Jozi tales of chefs shining brightly out of lockdown

A beetroot dessert from climatically selected, seasonal ingredients grown in the magnificent gardens. (Photo: Supplied)

Two restaurants made use of the shutdown’s inevitable energies as well as its silence and quietude to take long looks into the navels of their businesses.

Restaurants across Johannesburg, as badly as happened countrywide, succumbed to the sequence of lockdown shocks, the dismays and a lot of depression. There often wasn’t time to think, only to react as quickly and sharply as possible. Sometimes there wasn’t even the time or opportunity for remedial reaction and many wonderful places just melted quietly away, some forever.

Saddest to see are the flapping phoenixes, desperate to restart from whatever remains.

But there were restaurants that took that unique once-in-a-lifetime chance to make lockdown count. They made use of its inevitable energies as well as its silence and quietude to take long looks into the navels of their businesses. They re-examined themselves, analysed their strengths, weaknesses, chances and likelihoods, imagined what forms their businesses could take in the future. When the future came. 

Under lockdown Level 1 a future made itself apparent and these two very different Johannesburg businesses were ready, waiting for it. Interestingly, both have factored in a continuation of part of their side lockdown businesses that proved too popular to ignore, even into their new futures, which have both their main businesses looking astonishingly different now.

From ONO to Your Table

ONO started off in Illovo. I remember admiring the wood and sisal swings for sitting in at the windows, the metal banana palm fronds above, the staff greeting everyone with an Aloha! It was where people learned that poké was really Hawaiian and not vaguely Eastern. The name was Hawaiian for “delicious”.

It was the original bowl of freshness and eco thing and I was spoiled for choice. Owner Anthony Theodosiou loped over at some point and suggested I have a dessert bowl too and it was beetroot, chocolate and chia seeds, studded with strawberries. 

People constantly popped in and then out with takeaways, including an elderly woman in leopard print and gold, with Gucci G-link earrings and a devastatingly handsome young man, all “bella figura” in cashmere and understated soft, dun-coloured footwear. 

Then ONO moved to another well-heeled part of the city, to Melrose Arch. And then came lockdown and they were there no more. In Melrose Arch is Anthony’s partners’ business, Luxity, that sells and buys the world’s most coveted brand name bags, shoes and accessories. Expect a pair of “pre-loved” Louboutin low-tops for R16,000 and many Gucci bags inter expensive alia.

The guys, while kicking their lockdown heels for once, discussing what to keep and mooting what-to-start ideas, had the best chance to look around properly and noticed that, while restaurants and other businesses were failing there and all over Johannesburg during lockdown, there was no dip at the very upper end of businesses. If that were the case for accessories and other that-end business, could it be the same thing for fine dining? They had plenty of time to explore and carefully develop a likely model.

Meantime, ONO was physically gone but far from forgotten. People still ordered the healthy fresh poké bowls online and the food was being prepared in a non-public or dark kitchen and delivered.

Just such a kitchen could be used for the prep and much of the production of the sublime for a whole new business, run by the three partners.  

Something of the sublime – an amuse bouche of liver paté, onion marmalade and lemon confit. (Photo: Supplied)

Because, even at the upper tip of the society or income scale, there will very likely continue to be some reluctance to eat out, however grandly. What if you don’t have to? If the restaurant came to you? 

Private chefs are fairly common but  the entire super-exquisite restaurant experience for you, your family or friends at home, well, that was not anything anyone was doing.  All the client would need was their table. Everything else would be supplied and done for him or her. 

Your Table was about to be born.

What if the restaurant came to you? (Photo: Supplied)

“An experience like this is, of course, built around the food. Your Table really makes something of the drama, the excitement, the aromas and flavours…” Michael Zahariev trails off during our laptop meeting. He is thinking of last night’s event, I guess by his speech and dreamy expression. “D’you know we can involve all the senses in one dinner – taste and olfactory, tactile too but also aural?” His eyes come back to meet mine on screen. “Not necessarily with music, though that can be arranged if required by our clients – but our chefs have developed delightfully sonic dishes that whoosh and pop!”

The Your Table chefs are pretty fantastic, all with either international or local five-star type, fine-dining experience. Juleen Hattingh is head chef, she who started out at La Colombe, then went on to La Petite Colombe under Chef John Norris-Rogers and into The Orient’s Mosaic under Chef Chantel Dartnall.

The new business provides entrancingly theatrical, very high quality cheffed dining at your home, featuring seven unforgettable courses chosen from a seasonal menu, used as a basis for changes and adaptations for the client’s specific requirements, dietary or other. 

Unforgettable courses like this version of pork belly with scallops and miso foam. (Photo: Supplied)

The wait-staff of Your Table are sleekly well trained, deftly producing, under the evening’s maître de service, one lavish course after another, including wine pairing if required. Everything on the table is supplied and specially chosen by Your Table, including the napiery, the cutlery, crockery and décor. And everything is whisked away afterwards, the kitchen and dining area cleaned like magic, when the evening’s culinary performance is over.

To book, a host informs the Your Table booking team about the desired event, about any special culinary cravings and dietary considerations, how many guests are expected (between eight and 20 currently), and everything but everything else is taken care of.

It is an unapologetically very-top-end business and here’s Guccio Gucci sneaking in again, when Anthony quotes him: “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”

And ONO still has life, reconsidered, retweaked, now to be strictly takeaway, from new premises in Bryanston. 

It is too good to let go, even though Your Table has already begun to be the new big thing in luxurious dining or home entertainment, brought about by three questioning minds during lockdown.

From NCW regular to NCW of infinite freedom

As a tasting menu restaurant of a brilliant chef, Ence Willemse himself, the one with the philosophical bent, NCW has built up an international and local fan base for the exciting tasting menus offered. 

I’ve been lucky enough to appreciate a few stunning dinners, right from the opening evening a few years ago, when I met the chef that other chefs laud. Handsome but shy, Ence seemed happier in his open plan kitchen than in the arty rooms full of interesting people. I had yet to hear the story of how he slogged so hard and dramatically for the years leading on from his early chef career to acquire this property for his own restaurant and his art collection. Since then, I’ve respected him as much for that as for his wonderful food and thinking.

NCW restaurant and gallery space during lockdown. (Photo: Supplied)

One of my lifetime-great meals was a five course tasting lunch, a thrilling gift for me, set up in one of the smaller airy NCW spaces for just the two of us, waited on by chef Ence himself and his sous chef, the sommelier within pouring distance.

I do look online to see every now and then at what stage in the menu the ice cream is appearing and in what guise. It has been basil, truffle, onion and caramel and I’m sure many more flavours. I regard it as one of his little signatures.

Ence Willemse – the chef other chefs laud. (Photo: Supplied)

That stopped of course. The rooms rang emptily during lockdown and Ence and his partner spent their hours on an interleading property where the climatically selected, seasonal fruit, herbs and vegetables that have increasingly inspired so much on the NCW menus are grown in magnificent gardens.

Just before lockdown, Ence and his partner had been hugely taken with the Future Africa concept at Pretoria University, thinking to start a new Gauteng food movement among like-minded chefs. Then suddenly no-one could go anywhere, let alone get together over Future foods.

But they used the enforced temporal space presented by lockdown as their own unobstructed, untrammeled thinking and unravelling time, for introspection. It seemed as if there were no longer any need to do things the way they have always been done. And there could always be better ways. Ence likes to say that the world continues to change, even bit by bit. Ence also likes Albert Camus: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” 

Meanwhile, they started an order and delivery service, Anna’s Kitchen, named after both of their mothers, providing affordable but beautifully produced meals of the comforting sort. I took one of them to a friend who’s no slouch in the kitchen himself. The main course was smoked and slow-cooked brisket. He had tears in his eyes. 

And, while Anna’s took up quite a bit of time since the two were doing the food and deliveries themselves, they spent the rest honing new, infinite NCW plans, the things they felt comfortable with, that sat well with Ence’s creativity and the new future continent of Africa responsible, sustainable foods.

Ence is also obsessed with the excellence of service that older Michelin stars used to demand and that he feels we don’t succeed at. He wants to do more there. In future. “Much much more.”

NCW opened for the restaurant to welcome mainly local guests back, the internationals only now starting to trickle in.

The restaurant will close for “normal” service for three weeks from the beginning of November. From then on, it will open for two weeks and then close for two weeks in such cycles, including two-month sabbaticals during the lower seasons. Luckily social media and websites are good for announcing times and NCW is excellent at keeping clients informed. I’ll be checking the website and menus for the ice creams anyway.

The “closed” two-week periods will not be idle. There are always events booked and these will continue, especially the sought after food-and-wine ones. Now Debi van Flymen, South Africa’s quirky and eccentric Wine Master has joined NCW as Events Manager and Cellar Master. She’ll be shaking up everyone’s old wine senses as is her wont. Food and wine evenings with Debi and NCW have already proven themselves to be momentous. I know.

Meanwhile, people love Anna’s and so it should continue, moving into one of the buildings on the property so that it has its own kitchen. 

This on-off way of doing things presents Ence with great freedom to explore even more new culinary areas, to experiment, to fill his head with more ideas and his heart with more reward. The restaurant spaces could be changed around. He realises now that restaurants don’t actually have to be one way or another at all. And Ence Willemse can maybe find something of that great tranquility that lit the inspirations for the new NCW. DM/TGIFood

Your Table, [email protected]

NCW Restaurant, 46 Main Road, Melville


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