As restaurant awards loom, Jozi is watching

As restaurant awards loom, Jozi is watching
The food at the high-end Zioux, a top Johannesburg restaurant whose chef Moses Moloi was the Luxe Restaurant Awards Rising Star of the Year. (Photo: Supplied)

Jozi people dine out, all the time. Yet many in Cape Town, where most of the awards are made and where most of the food media are, refer to Jozi and Gauteng as The North, as though we’re somewhere near Tunis. Perceptions need to change.

The food, restaurant and chefs’ awards affect us differently in Jozi. But that’s only when we get the chance to be affected at all. Yet, we do have our winners. Two of these winners or awarded ones are here in one room, at one of our nicest restaurants. They’re talking about this stuff.

Towards the end of the year it’s always been difficult to believe all our restaurants belong to the same industry, that we’re all in the same country.

The Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards, coming up in a couple of days, have been pressed recently to judge differently, as they are doing this year, and even to be a little more inclusive than usual. Not much, “but still”, as we say. We have seen the shortlists. 

Our Jozi, Pretoria, Gauteng view is more detached, not surprisingly, even amused, because we can afford to be.

Held at quite a different time of the year, in March, the annual Luxe Restaurant Awards have, I’d say, gradually been changing this national awards perspective, being so much more inclusive of the whole country and its people. They also include more types of eateries. The range of judged and awarded eateries can veer from so-called fine dining “to street food vendors” as the website says. 

Is the discrepancy just because the Luxe Awards are not based in nor held in the Western Cape?

Chef Moses Moloi of Zioux is affected now and looks as though he’s bursting out of his skin, but then he always has a very enthusiastic mien. This year he’s just taken the award for Best Bar in the first Luxe 100, the hospitality awards, for Zioux, as well as Best Chefs. Earlier this year he won the Luxe Restaurants Awards’ Rising Star of the Year award. The Luxe Awards, unusually, take place in Jozi and are relatively new, compared with the others.

Moses Moloi, centre, as Luxe Restaurant Awards’ Rising Star of the Year, March 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Nevertheless, the greater Jozi restaurants up here are famously fully booked, especially evenings. The great Jozi reason for that is that we, ourselves, eat out a lot. Our restaurants are not that reliant on tourists for income, though many eateries here are also food destinations for foreign visitors. They are equally places for local eaters out. No matter what our income, we eat out on it. The eateries may differ vastly but not our enjoyment of eating out in them.

Part of this year’s March Luxe Restaurant Awards line-up, including Chef of the Year, Wandile Mabaso, on the far right. (Photo: Supplied)

The other awarded chef in the room is David Higgs of Marble and the Marble Group. He says he’s cynical these days but what he finds matters most, “despite awards, are the relationships we can build with guests. It’s the one secret to filling restaurants. The food is vital, the atmosphere is vital, they must have a great time but, nine times out of ten, the people are here because of relationships we have built with them over time. Not just with locals, with the overseas ones too.” At his beloved Marble itself, “We’re full and very happy about that.”

The Luxe 100 hospitality Awards differ from the Luxe Restaurant Awards in that they have been introduced here because of tourists and tourism. They are just as South African-inclusive as the earlier March awards but they are about destination restaurants, among the places specifically exciting for the tourism part of the hospitality industry. Other categories are Best Hotels, Game Lodges, Wine Farms and so on. Restaurants, even chefs and Bars play a fairly important part here, especially the ones known by and attractive to the ever more interested food tourists from afar and, yes, those from this country.

Two of these winners, chefs Moses Moloi and David Higgs, in one room. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

So it is that I have two of these winners, chefs Moses Moloi and David Higgs, in one room, having coffee at the new-looking Marble restaurant that I’m seeing for the first time as well. Both men are from the Marble Group, having both won food-related awards within the Luxe Hospitality Awards. Zioux as Best Bar is also very much about excellent food.

The two chefs have very different personalities. Oddly enough, both are cyclists and Higgs swears he did not allow the cycling to influence his decisions about Moloi within the group. I think back to a chat David Higgs and I had during my second visit to Zioux, when he was singing the praises of chef Besele Moses Moloi. He’d mentioned that Moloi cycled. Moloi is also a huge fan of motor racing, particularly with Renault, and of soccer.

Higgs is just back from Girona in Spain, the lovely cycling capital of Europe, where hundreds of professional cyclists actually live. I’m not surprised, given that the surrounding terrain is up and down among the hills but that there are always the Pyrenees ahead, to conquer, and the nearby coast to cycle. We chat about the Costa Brava. My family used to spend a month there every year when I was a child. We knew it quite well.

His plane had just landed in Jozi, from Spain, when he was meant to be collecting his Chef award at the Houghton Hotel, so Moloi did that for him, in addition to collecting his own two awards.

Moloi and I also have some small connection of place. I matriculated in the Free State and knew, through visits, the area that was soon officially to be called Botshabelo township or “location” by the apartheid government, outside Bloemfontein. I knew just a few of the people there. He was born there.

Both of the chefs I’m having coffee with today have had The Saxon experience in Jozi, Moloi when it was the Luke Dale Roberts Saxon restaurant and also under Candice Philip, when she had Grei there. Moloi has worked hard, after a stint at the Ritz in Miami, then having been mentored by Peter Tempelhoff at the Greenhouse in Cape Town and risen, via his Jozi period, semi-finally to work under Tempelhoff again as his head chef at FYN, also in Cape Town. Talented as he is, Moloi still attributes much of it to him.

Higgs ran the main restaurant at The Saxon as the Five Hundred. Later, about those years, he once said to me that it was often more about the dining set at The Saxon and the expensive ingredients they wanted than about his own cheffing intentions.

I’m a Marble lone eater at lunch times, for the view from the window area, now called the Chef’s Table. (Photo: Supplied)

He’s from a very real part of the world, Namibia, and likes to keep things “real”. It’s not that his food mustn’t be exquisitely tasty and look that way too but today he says, “Huh! Pretentious!” a couple of times during the conversation, once about tasting menus. Reality is not only hard cycling but hard cooking. With fire. I’ve noticed a few of the best chefs in the world doing it now but, as Higgs says, “It’s not as easy as people think! It involves major challenges.” Even he battled with the medium to get the ultimate best out of it, as at Marble today, which I’d say features unreal food created with real capability. 

I’m a Marble restaurant fan, even as a lone eater at lunch times. It’s both for the view from the window area, now called the Chef’s Table that has become pretty desirable in the new version of Marble, and the unforgettable octopus. I’ve had quite a few different versions of it.

The unforgettable octopus of which I’ve had quite a few different versions. (Photo: Supplied)

The new “redone” Marble looks much more “real” but is a lot more considered. The fire-and-chef action end of the room is very watchable and also very exciting with the wheels and flames and firelit blurs of production. The old bar end, inviting as it was, is now more open and even leads onto an outdoor area. The other end with its balcony and view has lovely, long cane seating. There have never been white cloths and long aprons here and Higgs does not do the chef’s jacket thing. In fact, this is what the movement against fine dining may really look like. 

It’s all about the excellence of the food, its preparation and enjoyment of presentation, the “first taste” that Higgs often mentions. Nothing detracts from that real pleasure of the food’s enjoyment. When I hear and read people dissing Marble, which I think some people like to do because they know it’s one of the very best in Jozi and perhaps the name sounds like some sort of elevation to them, I know they probably haven’t been here. It can even be slightly amusing.

Of course, people from other countries love and return for Marble’s excellent meats. We South Africans are more spoilt by the availability of, say, ribeye. A handsomely but roughly fired focaccia makes a great accompaniment to it for a grateful regular from the Netherlands. Megan Meikle is the Marble Group’s now-famous chief pastry chef so anything of hers as dessert at Marble, or Zioux for that matter, since this is also about Moses Moloi’s Best Bar that features such high-end food, is a dream.

But back to our coffee and the awarded. We agree that the very recent JHP Gourmet Awards “didn’t look here very hard for themselves”, for their plate lists.

Anything by the now-famous chief pastry chef, Megan Meikle, is a dream, like burned strawberry, pistachio crème and ash meringues. (Photo: Supplied)

The choice of exemplary Mmabatho Molefe, who has braved criticism for being too young, too inexperienced, to be listed as The Luxe 100 hospitality Best Chef, is applauded by our chefs in the room because of her role as a leader-of-tourism chef of very South African food at her Emazulwini restaurant in Cape Town, something surprisingly not much done in South Africa yet.

The other nine Best Chefs, including the two very men here, were not ranked because that was not the point in these particular awards. Like Molefe, they are all excellent destination chefs. The others are Jan Hendrik at Tswalu, Siba Mtongana of her restaurant in Cape Town, Candice Philip now of Basalt in Jozi, Ryan Cole of Salsify in Cape Town, Wandile Mabaso of Les Créatifs in Jozi, James Gaag of La Colombe and Darren Badenhorst of Le Coin Français and La Chêne in the Western Cape Winelands.

Moses Moloi’s Zioux is a wildly extraordinary destination bar. He recommends sitting under the far Rousseau pictures. (Photo: Supplied)

Moloi’s Zioux is a wildly extraordinary destination. It’s exciting, full of fun South African art and excellent food, interesting champagnes, a whole avenue of them. As Moloi and Higgs say, the food was chosen to be chilli-spicy, just as South Africans love their food, and unusual in quite a South American way, rather than for particularly South African dishes. 

“It fits the vibe,” says Moloi, giving the example of his Baby Chicken Chipotle in Adobe, a corn custard, coriander and Parmesan dish, produced from a Josper oven. He also recommends sitting with a special view of the place under the Krisjan Rousseau artworks. “To us, it’s table 25 or 26,” settling in with a Snake Eyes cocktail of mezcal, fresh lime juice, coconut, banana and tonka bean. He says it would be unfair to leave without his Zioux take on churros with a pecan purée and tres leche sauce.

Anything but fine dining for Marble, says David Higgs. (Photo: Supplied)

He’s one of this year’s catering chefs at the Eat Out awards. “Hmmm,” I say, “that usually means you’re not a winner there this year.”

“It’s not really like that any more,” says Higgs. Both Zioux and Marble are on the shortlist. He looks down and I wonder if he knows something.

Moloi says that whenever he gets any awards it means a huge amount to the people back home in the Free State. “It gives them great hope.” 

We talk a bit about our own hopes of Jozi inclusivity as we shuffle things, ready to leave. “For a long time it’s been wrapped up in the Winelands’ fine dining situation. Maybe with the new Joburg awards and all the general criticism… I think that the kinds of awards that snubbed Joburg before are maybe going to change. Joburg could be ‘seen’ again. This new movement of local food appreciation might shake things up. We’ll see how it works out at the next awards on the 20th.”

“Fine dining!” Higgs shakes his head as he stands up. I ask what Marble is, knowing what he’ll say. “Anything but!” Moloi smiles and I laugh. DM/TGIFood

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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