In the Kitchen With South African Top Chef Reuben Riffel
Riffel, who was raised in a segregated neighborhood during apartheid, has risen to become one of South Africa’s leading chefs, lauded for creative-yet-unpretentious cooking that features local produce and game. Here, he dishes on his influences and must-do food experiences for travelers.
What kind of cooking did you grow up with and how has that influenced you?
I grew up eating fresh home-cooked meals using ingredients that came mostly from our garden. Our food always had a bit of a kick, whether pepper or chili. From that point of view, I’ve developed a love for food that is uncomplicated and recognizable.
You came of age during apartheid. How did you get your start in the culinary world?
My mom worked as cleaner at a restaurant in Franschhoek. She got me a job at the establishment, and I started out as a reluctant waiter and then moved to the bar. Eventually my interest in food, and the untimely absence of one of the chefs, gave me an opportunity to move to the kitchen.
What are some of your favorite local ingredients to work with?
I enjoy cooking with our game from springbok to rooibok. South Africa has the best game in the world.
Where does inspiration for your dishes come from? And what are some of that you’re most proud of?
It comes from reading, eating out, current cravings—from all over. Our fried squid is not a brand-new dish but we made it our own with the addition of the two sauces plus our salad accompaniment.
Tell us about your restaurants, including your latest opening: Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar in Franschhoek. How does it compare to your original Reuben’s location there?
It’s a more personal space for me. We bought the property a while ago and could mold the new Reuben’s restaurant to what we wanted it to be. We have a braai (barbecue) section in the back and will soon use it to make braai-style tapas. The space itself is more intimate than the previous one, even though we can do the same covers, and we’re just off the main street, so the vibe is slightly more chill. Of course, we’re very proud of our Reuben’s Restaurant location at One&Only Cape Town as well. We strive to be innovative at all our locations, but still provide an authentic South African dining experience.
How would you describe traditional South African cuisine? How is it evolving?
It’s as diverse as our people. It’s mostly regional as well; in the Cape, we have the Cape Malay, English, and Dutch influences, while up North is more Dutch. To the East, it’s very Indian. The saddest thing is that we tend to forget about the food of the Zulu, Xhosa, and Khoi, but a great movement of young chefs is increasingly looking inward to develop our traditional cuisine and celebrate its diversity.
You’re a top chef and one of the most prominent chefs of color in South Africa. How have you influenced the dining scene?
I sometimes struggle to define what impact I have had. Mostly from a young chef’s point of view and not only chefs of color. I hope I have inspired inspired some of them to come into the industry. Food wise, I’ve always believed in cooking what I like to eat and incorporating the food of my youth into what I do now. Instead of copy cats, we have chefs that cook from within but still are open to what goes on in the world.
What types of food experiences should travelers seek out while in South Africa?
There are so many fine-dining restaurants to choose from, but for a more authentic experience, try sishanyamas, which are restaurants mostly in informal settlements where the meat mostly is braaied (barbecued). Experience crayfish on the West Coast and salt-dried bokkkoms (a type of fish) with baked sweet potato. The snoek is a fish indigenous to our waters and, if you can, get yourself invited to a snoek braai.
What do South African cooking and dining customs reveal about the local culture?
We are hospitable and always ready to welcome people from outside our country. We are proud people, and food is about people and togetherness.
If you were hosting international visitors, what are three South African must-dos that you’d recommend?
Kruger National Park; a hike up Table Mountain, which is down the road from Reuben’s at the One&Only Cape Town; and as many of our winelands as you can manage.