The Usual Elegantly Plated Suspects
The elite game of dishing out awards to South African restaurants had a new round this week when the latest JHP Gourmet Guide gongs were handed out.
Doesn’t the elitism of South Africa’s restaurant awards systems need a chef’s knife slashed through it? Even the 2024 edition of the JHP Gourmet Guide, launched this week, seems unable to unearth any restaurants of triple-plate note anywhere outside of the Mother City – but for one notable exception in the Kalahari – despite their credentials as arguably the most respected of the local restaurant awards systems.
In the JHP awards, one plate is awarded for “excellent cuisine”, two for “exceptional dining that demands a detour”, and three plates for “world-class destination dining worthy of a flight”. Which means that you will never win three plates for anything other than the kind of venue described in the earlier paragraphs above.
“Posh palaces. Endless tasting menus. Plates decorated so prettily that you’d sooner frame them and stick them on the wall. Prices so steep that only the super-rich can afford to be blessed by such culinary glory.”
Think about that: the top echelon of these awards is expected to be so impressive that stinking rich people elsewhere in the world might hop on a plane to dine there. And only “destination dining” restaurants qualify for three plates. If that isn’t the very pinnacle of elitism, what is?
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned wonderful food as a criterion for finding the best restaurant worth spending your money in?
It’s not that the restaurants chosen and honoured aren’t the cream of the crop. They’re brilliant, all of them. It’s not that. It’s not even only that they all offer tasting menus in which every new dish attempts to surpass the dizzy heights of the one you’ve just paired with that wine the waiter has just taken away.
It’s the sameness of it all. Posh palaces. Endless tasting menus. Plates decorated so prettily that you’d sooner frame them and stick them on the wall. Prices so steep that only the super-rich can afford to be blessed by such culinary glory. There isn’t a single restaurant among the triple-plated bunch that a modest, middle-class budget could afford without winning the lottery. (In which case you might rather choose to buy the restaurant.)
Is the benchmark set by the likes of the La Colombe Group, Luke Dale Roberts et al really the best measure of what makes a fine restaurant? Should we not be revisiting all this and reassessing the criteria?
It all started at Grande Roche
It was Bosman’s restaurant at Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl that started all this, three decades ago. Chefs were imported from continental Europe to show us how to eat at the finest level; restaurant staff were trained in the military precision of the best European nosh palaces; silver cloches were whipped off plates in unison by snooty waiters. Startled diners tried their best to behave and not slop their food on the pristine damask.
Before that, we had presumed that the likes of the Mount Nelson Grill Room and The Three Ships at the Carlton in Johannesburg were the pinnacle of fine dining.
Neither of those would stand a hope in hell of qualifying for today’s top awards.
There’s a generation of very clever chefs, who paid rapt attention when they were being trained, who have been taught to create a Certain Kind of Dish.
If you were put in a booth with just a table and a chair, and a plate of food worthy of a Rembrandt was placed before you (a dish you had not eaten before), and you were asked to name the restaurant and chef, it could be almost any of them, at this three-plate level. Other than the regional distinction of, say, Peter Tempelhoff’s FYN, there’s little to tell the others apart. They’re just all ridiculously good, plated in a way that has you gasping for breath, and costs a whole lot of pretty pennies. But with little to tell them apart. (Yes, there are exceptions, thank goodness.)
Save me, save me
Degustation menus have become so tiresome that you could run out of the restaurant screaming save me, save me from the humdrum perfection of it all. And stop deconstructing! Excellent plates of food are built, not pulled apart; separated into distinct parts of what, when put together, become a great meal. Like ordering a slice of cake and being served a cup of flour, another of sugar, some butter, an egg, a spoonful of baking powder and a pinch of salt, sauced with a drop of vanilla essence.
“It’s your cake, sir. It’s deconstructed.”
“Well, then, I’ll take it home and bake one, in that case.”
And there they are again, the usual elegantly garnished suspects, in whose restaurants everything is plated so beautifully that you could swear it takes more time to arrange it on a plate than it does to cook it.
Of the seven restaurants on the new JHP Gourmet Guide list for 2024, six are from greater Cape Town, and one at Tswalu in the Kalahari. That is Klein JAN, by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. The rest comprise three by the La Colombe Group (La Colombe, La Petite Colombe, and PIER), which means they are all high-end formulaic; one in the Luke Dale Roberts stable (Salsify), one in the Peter Tempelhoff stable (FYN), and a seventh in the Chefs Warehouse family (Beau Constantia).
Think about that: they are all restaurants of A Certain Kind. Celebrated, shiny (“done”, to put it another way), expensive, elegantly (or over?) plated and garnished. Yet, in a more grownup world, there’d be room for mere brilliance on the plate and palate without all the pretentious frippery. Any restaurant, no matter how humble in design, no matter how lacking in pretentiousness, should have a chance of winning for nothing else other than its utterly amazing food. (And happily there is Wolfgat, which joyously broke the mould in 2019 to win a top world prize and continues to be recognised at the top level. So I acknowledge that there are happy exceptions to all this.)
The benchmark, for years, has been La Colombe. When La Colombe started out (I was there on opening day, in the nineties), Franck Dangereux was the chef’s name on everyone’s lips. He still has his Foodbarn in Noordhoek, he still turns out fine plates of food in the same way, and to the same consistency as he did when he was the darling of every knowledgeable diner-out at the Cape.
But he has been long forgotten by those who choose “the best”. Is it because his venue, while being attractive, does not necessarily match the uber-fancy style that seems to be required of restaurants if they are to stand a chance of winning at the top echelon? Or is it just because, like (oh, let’s see… say, Reuben Riffel?), he’s a poster boy from another time? Is it really as fickle as that? I suspect it is.
Would the original La Colombe even win anything more than One Plate today?
Note, interestingly, the nonappearance of The LivingRoom at Summerhill, KZN, in the three-plate list. It achieved two. What does this say of the judging of this or other awards systems, which find it the best in the land? Which of them knows best?
And the winners are…
Arkeste, Richard Carstens’ Franschhoek venue, which he recently upgraded, then a devastating flood ran through, and he’s had to rebuild all over again.
Aubergine, Harald Bresselschmidt’s consistent winner. He and Carstens are two happy exceptions to the comments I have made about the likes of Dangereux being overlooked, but the criticism remains. He was one of those continental chefs brought out by Grande Roche, by the way.
There’s Belly of the Beast, a tiny venue in central Cape Town, and Ëlgr in Cape Town’s Kloof Street, a delightfully unpretentious inclusion with its urban mood; The Test Kitchen Fledgelings and Upper Union; Emazulwini Restaurant with its Zulu theme and food, now a regular and refreshing inclusion in awards systems.
In the Winelands there’s Cavalli’s “everyday gourmet” approach; Bertus Basson’s Chorus on Sir Lowry’s Pass, and his Clara’s Barn and Eike; Delaire Graff Restaurant, now a Winelands veteran; Faber at Avondale in Paarl; Post & Pepper in Stellenbosch; Tokara and Jordan, long veterans of awards, and the Tasting Room at Creation. (Wasn’t that name already taken, way back when?)
Read more in Daily Maverick: Luxe Restaurant Awards – the winners, the colour, how they compare
Further north, some eateries have been given the nod. Embarc, a Joburg restaurant that fights above its modest size, with fine food indeed but with a lack of pretension that might have not made the cut if it had been in Cape Town. David Higgs’ Marble in Rosebank with its meaty vigour; Séjour at the Houghton Hotel; The Shortmarket Club is listed, presumably the Joburg one.
Serendipity in Wilderness offers a look-in for the Garden Route.
In Durban there’s The Chefs’ Table, that’s all in this category. In the whole of Durban. Zilch for the KZN Midlands. Really?
This is where the posh-nosh palaces start getting a look-in. Lots of look-ins. Most will need no introduction. Winners include:
The LivingRoom in Pinetown, KZN, a surprising omission from the three-plate list. Has it gone down?
Tempelhoff’s Constantia pozzie beyond; Chefs Warehouse Maison and Tintswalo; Dusk in Stellenbosch, proving it’s not a one-hit wonder; Epice in Franschhoek (a La Colombe eatery where The Tasting Room (the real one) once was.
Gåte, the tiny venue at Quoin Rock, Stellenbosch. Nice to see something more modest achieve two plates.
Le coin Français, which is also in the world’s 50 best restaurants.
In Joburg, Wandile Mabaso’s Les Créatifs, Qunu at the Saxon Hotel, and Luke Dale Roberts’ The Potluck Club (and the Cape Town one). Nearby, Fermier in Pretoria, which offers “a seven-course culinary experience”.
Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch, a seasoned award-winner.
The Waterside, yet another in the La Colombe stable and, yes, with all the pretty presentation and cheffy wizardry you’d expect.
Wolfgat. Oh look, there it is! I was beginning to give up hope.
Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia; FYN; Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s Klein JAN, with its seven-course tasting menu at a mere R2,850 a pop; La Colombe; La Petite Colombe; PIER Restaurant “by the La Colombe Group”, Salsify at the Roundhouse, in the Dale Roberts stable.
The digital guide, which won Best in the World in the digital category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2023, claims to be “the first restaurant rating system in South Africa that equates to global standards of international benchmarking”.
“Haute Performance Awards” were also given:
The Haute Purpose & Passion Award, in partnership with Wesgro, was won by The Test Kitchen Fledgelings. The criteria included: community impact, involvement, and upliftment, strategy for sustainability and futureproofing, the ability to influence others positively, and to harness the passion of their team.
The guide partnered with the WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) to award a “green philosophy” plate. This went to FYN for “making remarkable strides in sustainability”.
Other Haute Performance awards:
Haute Pioneer: The Happy Uncles;
Haute Promise: Carla Schulze;
Haute Property: Galjoen;
Haute Pride: Siba Mtongana;
Haute Partnership: Ryan Cole;
Haute Programme of wine, in association with the SA Sommeliers Association: La Colombe
Haute Provenance awards were given to: Basalt, Bertus Basson, beyond, Emazulwini, Klein JAN, The LivingRoom and Wolfgat.
A detailed list of all winners is in the guide. Use this link to access the 2024 JHP Gourmet Guide to view the Plated restaurants and Haute Performance award winners. DM
This column is dedicated to the late Julian Richfield, who loved my writing, and to his father, Leslie Richfield, whose wonderful food writing first inspired me to write about food.
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.