Stars align in Japanese fusion for Tempelhoff’s FYN restaurant
The alignment of the right service, the right food, and the right aesthetic has put Cape Town’s FYN at number 37 in the 2022 World’s 50 Best Restaurants – and the only South African restaurant on the list.
Japanese style and technique melded with rustic South African ingredients found appeal with the international panel of judges for the 2022 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, who also named FYN the Best Restaurant in Africa. For chef Peter Tempelhoff, it’s not about the accolades – although the recognition is “amazing” – he just wants to sustain doing something he enjoys.
In October 2021, FYN entered the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants at number 92 – the first new SA restaurant in the top 100 since Aubergine and Rust en Vrede in 2009. On July 18, 2022, it placed in 37th position, a remarkable leap in anyone’s book.
FYN opened in November 2018, and Tempelhoff believes it was an immediate success because South Africa was ready for something new, unique and innovative. “We broke out of the mould of French style restaurants… maybe the world needed something different. We’re not unique in the world by any means but I think it’s refreshing the way we do things,” he said.
“The internationals like us because they come here expecting South Africa – an African restaurant – and they get something completely different. They get something that can fit anywhere in the world.”
The combination of the symmetry of Japanese techniques and the rustic style of African ingredients is something Tempelhoff believes the World’s Best judges liked. While there are no criteria for restaurants to be considered (other than the fact that they are open for business and haven’t placed first for the awards previously, moving to The Best Of The Best list), the voting process is rigorous. Votes are cast by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, a gender-balanced body made up of 1,080 leading restaurant critics, chefs, restaurateurs and gourmets from 27 regions globally, who each nominate 10 restaurants.
“Peter has a pretty polished pedigree,” said Tamsin Snyman, east and southern African judge. “He has been one of my personal favourites for decades. His brave and necessary move from beneath the Liz McGrath Collection umbrella was an epic one. He exploded on to the independent cheffing scene with the show-stopping birth of FYN in the beating heart of the Mother City.
“From the day he opened in 2018 – and subsequently through the past treacherous couple of years imaginable – he has stayed true to his team and his passion; ever evolving not only seasonally, but monthly and even weekly. Diners continue to be surprised at FYN. There are onion-like layers of excitement and adventure to be had when dining in this unforgettable location. I believe with Ashley Moss and Jennifer Hugé as Peter’s wing man and woman, he is currently unbeatable on the front of fine food, service and unforgettable dining experiences on the continent of Africa.”
The judges are anonymous but “we know Tamsin. Everyone knows Tamsin,” laughed Tempelhoff.
The voting process and list is subject to independent adjudication and scrutiny by international consultancy Deloitte, Snyman said, who shared some inside information on the judging process.
“Voters look for chef, front of house and service passion from every member of the team. Faultless service; not necessarily white gloves, crystal glasses and floor-length starched linen tablecloths. Judging starts from the moment you make the reservation to the final farewell at the doors as you leave the establishment.
“Food need not be fussy and frilly and long laborious multi-course tasting menus are so last season. Dish execution and delivery is often best embraced if the plating is unfussy and simple and the ingredients identifiable rather than being cooked within an inch of their life and twisted, twirled, bladed, tweaked, knotted, smudged, smeared and foamed beyond recognition.
“We always take the chef’s ethos into account i.e. his mindful approach to working with suppliers within a close radius of where he is serving his food. Does he keep his local community in mind when sourcing suppliers. And is he caring as much for his staff entering through the back kitchen door as he does the diners entering through the front door of his establishment?”
Tempelhoff believes FYN has got things right. “All the stars were aligned – we got the service right, we got the food right, the setting right, the right ceramicist to make all our tableware, it’s got the right aesthetic. It’s not over complicated and not too fussy.”
In a word, polished.
“There are strict voting rules, which must be observed by all voters to ensure the credibility and integrity of the lists,” said Snyman.
“Voters must retain their anonymity (they must not tell anyone in the restaurant sector that they are on the panel); they must not discuss their voting selections with other panellists or me at the regional Academy Chair for East & Southern Africa; and they can vote for any style of restaurant so long as they have visited it in the last 18 months. This is not intended specifically to be a ‘fine dining’ list, but a list of great restaurants.” Voters are encouraged to look beyond fine dining establishments and great grazing spaces and local polish nosh spots are embraced and welcomed, Snyman added.
Standards are high and the bar has been set – and easily cleared. Last week I was fortunate to indulge in the Experience menu, with exquisite wine pairings by Hugé. It begins with canapés which include ostrich egg (from the Outeniqua area) chawanmushi topped with an umami rich broth and a dollop of caviar; a guinea fowl wonton with tori paitan (chicken broth) and sea lettuce; dune spinach picked that morning by the chefs and crisped in tempura batter; and a DIY hand roll whose components are the best rice in Japan, from Ishikari, nori handpicked in Japan by Tempelhoff, and Obsiblue blue prawns from New Caledonia, farmed in a light turquoise lagoon which is protected by UNESCO. Only a few tons are harvested each year, by a group of farmers dedicated to this species, which is sweet and perfect to be eaten raw.
The presentation of the glossy milk bun with burnt mushroom custard is sheer delight, and I love how bread has become an actual course in recent years rather than a basket plopped on the table with olive oil and balsamic vinegar at the beginning of the meal. It’s followed by a kaiseki tray with a KZN langoustine with coconut yoghurt and curry vinaigrette, each flavour perfectly balanced; chokka (from Gqeberha) balls on top of which fresh black truffle is shaved in front of you; and delicate bluefin tuna sashimi and tartare.
Still to come are hoba – magnolia leaf – grilled Wagyu from the Eastern Cape, and kingklip with abalone prepared inside kelp. Tempelhoff explained that this traditional method of cooking serves as a natural tenderiser for these marine snails which can be the downfall of even the greatest chef. Sadly I had to pass on that element on account of allergy, but I got an extra piece of kingklip, and the Wagyu was butter soft. This method is kind of a version of the French en Papillote whereby salmon of Wagyu or vegetables are coated with miso, and its amazing aroma is imparted into the meat, said Tempelhoff.
That’s just the starters. Before the main course, the waiter arrived with a leather knife roll, with a selection of handmade knives by Anton Kock. My knees went weak. “You may select your weapon of choice,” I was told. Frankly, I wanted them all and they would have fitted in my handbag. Every day I make the difficult choices.
The springbok from Outeniqua barely needed the well-honed sharpness of the knife but it still felt good in my hand. The dessert is simple, sophisticated perfection. For this meal, dining solo, I had opted to sit at the bar counter looking into the open plan kitchen and service area. It provided a pleasing accompaniment to the meal, which to be fair, demanded great attention, as well as an insight as to how smoothly everything operates, like a well lubricated and efficient machine. Good luck trying to convince anyone working at a place of this calibre is stressful; the appearance is one of controlled calm. Flying trapeze artists and ballerinas also make it look easy.
Next to me was a couple from the US who had landed in Cape Town the day before, and were there based on the number 37 honour. They’d opted for a reduced menu so they were eager to see the extra dishes I had, and who was I that Tempelhoff himself presented some of them to me?
For the several hours I’d been there, I’d watched the desserts being prepared: a wedge of pineapple which would be dusted with shichimi – the real name for seven spice powder – at the table. The creamy rice ice cream – or rice cream as the American man insisted it be called – was drizzled with ginger syrup. That’s all. So good.
There is one other tiny morsel that is not on the menu, but I’m not going to spoil any surprises. Suffice to say it is unusual, and delicious, and not everyone will eat it. It’s served with bottle fermented sparkling mead, which is also not for everyone’s palate but it is certainly interesting.
As Snyman mentioned, Tempelhoff agreed the experience should start with the phone reservation. “We have so many elements and moving parts, they have to come together for the entire experience.”
Because I’d booked via a back door, so to speak, my experience began with the parking. I’d enquired about it because one never knows if there’ll be anything available on the street. I was asked for my registration number and was informed Roger the doorman would look out for me to direct me to the parkade across the road. And so he did. He showed me to the lift to the 5th floor of Speakers Corner, and where someone awaited to greet me, take my jacket, and show me to my seat. From there, everything continued seamlessly and deliciously. Every staff member knows the specifics of each dish, the wine is explained, and joy is sparked.
Tempelhoff said that for him, it’s not about the accolades; “it’s amazing recognition and great for the team, of course. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing. I want to sustain something I enjoy and this is the way to do it.
“It’s a testament to the team. I have surrounded myself with dynamic people who are so motivated.”
Tempelhoff doesn’t prep and cook these days, he’s the plating guy now, he laughed. “I’ve got three kids and a wife – it’s a juggling game to spend enough time in each restaurant.” His other restaurant is beyond at Buitenverwachting in Constantia.
“I manage and I taste, and try to be there as much as I can.” It’s a privilege hard won over time.
His bio says, “There’s a rumour heard behind passes, whispered at early morning fish-markets, and traded over cigarettes in back alleys, that Chef Peter Tempelhoff arrived into the world with his tiny fingers gripping a wooden spoon. He was, the story goes, born to cook.”
It’s a great intro but Tempelhoff came to the job late, at the age of 27. “By the time I got to a head chef position I was already 40 or something. I can feel it in my bones!” he laughed.
He first studied for a Bachelor of Social Sciences but wasn’t happy with the degree he’d chosen. “I realised I could not be a sociologist. I could not be an economist. I didn’t want to sit behind a desk.”
Tempelhoff left varsity and travelled until he heard about a new chef school opening in the Cape, which was taking in 12 students and there was one place left. That was the Institute of Culinary Arts, established by Letitia Prinsloo. The ICA was the first officially registered and accredited chef school for professional chefs in South Africa.
As for the born to cook part, I asked him what made him take that place at ICA. “I tell people this but my mom hates it,” he smiled. “I used to fix her dinners from a young age, throwing in a handful of olives, or ham, or herbs, or a bit more garlic, a bit more salt.”
Working as a waiter in Texas he did tableside service and found joy working with food. “I looked behind the pass and wanted to be there where the flames were and the knives were. It just looked more glamorous than bussing tables.”
It was a good move; Tempelhoff won best trainee chef at ICA and was sent to the US on a bursary to CIA – the Culinary Institute of America, “I dug it and saw the potential and here we are,” he said.
Indeed we are. There’ll be no resting on laurels though; complacency is not an option, especially with this blinding spotlight being shone on every detail. “I don’t look for what’s good anymore, I look for what’s wrong. Because it’s about making things better and being hypercritical. Never settle,” said Tempelhoff.
Before Covid, Tempelhoff had planned to open a yakitori joint, which is on the back burner for now. But coming this summer is Ramenhead, a noodle bar downstairs from FYN. Tempelhoff and Moss were in Japan in June 2022 and did some extensive research (and by research we mean they ate a lot of ramen) and this is going to be something spectacular. Details are under wraps for now but I’m probably almost as excited as Peter, and he’s pretty amped. DM/TGIFood
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.