WILD ABOUT THE LIVINGROOM
In the kitchen with SA’s top chef at SA’s top restaurant
It’s been something of a wild ride for The LivingRoom and Chef Johannes Richter, going from underdog to top dog. The gastronomic experience and pleasure are at the heart of what they are doing, showcasing Durban’s bounty and diversity. And then there’s the wildly unexpected…
Slicing, dicing, peeling, scooping, stirring, juicing, whisking, flaming, plating. Whew. I arrive at 11am to hang out in the kitchen at SA’s top restaurant. “Unobtrusive,” is what I’ve told Johannes Richter, SA’s top chef, I will be. At 11am, the six chefs and two interns working with Richter are already focused, engrossed, doing some of the above. When I leave to drive home more than 11-and-a-half hours later, they are still at it. The last gasps of cooking. Though mainly plating at this point.
The kitchen, for the past four hours since The LivingRoom dining guests arrived, has been a quietly buzzing hive, with servers coming and going. Also Johanna Richter, Johannes’s wife and The LivingRoom sommelier is hard at work, along with Christine Richter, his mom, who hosts front-of-house. Both of whom, along with chefs and interns, pick up plates to deliver to tables when extra hands are needed for the party of 30 there for a five-course tasting menu. There’s a jazz band set up for the evening. And two tables are booked for the full (seven-course) chef’s taster. There are residential guests too, those staying at Summerhill Estate boutique hotel, home to The LivingRoom, who have the option of à la carte.
Through the day, conversation when it flows is a comradely hubbub, focused, not surprisingly, on the food. Johannes recites the recipe off-pat when asked for a reminder on the jackfruit curry prep. There are food-tweaking discussions, such as how best to add the flavour of rose geranium leaves plucked from the garden, to the chocolate of the petits fours with the preserved litchis that an intern spent the best part of 10 days peeling during litchi season. ‘Use fruit or veg in their seasonal prime or preserve them in some way’, the thinking goes. The idea with the litchis is “to have a little taste of summer in winter”, says Chef Richter.
Why caramelised amadumbe and guavadilla ice cream and amadumbe churros with guavadilla curd feature is because “they happened to be ripe together”. Why the nukazuke daikon has been fermented using sorghum and “a bit of sourdough culture” and not in the traditional Japanese way, which calls for rice bran, is because sorghum is an ancient grain indigenous to Africa. Johannes’s cooking style is expressed through his classic French training and his penchant for Japanese techniques. Nukazuke might well be a Japanese technique. But if you’re not in Japan and your commitment is to sustainability and being truly local, you perform a bit of alchemy.
The daikon comes from Howick and is organically grown as are the many heirloom veggies that make their way, sometimes as pearls, gels, mousses, broths, pastes, crunches and whatnot, onto the menu. Flavour, authenticity and texture are key.
Much of the produce, including a little-known old Venda veg he’s working with, called tsenza, which looks like a little stick, is grown by Chisomo and Deon Bean, with whom Richter collaborates when deciding on the eight full menu rotations he does a year.
Two menus per season, with items that can change by day if something with irresistible potential, perhaps brought by a neighbour or a guest, comes his way.
The daikon, raw and fermented, is for a new menu item Chef Richter is creating this very day. When he has peeled it, sliced it and then pressed it with what looks like a metal cookie cutter, it transforms into beautiful pastel flower shapes. The Gourmet Greek ricotta is set as a mousse. There’s pickled kohlrabi, sesame pearls, and a little vinaigrette that has honey from Greytown and house-made apple cider vinegar.
There is so much more. Including the Willowdale truffles, now in season, from Kokstad – all of which keeps me thinking, “this is real food”.
So when Johannes says, “There are no theatrics here. No drama. And nothing is on the plate for decoration. The gastronomic experience and pleasure are at the heart of everything. And enjoyment, from the wine, the food, the hosting, the service…”… I believe him.
“We celebrate food. We have happy vegans, vegetarians, Hindu, Halaal guests. For some people what we do is not going to work. But our objective is for everyone to enjoy what they eat. Integrity is number one. And to display Durban from a culinary perspective, you have to be inclusive.”
Before I perch myself on the little wooden step stool, Johannes brings me and sets up across from his main prep spot, he takes me for a quickie stroll around the garden. Tells me the building going on near the boutique hotel’s swimming pool — with its sweeping views across a swathe of Durban stretching from the Bluff and the harbour entrance all the way to the high-rise buildings of Umhlanga — will be a new lounge for people to sit, have a cocktail or wine and a starter. A well-laid-out path will lead from there to the tiered veggie garden, which is being expanded and extended.
Right now, aside from the thriving rose geranium shrubs, the velvety amaranth flowers and a healthy soil-bed of amadumbes, which will arrive in a bucket in the kitchen, cleaned and peeled, in about half an hour, the existing beds are pretty much winter-bare.
We visit the chicken coop. The chickens eat the kitchen scraps, which are then digested and recycled into the garden beds. Little do we know an astonishing fate awaits the ample full-feathered white fowl, who are “old and beyond egg production”, says Johannes when I comment on her splendour.
“Crowned eagles manage to carry off three or four chickens a year,” he says.
The LivingRoom is in a conservancy. Great for running and Chef Richter did his morning 10km before I got there. He ran Comrades last year, was hit this year by a femur stress injury, but is already planning for next year. While running, he keeps his eyes wide open for what he might go back and forage later.
The white chicken looked too hefty for even a large eagle to dare…
But who knew? It being a conservancy, a different kind of predator, as handsome but wilder than her, was lurking.
It is two years since I last spent a day here, in The LivingRoom kitchen. Covid restrictions were still in place. Masks. Distancing. Travel constraints.
The LivingRoom had opened in August 2018. “When we started, people thought we were crazy,” Johannes said back then.
“They said Durban people hadn’t travelled enough to appreciate what we wanted to do. That they don’t want to spend money on food.” He adds that they wouldn’t go for a chef’s choice tasting menu that changes, in some measure great or small, by the day. A menu, a kitchen, with a focus on seasonal endemic produce from a base of small-scale farmers and suppliers.
I wrote back then that they didn’t listen to the naysayers, choosing instead to “bank on Durban with its different cultures and food diversity”.
One of the remarkable things about The LivingRoom, 10 minutes by car from my flat on the Durban Berea, in Cowies Hill — which is a kind-of residential part of sprawling, largely industrial Pinetown — is its out-of-the-way location. The thing is though, word-of-mouth is a feature of success in Durban.
And just 15 months after they opened, in November 2019, they found themselves in 13th place on the Eat Out restaurant awards list, their “supper club” the only eatery in KZN recognised.
Link here to that earlier TGIFood story, which recounts Johannes Richter’s German hospitality guild training, his three-year classic French apprenticeship at a Michelin 1-star, his four years in the kitchen at Michelin 3-star Weinbar Rutz in Berlin, known for its product-focused modern German food — where he met Johanna, then a hotel school graduate from Austria who had been mentored by a top Austrian sommelier and who had worked in France and Spain before waitressing in Berlin.
As fate would have it, at the restaurant a certain chef, with almost the same name, was cooking in the kitchen.
Johannes subsequently spent two years at Michelin 1-star Bandol sur mer, also in Berlin, a tiny eatery acclaimed for French-based dishes with Japanese modern interpretation.
As he told me in that earlier story, while he was born in Germany, when he was a kid his parents relocated the family to Cowies Hill, Durban’s outdoor climate being the big draw.
“Johanna and I wanted to start a family. I had my upbringing here. Durban has a lot of traits that cities aspire to. So many religions, cultures, so much diversity.” Of people, of produce, of potential.
“KZN shaped me, at the end of the day. We wanted to give this to our children (their son is now five, their daughter three) as the norm.”
So how have things changed, I ask him, since they got that 2019 recognition. And now with The LivingRoom named the Eat Out awards restaurant of the year for 2022 and just a month ago, Johannes Richter named chef of the year at the 2023 Luxe Awards.
“We were the underdog. Suddenly, no longer.”
The pressure was on.
“It became about living up to expectations while at the same time remaining authentic about what we do.”
Of course, they got busier.
But big-picture, “it’s been a validation of what we do. It also gave chefs all over the country validation that there is a platform for good food. That you don’t have to be in the Western Cape.”
That you can be in an out-the-way spot on the outskirts of Durban. Which, by inference, means you could be anywhere.
That the kitchen staff has expanded, is one marked change. Akhona Dukwana, who trained at Mafikeng Hotel School and started in the kitchen as an intern four-and-a-half years ago, is now a sous chef. All the others are new since my last visit.
There’s fellow sous chef Luckson Mare, who keeps up with the à la carte orders and does a lot with a blowtorch during the evening. Both he and Chef Antonio Porras are Capsicum graduates. Chef Njabulo Zungu and pastry chef Owami Mhlongo are International Hotel School graduates.
Chef Saxon Tilling is a Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine graduate. Mike Ellis is an intern from the same school.
“We often have three or four interns,” says Johannes. “With more chefs, there are a lot more skills, a lot more diversity, a lot of ambition — and more people to mentor our interns.”
Other things have changed, as in now I see him referred to as a celebrity chef.
We had to delay our first kitchen date when The LivingRoom team were invited to the Durban Tourism Business Awards 2023 to accept one for “exceptional achievement in hospitality for fine dining and a sustainable tourism experience”.
“But essentially we want to be seen as ‘for Durban’ and not as a tourist destination,” he says.
Two days after our day in the kitchen, there was a trip for the team to Cape Town. Quite something that a KZN chef was invited to the Western Cape to cook, along with fellow Eat Out 3-star chef Ryan Cole (of Salsify at the Roundhouse). At an Eat Out “Art of Food” boutique event to “seamlessly merge the realms of gastronomy and sustainability, with a focus the concept of craftsmanship and precision…” for 50 invited guests at the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden in Stellenbosch.
I meanwhile, find the Richters as down-to-earth, welcoming, convivial as when I was last there. Maybe this expresses it. The other day, Johannes says, someone asked him for their business strategy. Business strategy? He looks kind of perplexed.
“We just want to get better at what we do, all aspects of it,” he says.
During the almost 12 hours I am there, I see Johannes drink two flat whites (Bean Green, if you’re wondering) and take just one break: an hour when the family sits down at a table set outside the kitchen door for a shared dinner of lightly charred rare sirloin steak, cut into strips; crispy golden chips; and a salad. These were whipped up by Johannes.
The children are at the table and it is heartening to see how casual and relaxed it all is. Does it age me? Probably! To say how good it was not to hear any demands to “eat it up, finish what’s on your plate”. These children won’t have issues around food, I notice my mind thinking.
The kitchen team, meanwhile, have gone to the staff house on the property, where all but three of them live, for their break. For what one of the chefs calls “lunch”. And which might include, I am told, a quick walk to the nearby service station for a stash of Red Bull.
Through the almost 12 hours there is just one drama highlight.
It comes in the evening, around 8pm, when Johanna arrives in the kitchen, a little wide-eyed. She shows us a video that has just been taken in the garden by a member of the maintenance team.
It shows a sleek, beautifully marked genet, fur shimmering in the moonlight. It was filmed immediately after being caught in the act of expressing his or her carnivorous cat-like nature. The target, that stately elderly white-feathered chicken, who is no more. Makes me think it has been a wild ride for The LivingRoom team. And the wild element doesn’t end there. DM
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