Look to your laurels, Cape Town: The Golden City is shining right now

Look to your laurels, Cape Town: The Golden City is shining right now
The winners: Top (L to R): Vassilios Holiasmenos, James Peech, Sisipho Mbeteni, Irene Kyriacou, Katlego Mlambo. Bottom (L to R): Besele Moloi, Candice Philip, Mmabatho Molefe, Giorgio Tatsakis, Mogau Seshoene, Zanele van Zyl, Wandile Mabaso. (Photo: Supplied)

It was exhilarating to see Joburg shine as the emerging food capital of the country at the fourth annual Luxe Restaurant Awards. That’s what almost everybody present was thinking, and what ‘The Lazy Makoti’ chef Mogau Seshoene said.

At last we are arriving in more generous national awards territory, with this fourth annual outing of the (national) Luxe Restaurant Awards. Many of these awards did go to the Cape. Fair’s fair, after all. But a few more went to the places and people of Jozi, with its large but often overlooked restaurant industry.

Of the 25 categories in this year’s Luxe Restaurant Awards, “The Lazy Makoti” chef Mogau Seshoene wrote the winning Cookbook of the Year: Hosting with The Lazy Makoti. By the way, over all four years of Luxe awards, there have always been 25 award categories. I checked.

Mogau Seshoene, author of Hosting with The Lazy Makoti. (Photo: Supplied)

A Jozi chef and author, Mogau Seshoene has already won local and international awards for her previous Lazy Makoti food book that also features up-to-date ways of cooking traditional foods with local ingredients. She’s also hosted a TV show about African recipes and foods.

Before hers, 12 of tonight’s awards have been presented. Of them, four were made to Winelands or Cape Town places or people, the rest to places and people in Johannesburg. 

My delight is that chef Wandile Mabaso, of his own restaurant Les Creatifs in Bryanston, after spending four years faced by a stunned kind of silence back in his home land (Chef Wandile Mabaso a Jozi food hero shining in the shadows), has been recognised at last, as Chef of the Year in South Africa.

‘It is my first recognition on my home soil.’ (Photo: Supplied)

“Regardless of what I achieve in future,” he said, “this award will always be special because it is my first recognition on my home soil after spending a decade abroad.” So I guess our best chef, as judged by Hosco’s industry peers and restaurant experts, will be driving off in that gleaming new BMW standing behind the podium.

The award for Restaurant of the Year was given to a Winelands restaurant, albeit one in Cape Town, La Colombe. A few years ago, all the while under James Gaag the executive chef, it moved from the Constantia Uitsig Estate to the Silvermist Wine Estate, also in Constantia. 

Hosco is short for the Hospitality Management Counsel. It’s based in Fourways and services the hospitality sector by trying to improve its sustainability and growth. The food awards were seen as one way of encouraging the restaurant sector in a possibly more egalitarian way than was considered by most of the sector to have been the case. The MD is Chad Fourie who told me there will soon be Luxe Hotel Awards every year as well. That’s tricky, I think. What’s a hotel any more? But then I suppose one might equally wonder what’s a restaurant.

The olive tree in the centre of Ethos restaurant, with a stunning evil eye. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Ethos is magnificent, a large restaurant, the one with the beautiful paper ceiling and an indoor olive tree hung with its stunning evil eye. The designer, who just happens to be the owner’s son Giorgio, was the first person I ran into when I arrived. The restaurant is Greek, of a rather elegant, modern menu-food sort (A dining experience of the very Mediterranean soul), with Ken Phuduhudu, who worked with Luke Dale-Roberts, as the head chef. It’s in the same Oxford Parks development in Rosebank as Dale-Roberts’ own restaurants, the Shortmarket Club and the Test Kitchen Carbon. No wonder it was chosen by Hosco as the venue for the awards. 

The original awards idea was to go big with the 400 guests expected at such an event but, as Hosco’s Chad Fourie said, they’d rather have it in a relevant restaurant than a huge venue if possible. So they limited guest numbers to 80, most without partners, plus the winners. This restaurant will turn out to be even more relevant later.

Most people plumped for a duck legs starter with foie gras and pine needle-smoked figs. (Photo: Supplied)

Chef Ken Phuduhudu has that unenviable task of feeding just over a hundred people at the same time. That’s catering rather than restaurant cooking, a tough job so I’m surprised by how delightful the starters seem. I can’t see anyone with bouillabaisse and not many with the carpaccio of octopus I have, lemony, olivey, middle-eastern in flavour. Most people plumped for duck legs with foie gras and pine needle-smoked figs. The vegetarian dish is something I’ve had and loved, a kataifi version of spanakopita, baby spinach with yuzu and garlic in warm feta cream. Many guests are eating that. 

Next to me is Tessa Purdon, invited by Luxe from Eat Out (the longstanding annual restaurant guide and awards system), and she and I are struggling to read the mouseprint menu in semi-darkness, tracing out a few giggly letters at a time, like kindergarten readers, some wrong, some right, but getting the gist of enough of the dishes to order.

Irene Kyriacou, designer responsible for the mind-blowing, humorous décor of Zioux. (Photo: Supplied)

The award coming up now is for the African Restaurant of the Year, going to Emazulwini on the Cape Town Waterfront. But there’ve been a whole lot inbetween. Pier was New Restaurant of the Year, part of the La Colombe group and not, of course, in a wineland but fine-seafoody. Sandton’s Zioux took the Style award. It’s part of the Marble Group that includes David Higgs. Irene Kyriacou, responsible for the mind-blowing, quite humorous décor, fetched that. 

Siba Mtongana won, most deservedly, I’d say, the Culinary Icon of the Year. She’s also chosen the waterfront for her restaurant. The Culinary Media Award went for Cooking with Zanele, to Zanele van Zyl, another local but who’s originally from Kwa Zulu. She would easily take any award for the most phenomenal outfit. There’s a lot of finery this evening.

Siba Mtongana in her own finery, as Culinary Icon of the Year. (Photo: Supplied)

Chef Candice Philip, simply one of the topmost best in South Africa, took the Culinary Innovation Award. No longer popping up at Basalt, she’s ensconced and turning out her exquisite, seasonal and almost weekly innovations for which she’s peerless. Basalt restaurant also took the Service Excellence Award. It was then I realised I’d seen the owners, the Peech couple, with Candice earlier. The event seems full of these meaningful glimpses.

So it was with chef Besele (Moses) Moloi, the Luxe Restaurant Awards Culinary Rising Star. I’d glimpsed him at Zioux when Dave Higgs asked me if I’d ever featured Moloi, whose journey has been international but national with both Luke Dale-Roberts and Candice Philip when she had Grei at the Saxon. The Dale-Robertses, though chiefly Sandalene, for her Fledgelings chefs-to-be hub, received the Sustainability Award and Luke Dale-Roberts the Pioneer Award. In South Africa he’s probably done the most for new talent. So many of the currently great chefs worked with or trained under Luke before they “flew”. He’s also shaken up the country in terms of menu standards, international awareness of our own restaurants and now locale, Jozi to be exact, in the nicest possible ways.

I’m impressed with how speedily the awards process goes with presenter Shashi Naidoo. It’s all pretty quick-quick with none of those thanks to everyone that recipients can think of. She gives a very pithy synopsis and the lights flash as awards change hands. The awardees usually speak one or two sentences. No ennui.

Parkview’s Embarc receives the Bistro of the Year Award and it’s another I’d have awarded, myself, were I Hosco. The five judges for the Luxe Restaurant Awards are anonymous. It’s not an unusual practice but I have to ask why.

“Isn’t that how you’d like to be judged?” asks Chad. We run through the alternative scenario that I’m familiar with. I might not be well known but I know judges in a couple of countries who are, so that they book under another name or even try disguising themselves. There are a few give-aways though. They often eat by themselves because the judging budget is not always generous, sitting where they can see the kitchen and the floor. From there they tap into their i-phones or tablets, talk to them, eyes darting around the room, even scribbling into a little book or on the back of the menu. To assuage suspicion, they often leave a rather large tip afterwards. At that we laugh a bit too hysterically. We’ve both been there. 

Langoustine and scallop saffron tortellini that I saw across the table. (Photo: Supplied)

Our mains had arrived and I hadn’t really read the items properly so ordered kleftiko, marvellous of course, when there were other delights like langoustine and scallop saffron tortellini that I saw across the table. I see quite a few wild mushroom gnocchis too, adrift with grated truffle. 

Chad whispers five names, four of which are very well known to me. Of course, of course these people would not want their names known. I’ll never breathe a syllable of them, so perhaps take my word that they are excellent choices of both sexes, colours and a wide range of ages in the restaurant and directly related food industries. I’m allowed to say one is a Gourmand World Cookbook award winner, one a hospitality consultant, one an internationally recognised award-winning South African chef, one a TV chef and entrepreneur, one a food stylist. Two of them are male, two are “white”. “Fair’s fair?”. That’s for sure.

I was once a great fan of the Parisian food travel site and awards, Le Fooding. They would drop in less lofty seeming but could-be-just-as-respected categories such as hamburgers. Luxe has one this year. The Hamburger of the Year is going to BGR in Jozi. It would have been my choice too, the real, excellent thing without the OTT stuff. And there’s a Coffee Shop of the Year category, the award being won as I watch, by Truth in Cape Town city. Who would argue? A cafe in our country is not the same thing at all. The Cafe of the Year is Hyde Park’s Tashas.

For the ever-scarily titled Fine Dining category, I see a very familiar face this evening. It’s that of James Gaag again. Really? He’s standing in for La Petite Colombe, part of the same group. What is it doing so right? A wine sponsor thought had crossed my mind for a minute. Luxe’s is Nederburg and, anyway, the La Colombe restaurants are on wine farms, Petit being on Leeu Estates in Franschhoek. 

Chef James Gaag of La Colombe and representing others in the La Colombe Group. (Photo: Supplied)

Some years ago I started, with a chef partner, an initiative that was to be Gauteng’s own food awards, eventually broadening to become national. It was intended to balance out the Cape Town based media and awards. The partner and I did not see eye to eye on certain matters, as it turned out. I was left angry and embarrassed but realised I’d gained a lot of almost-experience and a way of seeing these events categories. Ours was a peer-to-peer judging system and I can see quite a bit of this with Luxe, especially given the quality of the chef judges.

Four years ago, Hosco did just that and I admire them, except they were national and fully fair from the start, though based up here too.

There was bound to be a category, given Hosco’s business, for the Best Hotel Restaurant. I’ve always considered it a great handicap, given the different way kitchens work for hotels and restaurants. Here it’s being awarded to Aurum. Then a slightly flustered chef Ken Phuduhudu races from this very kitchen to collect an award. Ethos has won the International Restaurant of the Year. Big yay. 

A slightly flustered chef Ken Phuduhudu collects the International Restaurant of the Year award. (Photo: Supplied)

Seasoned though ever youthful restaurateur Nicky van der Walt of Sandton Square’s Tang is now stepping up for Lifestyle Restaurant of the Year. A good contemporary category and probably the best person I can imagine to win it is the Pop-up of the year, won by Chef Katlego Mlambo, who recently popped up to crazy acclaim at the Marabi Club in Maboneng. It’s interesting that he was there a few years ago, also working with Executive chef Russell Armstrong. Russell’s back as the overall exec chef now for Hallmark House, including the Marabi Club, and here is star chef Katlego with him again. Russell’s over on one of the bar stools looking like he must have looked when his restaurants won Michelin stars.

Tessa’s and my difficult menu reading choices have resulted in her having a panna cotta for dessert, except I didn’t know it was mastic flavoured and served with sour cherries. However, the baklava that’s ended up before me seems like an obvious sort of choice but has turned out to be an almost bitter-sweet, toothsomely yummy piece of pastry and it’s come with pistachio-and-full-fat-Greek-yoghurt-ice-cream.

Another award is being made, to The Blockman in Parkview for their Steakhouse of the Year, which includes its own butchery and meat deli. The Street Food Experience of the Year is won by Cape Town’s How Bao Now at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock and run by two Test Kitchen-trained chefs.

The 25th award, this one the Luxe Restaurants Wine service Award, is going to Michelle Moller, the magical sommeliere at La Colombe. I’ll add though that she’d likely have won it wherever she was. 

These have been my first Luxe Restaurant Awards and I’m taking my impossibly silly-size sparkly evening bag and my gift box of Pretoria artisanal Jack Rabbit chocs, leaving with an equally sparkling, hopeful heart. DM/TGIFood

The Luxe Restaurant Awards were created by The Hospitality Counsel (Hosco) in partnership with food critics and sponsored by Outsurance. 081 410 8575

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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