CHEF KEN’S ETHOS
A dining experience of the very Mediterranean soul
‘Ethos’ is more than ‘character’ in Greek. Add ‘capability’ and ‘upliftment’ and we’re edging closer. Aristotle had his interesting definition about ‘persuasion through character’ but my own definition of ethos is ‘the better side of humanity’. What makes up the sum of the parts of Ethos the restaurant are such characters and even an inanimate one.
Chef Ken Phuduhudu isn’t new to this Jozi strip. I last saw him taking over the kitchen of the Greenhouse before it moved to Sandton. He stayed and strolled further up the open-air ambleway, to where the top chef position had been cut out specially for him at Ethos.
Keeping track of just the hundred or so really good restaurants all over Jozi is a bit like that skit about the pop bands’ changing names and members. “We were playing as the so-and-sos after it was the so-and-sos, before it changed to the so-and-sos, when so-and-so was still lead.”
Ethos too moved from Morningside, where well-seasoned restaurateur Chris Tatsakis had opened it towards the end of 2019, to here in this well-starred Oxford Parks development. This is where Chef Ken and Luke Dale-Roberts transformed its food offering and production methods up until Ethos’ opening earlier this month.
Ken Phuduhudu worked on the Ethos menu, swinging it from grand Greek opulence over to inspirations from all sides of the Mediterranean, of the finest current food-making. While still top end dining, it features simply marvellous ingredients, cleverly created dishes that hint of fond classics. They smack more of excitingly coaxed deliciousness than of champagne oysters now.
Now is after the opening. The beautiful Ethos is seeing full, appreciative floors, bookings stacked up into the future. Chef Ken Phuduhudu is pleased to see it working out so well.
He’s tall, with a measured walk and a short gruff laugh that escapes as involuntary amusement at the world and at himself. He’s also very focused. Very.
Ken Phuduhudu has always known where he was headed, since he was a tiny Pretoria child keen to cook for his mother. He carefully chose subjects throughout his education that would lead him to being a chef. When he needed actual chef-school funds he taught English in Bryanston for a couple of years to accomplish that goal. Ken Phuduhudu accomplishes things and makes them seem easy.
We talk about all this over a small selection of Mediterranean meze that Ken magicked from one of the passing staff in low, even tones. I pull over the little dish of calamari, the real stuff in faultless tempura with a dehydrated garlicky aïoli dusting and deeply tasty squid ink, slight, crisp-tender, fresh accompaniments. I find it lovely to eat, sophisticated and surprising. It’s both an experience and a treat and I suspect that is what this new Ethos food is about.
Chef Ken even knew beforehand where and with what chefs he wanted and needed to work. He did work at Terroir in Stellenbosch and at the Test Kitchen in Cape Town, at Épicure in Johannesburg, even opening Glenda’s up here in Jozi. Where it’s all about attention to detail. With the onset of the Covid time, he made his own Private Dining Experience company incredibly successful. I am impressed most by that, knowing how many people, other great chefs included, could not get that sort of business to work when they needed it most. “I set out determined to make it work,” Ken says simply. And he did. It’s part of his character.
He gives one of his short self-deprecating laughs when he tells me about his little book for what he has to accomplish. And by when. “In it I set out my plans and their details for a year. But I also have a five-year plan. Even a 10-year plan,” he laughs again while I try out the keftedes (Greek meatballs) of a new winsome style, beautiful to taste, on a bed of dried, intensely flavoured goats’ feta.
Apart from food and language, chef Ken loves art, having painted before, and is often inspired by the styles of particularly modern artists when he designs flavour combinations. After the flavours he considers methods and textures, then the plate visuals. Before he was cheffing full-time, he’d eat out at other places in Joburg three times a day, to see what everyone else was doing. “It was impoverishing,” he laughs, “but I’ve always been very serious about being a chef and about what’s going on with our food.”
He loves Embarc in Parkview, what chef Darren O’Donovan does and even what he accomplished as chef while he was at Aurum. He also likes eating at Modena and Kolonaki, both Parkview restaurants owned by Vassilios Holiasmenos and, interestingly enough, both favourites of other chefs I know. René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen is one of Ken’s greatest chef heroes, Gaggan Anand in Bangkok being another.
Now that Ethos is working so well, chef Ken has further plans within it, at the inner bar counter. He’s going to host and produce, in front of the guests, five-course tasting menus there, maybe every fortnight. They’ll be of an adventurous and unforgettable sort, the whole experience very personalised too, even unto each person’s own name-embroidered napkins. But my main focus is the food, not instagram.”
He and the owner Chris Tatsakis already have even more plans for the future. They’re very worth watching, both characters certainly on the better side of humanity.
It is obvious that Tatsakis, softly spoken and gently countenanced, has become very fond of his chef. “I’m planning to surprise him.” He holds his finger excitedly to his lips and I can see he’s dying to tell someone. It might be me.
I saw him a few minutes ago having a beer with friends or businessmen outside the restaurant, when one of the men pronounced: “There’s a lot of fish going down.” I wondered for a moment about that.
Chris Tataskis has been reminded recently of his values. His mother died a few days ago and he says he’s been realising that it’s important to remember who we are. “She started with nothing and, in a way, she died with nothing.” He stops. He smiles but sad-sweetly at me. I know he’s talking about her perhaps not having amassed lots of effects but that she had given him the more valuable things in life.
Looking around, Chris says quietly, as though quoting himself, “This is an experience of the very Mediterranean soul. It put us on this path in the first place.” He glances at me again after that, a little shyly, and says I must not tell anyone what he’s about to tell me. I promise. He tells me what it is and who it’s for, with palpable delight, but my lips and laptop are sealed.
Chris’ son, Giorgio, is responsible for Ethos’ décor. I am seldom interested in décor, I admit, but the first thing I do after seeing the bas relief above the bar that reminds me of a restaurant called Mythos that Chris sold some time back, is look up at what I think are delicately glazed wavy sections on the restaurant ceiling. Gazing in wonder, I seem to detect a slight movement. Giorgio tells me they are really paper, to remind us of calm wind and waves and that they also work as noise buffers.
It is such a beautiful effect, rather than mere décor, an influence on mood and mien, that I regard this interior as another character, although not human, of Ethos. It makes me feel calm, beatific and that I want to spend time here.
Keegan Smith is a very different character. A very lively one. He has bartending experience and then experience built on that experience. He’s trained the best. For me that’s Julian Short of Sin+Tax. And he’s competed internationally against him.
Keegan styles himself like a pool or darts champ of more vintage days. It’s a perfect look for a bartender or mixologist.
We discuss the styles of flairing versus mixo, the fads, the science, all while he’s mixing me a drink “that’ll throw your senses”. It’s all in the character of the drink he thinks but I reckon there’s a lot of Keegan in his work.
He promises that the Italian gomme won’t stain my teeth. “That’s the beauty of it.” I think the beauty of it is the citrusy taste, a real-grown-up, professionally structured drink that looks like a plaything.
It feels odd to step out of Ethos, though into a lovely open walkway or ambleway that runs the length of Oxford Parks. But I feel ordinary again. I felt extraordinary a few moments before, thanks to the character and characters of Ethos. DM/TGIFood
Ethos Restaurant, corner of Eastwood and Parks Boulevard, Oxford Parks, Rosebank. Book here.
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
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