TGIFOOD

RESTAURANT HERO

Bertus Basson comes to the rescue

Readers Grill’s new seasonal salad, organically grown baby vegetables in Tulbagh with macadamias, mustard dressing and Parmesan. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

You don’t get to own five restaurants and have multiple awards under your belt without making some mistakes along the way. Basson brings his years of experience to the table in the TV series In die Sop: Restaurant Evolusie.

 

The author supports Feeding in Action, a non-profit organisation that provides meals and food supplies to nearly 5,000 people each week.

It’s an old joke, but how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the lightbulb must want to change. The same can be said for restaurant owners who’ve snuggled down into their nice comfortable ruts and pulled the blankets over their heads, still serving up the same dishes that have been on the menu for years, in restaurants with tired decor.

Being immersed in familiarity is one thing, but it’s not the thing to keep a business thriving, now more so than ever. The pandemic and all it brought with it knocked the restaurant industry for six. The recovery process is slow for them but also for diners who’ve weathered their own storms, loss of income, health fears and so on. Eating out is a privilege, and consumers are selective.

So if a restaurant was struggling before Covid-19, due to boring food or B-team staff and service, chances are things are even worse now. Despite that, it can be difficult to change, to drag oneself up, shake off the dust and start over; it’s much easier just to go “meh” and plod through another day.

Unless a team of heroes rides in to light a fire under you and kick your butt, that is.

The 10 restaurants featured in the Afrikaans (English subtitles) reality series In die Sop: Restaurant Evolusie (kykNET DStv 144 on Wednesdays at 8pm) all agreed to allow chef and restaurateur Bertus Basson and decor expert Misi Overturf 72 hours to turn their lives – and their restaurants – upside down and back to front, to present a spanking new look from the entrance to the kitchen to the menu. Nobody said it would be painless though…

In episode two, Hentie van der Merwe and Frits van Reyneveld took a back seat while Kossie Sikilela, the new restaurant at Evita se Perron in Darling, was transformed – essentially revising their initial vision for the place. This is not an easy thing to do, to relinquish control. What Van Reyneveld and Van der Merwe had going for them was that they hadn’t been there that long. Carol Collins, who has run Readers (now Grill) in Tulbagh for 25 years, took a bit of strain.

Carol Collins, chef-patron of Readers Grill in Tulbagh with Bertus Basson in her newly fitted kitchen. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

“I started at Readers when I got married in 1997, helped restore the building, varnishing doors and caring for the old wood work,” said Collins. “A few years later I bought the business from my partners and then about 12 years ago took the plunge and bought the building. I have been part of Readers from the beginning – and we opened our doors to the public for the first time in 1997 and served a three-course menu for R35 a person.”

Before that, Collins worked in the event catering business for 10 years, during which she cooked for Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis junior, Peter Townshend and The Who, Tina Turner and Billy Idol, and Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.

With just 72 hours to produce results, it was a whirlwind three days, said Collins, full of challenges – hard, as well as emotional and uplifting. “It was stressful when they ripped out the kitchen cupboards, and some of the questions asked were a little concerning, but the assurance from the crew that all would be okay, and their kindness, was what I listened to and accepted. Would I go through it again? Yes. 

“I cannot emphasise enough the caring and support of the crew and I feel without them the process would have been hugely different.”

Collins admitted she struggled with the process – and had to make a conscious decision not to sneak past in the middle of the night to have a look – as she had decided it was a wonderful advantage and not to spoil it. 

“I took this opportunity with both hands and am running with all the advice, giving it a chance and will see over the next few months what will work and what does not,” she said of the menu, which was drastically overhauled.

“The advice that was given to me was to use what I could get from the local community gardens, so this also gives me the flexibility to create a few simple sides that change according to what is picked fresh. My butcher in Gouda dictates the meat side of the menu as to which he thinks is the best quality and the best cut. The only thing I have added or included in the menu is a lunch special, cheese platter, and my famous homemade ice creams.” 

Commenting on the inspiration for new menus, Basson said every restaurant is different. “We try to look at suppliers in the area and what is accessible, as well as what is achievable with the resources and kitchen available for every restaurant.”

Besides revamping the food offering at Readers – and even changing the name – Collins was encouraged to streamline the look of the place.

“I took the advice after the reveal to declutter, declutter, declutter, and declutter some more,” she said. “I donated a lot of stuff to the local CHAIN and to the staff. This was a very satisfying process and one that will carry on for a few weeks as it is amazing what one hoards.” 

There has been huge interest in the restaurant since the episode aired, and Collins has kept the momentum going with promotional dinners to promote the new look and feel to the locals – guest houses and key people in the valley – and to train the staff with the new grill and equipment. 

“The show will give a huge boost to the business and has given me a nudge in the right direction to grow and move with the times and trends,” she said. 

Restaurants threw their aprons in the ring via a call to enter on kykNET and in the media. “Then we had a special content team who went out to the selected short list and made sure they were ‘in die sop’ (in trouble), came back with a content file, pictures, drawings and a full report – on which we based our final decision,” said Paul Venter, managing director and senior producer at Homebrew Films.

Errieda du Toit – with her husband Ian – was responsible for research and content.

“Readers was probably my favourite – Carol is going through such a transformation process herself. I admire her capacity for change; I think it surprises her as well,” said Errieda. “I felt a huge responsibility in selecting the 10 restaurants, as the industry as a whole is so hard-hit by the pandemic.”

A view of The Collective’s open kitchen after its colourful makeover. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

The process was quite intense and emotional, and sensitive, said Du Toit. “Realising that people are vulnerable and to have to admit they need help is not easy. My privilege was to build up the relationship, and to be there for them before, during and after the production. 

“Ian also took photographs before and after, which gave owners a record of the process.” 

Restaurants where the problems went beyond what everyone experienced had to be identified. Each restaurant had to tell its own unique story, with its own unique set of problems, be it location, service, systems, menu planning or ambiance.

“We set out to include a variety of styles: from a family restaurant to a neighbourhood pub or pizzeria, a suburban eatery in a mall to a small-town restaurant with country fare, a seafood restaurant, a bakery/coffee shop, a heritage restaurant and a community project. We also looked at locally-owned, smaller or family-run businesses – so no franchises or chain restaurants,” said Du Toit.

“While owners could enter themselves, we scouted communities with the help of locals who know a region well and could help identify restaurants with potential and deserving a chance.”

The Du Toits visited the restaurants personally beforehand, not only to gather the facts but to establish trust and build relationships.

“This is key to the process, as they were wary of a Gordon Ramsay/Kitchen Nightmares style programme, with its brutal, sensationalist approach,” said Du Toit. “Having worked with Homebrew Films on many reality series before, I could give them the assurance that the programme would be empathetic, aimed at helping them. The whole process is very emotional and intimate; these are hardworking people – to ask for help, share their shortcomings and tell an outsider what keeps them awake at night is hard for them.”

Said Venter: “We looked at the restaurant industry during Covid and realised they are struggling. Together with the arts, they were dying. Operating times, alcohol ban, staff that fell ill – and we realised they need help to lift their heads again after the pandemic.

“When we started looking and searching, we found however that restaurants are not necessarily struggling because of Covid only, and we could help. We had a budget, we wanted to make television, and we had Bertus Basson – qualified chef and all-round nice guy who wants to help people in the industry. 

“And yes, Gordon Ramsay did something similar; Restaurants On The Edge is more or less also in the same genre, but In die Sop is unique to South Africa. It is a kind and positive experience for all – not a screaming match and humiliation,” he said.

“In the show we approach the restaurants and their owners with a positive attitude as it isn’t the aim to scare them off. In fact, we want to empower and inspire them with our knowledge and experience,” said Basson.

Jaart in Wellington now makes pizza with 48-hour fermented dough and locally produced buffalo mozzarella baked in their wood-stoked oven. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

To be part of a life-changing process is probably the most rewarding experience of her food career – and the best opportunity to support our local restaurant industry, said Du Toit. “I also have a new-found respect for what it takes to run a restaurant.”

Frits van Reyneveld and Hentie van der Merwe read about the show in the newspaper, appealing to restaurants affected by Covid and in need of help. “Evita se Perron was severely affected and wouldn’t have reopened. We had to start everything from scratch. Hentie and I saw this as the perfect opportunity and applied immediately,” he said. “The next day Errieda du Toit called us to say they would be very happy for an important landmark like the Perron to be part of In die Sop. They came and scouted and we showed them the new restaurant space (Kossie Sikelela fine dining restaurant) where we needed guidance, as well as the existing cafe and deli that we opened in August 2020.”

Van der Merwe, who is hands-on in the kitchen, said he spent the 72 hours of the makeover learning from Basson and discussing ideas with him about the menu, restaurants, Evita se Perron and the beautiful Swartland and what it has to offer. “We were all quite anxious and knew we had to use the time to the maximum to gain as much as possible from this experience. Bertus and his culinary team were amazing; he has so much knowledge which he was so happy to share with us, not only with regards to creating beautiful and exciting food, but also with regards to the financial and logistical side of running a restaurant as a business.”

The buzz was amazing and the energy of the whole In die Sop team was contagious, added Van Reyneveld. 

Bertus Basson guiding Mienie Appel, the cook at The Collective in Stanford. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

“Misi Overturf and her team were so pleasant and energetic, we soon realised we will just have to back off and let them do their ‘thing’. Initially we were very nervous that these ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t understand who and what Tannie Evita or the Perron is. But, we had entered In die Sop and we had no choice but to trust them and wait anxiously for the end-result,” he said.

And the result? “Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout spot-on! We were amazed that Misi and her team had such a grasp of the character of Tannie Evita (an aspiring Afrikaner-vrou who enjoyed her power and had the 1980s as the backdrop and start of her political career as ambassador to the homeland of Bapetikosweti). The restaurant is beautiful, stylish, tongue in cheek with Afrikaans-flair,” said Van der Merwe.

“On Bertus’s advice we kept the menu he helped create for the entire month of April, and it was good advice since it gave me time to get used to the new menu format and getting used to cooking for this menu format. We decided to change the menu every season, and since the initial menu we brought out our autumn and most recently our winter menu, both with an entirely new set of dishes, but in the format Bertus suggested.

Upcoming Episode: Chef Bertus Basson with Louis Zenhausern, chef- owner in the open kitchen of the northern suburbs neighbourhood restaurant Arugula in Welgemoed, Cape Town, discussing the new menu. (Photo: Ian du Toit for Homebrew Films)

“I also kept the approach to local cuisine that Bertus suggested, i.e. a contemporary take on traditional South African cooking, very much like he does on many of his own menus so in that respect he was a huge inspiration to me.”

It is currently out of season in Darling and normally very quiet, but it has been so busy since the airing of In die Sop, said Van Reyneveld. “We have had a huge influx of Afrikaans and English visitors who saw us on In die Sop and who decided to come and see how the Evita se Perron offering has changed! It has been such an amazing opportunity!”

Turning a restaurant around in 72 hours is a very tight timeframe, and that was also challenging at times, said Basson. “I have made mistakes and have learnt lessons from them in my career. My restaurants are all also very different which has helped,” said Basson. “I realise we are lucky to have restaurants in great locations. I enjoyed the challenges and enjoyed finding new suppliers. It is also a privilege to be able to change people’s lives.” DM/TGIFood

In die Sop, kykNET DStv 144, Wednesdays at 8pm.

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