons by some of the country’s best chefs.

We never know how lucky we are, or how much we take for granted, until we don’t have it any more.

I did okay with the home cooking although I never want to see another sweet potato; I’d bought a couple of bags just before lockdown and it turns out they last for-bloody-ever.

And then came the glorious era of home deliveries (cue shining angels with those trumpet things). Among the first, and probably the first to do a fine dining home delivery, was FYN. It was then that I realised how much I missed eating out.

That meal was wonderful, not the least because it was nothing like I’d ever cook myself, and made a change from sweet potatoes. But it did make me yearn to be in an actual restaurant with all the trappings of service. There were a couple of ups and downs, and eventually that day came. But I wasn’t ready right away. I’m still selective, and have been horrified by stories which are emerging about places that are not enforcing the safety protocols. So is Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, and if she’s concerned then the NCCC (National Coronavirus Command Council) is watching as well. They do all have social media. It would be devastating if the few jeopardise the many who are in fact compliant.

Having sampled FYN’s food, I was particularly thrilled to visit it for the first time, for the consummate experience. Not only was it an opportunity to luxuriate with the multiple-course menu with wine pairings (oh joyous day, angels again), but to enjoy the striking interior which has been cleverly modified for not only the required physical distancing but for privacy and intimacy.

The FYN restaurant space has been hailed as one of the most visually stunning in the Mother City. It’s on the fifth floor of Speaker’s Corner building, 37 Parliament Street, in the Cape Town city centre. Opened at the end of 2018 by chef Peter Tempelhoff in partnership with Jennifer Hugé and Ashley Moss, the double volume interior is grounded by a spectacular symmetrical ceiling hanging of smoothly carved wooden beads of varying sizes, which is calming and pleasing to the eye. It’s inspired by the soroban, the Japanese abacus which has been around for centuries. The open-plan kitchen is the central island around which everything revolves, and the décor represents the cuisine – which is a fusion of African and Japanese. Dramatic the ceiling may be – and the view outside too – but with the dark charcoal tones and understated sophistication of muted red and greens on the walls and furniture, it somehow doesn’t distract or detract from the gorgeous food in front of you.

The double volume restaurant has been adapted for physical distancing with custom-made Japanese-style screens between tables. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Physical distancing in the dining area and at the kitchen bar takes the form of custom designed Japanese screens between tables and seating. They create a wonderfully secluded environment, and in our corner, we could see a family table of six or eight, and beyond them, the kitchen – a hive of tranquility – and that was it. Which was quite amazing, because almost all the tables were occupied; for all intents and purposes, we could have been the only ones there. This definitely made me feel comfortable.

The tranquil kitchen. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Other procedures in place begin with the Dineplan booking confirmation which requests you have a QR scanning app or function on your phone. This is because when you arrive, you have your temperature taken at the front door on ground level, and all other details are filled in online (the standard “do you have a cough” etc questions). You are shown to the lift and sent up to the fifth floor where you enter past the bar. There you will see Hastings Chiwaula, who said he was so delighted to be back at work, he wanted to dance.

Hastings Chiwaula said he was so delighted to be back at work, he wanted to dance. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

At your table, the settings are minimalist: a bonsai spekboom, chopsticks, napkin, water glasses, and another QR code for the menu. This contactless and easy-to-navigate method has been a cost-saver as well, in an establishment that changes dishes frequently and is forever printing new menus. If for some reason it won’t work on your phone, there’s a spare – sanitised – tablet for you to use.

The contactless QR menu which you scan with your phone. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Hugé, general manager and our personal sommelier for the day, was on hand with bubbles to begin (and a string of fantastic and special wines throughout the meal), while waiter Stanley Mangwaya explained the concept – “FYN is a fusion of South African ingredients meeting Japanese cooking techniques” – and double checked our dietary requirements (which you indicate when you book so they can be accommodated).

Many restaurants have adjusted their menus to coexist relatively peacefully with Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. For example, I’m seeing more à la carte alongside pared down set menus (to accommodate curfew so please don’t be that entitled chop who arrives late; you’re ruining it for everyone); FYN is doing this for the first time, for two or three course lunches Wednesdays to Saturdays. The two set menus – “Experience” six courses, and a winter-going-into-spring four course option – remain for dinners Wednesdays to Saturdays. For the most up-to-date information, it’s best to check the website; between booking and arriving, our choices had changed from only à la carte for lunch to the addition of the then-winter menu. We would have been happy, fine even, with the former but ecstatic to be presented with the latter, with a couple of bonuses from the Experience.

We began with canapés which included tempura dune spinach with smoked snoek dipping broth, a perfect example of Tempelhoff’s methods.

Next up was the warm savoury custard – a signature dish – made with ostrich eggs, with truffle, shiitake mushrooms and crispy bacon crumble. Game fish (tuna that day, with the most delicate of sears all round) tataki is served with vegetable kakiage, and chirizu sauce poured at the table. A nice touch is that the online menu provides hyperlinks to recipes or descriptions of items (and ethical suppliers) with which you might not be familiar, so you don’t have to appear to be an uncultured moron in public. Yes, I looked them up. Yes, I’ve left some of the links in the story for you.

A warm savoury custard made with ostrich eggs is a FYN signature dish. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Pasture-reared Overberg chicken and shiitake mushrooms followed, with chicken liver cremeux (a teeny tiny morsel but so divine, packing a flavour punch), black rice vinegar gel, and oxalis, was served with a very attractive Hokkaido milk bread bun, all glossy and golden. Mangwaya said we could eat that any way we liked, but we decided to keep it classy and not stick the chicken inside the roll.

The main course was Greenfields beef on slow roasted tomato, with celeriac (which I can now say I like) and kelp jus. Wagyu gyoza (dumplings) were on the side and if they were available as a dish on their own, I’d order them.

Beef on slow roasted tomato, with celeriac, kelp jus, and Wagyu gyoza on the side. But look at the plate! (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

I’d say “finally” but it wasn’t; there were still three different chocolate bon bons afterwards with no instruction as to how to share these fairly and equally between two people. The dessert was Madagascan chocolate, young pine needle (from Table Mountain) parfait, and yuzu pears.

With Mangwaya’s attentive service, exquisite presentation on an array of handcrafted crockery which dazzled and amazed (the beef course in particular – who does that with a plate?), Hugé’s wonderful wines which all – as wine should – came with a story, it was everything you’d expect from a superior eating affair. Importantly, it felt safe and comfortable.

After the long and leisurely meal which had me cancelling all my other Friday afternoon appointments, Tempelhoff, Hugé and I repaired to the library on the mezzanine level of Speakers Corner, which overlooks an art gallery, where they gave me some background on FYN’s lockdown journey. Being able to speedily transform as conditions altered has been key; even as the public was reeling from the news we had to stay home, FYN was already working on its deliveries to our doors, and the floor plans and design for the dining area was planned long before reopening. 

Response from diners about the screens has been positive, said Hugé, and they also have the advantage of reducing ambient noise – something which Tempelhoff had been considering anyway. “We used to do 60 covers but now, maximum 38 to 40,” she said, adding that perseverance and being creative was what kept them going through the phases of lockdown. “We didn’t stop. Pete gave me four days to deal with it, mentally, and then we were on Zoom with Ashley [Moss] every second of the day. We were prepping for takeaway before lockdown. We knew we would be doing that. And while we were doing that, we were preparing to reopen the restaurant, putting all the systems in place for that.”

Cues were taken from what was happening overseas, said Tempelhoff. “The virus hit in the East first, then moved to Europe and we just kept our ears to the ground, watching restaurants and seeing how they shifted with the times. It was a bit tricky in the beginning because we had to get around the curfew and the lockdown… Level 5 you couldn’t move.”

FYN reopened at the beginning of August, 2020, and it’s been amazing to serve the guests, said Hugé. “People are very relaxed and the staff are taking all the precautions. I think they are happy to get out. And I’m happy we can sell alcohol again. That was tough.”

She’s also pleased to have 98% of the staff back at work, which is pretty flipping amazing.

“It’s been a learning curve, one I wish I didn’t have to endure, but now that it’s under our belt – and still carrying on – we’ve taken a lot out of it,” said Tempelhoff of the repercussions of the pandemic. “Adapting and changing the business is something which will separate those which are stronger, more resilient. I like to think we are well managed, and have a good strong team in place. I think we can take a lot out of it, business-wise. We must also remember there’s going to be a lot of … if you’ve got the propensity to do it and you’ve got the inner strength to invest…this is a really good time to start looking for opportunities. 

Peter Tempelhoff says the pandemic has been a learning curve; not a welcome one, but a learning curve nonetheless. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“It’s really opened my eyes as to how we should be adapting our restaurants, trying to draw business from every sphere.”

Because every income avenue is critical, FYN from HOME is still available, and food, gifts, handcrafted crockery and cocktail kits can be ordered from the shop. Tempelhoff said they’ve noticed a drop off in home deliveries as restaurants are doing sit-down again, but there were still a respectable 20 orders for that evening. “Not bad, and it’s an income to make up for all the lost income,” he said. DM/TGIFood

To make a reservation for the restaurant, click here.


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