The New Taste of South Africa

In wine country, a group of innovative chefs have ignited a culinary renaissance–and restored cultural pride.

I am lunching with South Africa’s leading celebrity chef, Reuben Riffel, at Reuben’s, his country restaurant in Franschhoek, 50 miles east of Cape Town. Our al fresco table commands a view of a serene valley and the tumbling mountains of the Cape Winelands. Before us sits a plate of chili-salted squid with lemon crème, basil, coriander, and mint. “For a long time South African chefs just copied what Europeans were doing,” Riffel explains. “Because of apartheid we were ashamed of our culture and history. We thought what was happening overseas must always be better. But that’s changing. Now we’re starting to realize we have amazing ingredients in this country and great culinary traditions. We’re doing our own thing. South African food.”

Let me declare an interest here. I loved South African food before this turn of events. I come from Zimbabwe, to the north, but I grew up on the traditional home cooking of my South African grandmother: sweet, slow-cooked vegetables such as pumpkin and butternut squash; fatty lamb chops and boerewors (farmer sausage); heaped mounds of mashed green beans and potatoes, usually sprinkled with sugar. This rich, hearty fare is known in Afrikaans as Ma se kos (mother’s cooking), and it’s eaten in millions of South African homes. It’s not exactly sophisticated, and as a tourist you’d be hard-pressed to find it in any restaurant. Now, though, nouveau variations on traditional South African cuisine are everywhere, and they are like nothing I’ve taken a fork to before.

Riffel is one of several chefs reshaping the way South Africans think about their indigenous food, and by extension, their history. These chefs use fresh seafood, mountain herbs, and game meat from the country’s interior. For their menus, they reinterpret centuries-old Dutch, French, German, and East Indian recipes. The most creative practitioners of the new cuisine, including Riffel, Margot Janse, and Bertus Basson, work in the Western Cape region at luxury resorts, boutique inns, and intimate bistros. As they reimagine the possibilities of the country’s food, they exude a vibrant cultural confidence in South Africa that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

You must try my ostrich,” says Riffel. “I grill it quickly like tuna, with a mustard-seed crust, and serve it on cinnamon-butternut puree. Sweet vegetables—that’s very South African. My mother made it the best.”

Riffel makes these pronouncements in the elegant Cape Town resort hotel One&Only, at his newest restaurant, where ostrich fillet appears on the menu alongside crisp pork belly with chili, ginger caramel, and pickled cabbage. And these are only two of the fresh variations on traditional South African cuisine that emerge from Riffel’s kitchens.

Twenty or so years ago Riffel would not have been allowed to eat in these restaurants, let alone operate them. Riffel is black, or rather Cape Colored, a distinct mixed-race South African ethnic category under the apartheid bureaucracy’s designations. During apartheid, places such as these were reserved for whites. Today, though, the dashing 36-year-old is the toast of his tony wine-producing hometown, and his tables are among the most sought-after in the country.

Born in 1974, Riffel grew up in a Colored-designated area outside Franschhoek at the height of apartheid. The Franschhoek high school was for whites only, so he had to take a bus to another school an hour away. “I didn’t mind,” he says, laughing. “My mother used to make me packed lunches. Sweet potato sandwiches on home-baked bread and lamb curry.” Riffel was a popular kid: His friends liked to share his lunch.

By the time he graduated apartheid was ending, and in 1997, after working as a waiter and tending bar, Riffel was hired as a sous chef in a local restaurant, Monneaux. Franschhoek (Afrikaans for “French corner”) had started to refashion itself as an upscale food and wine destination. Like most local restaurants, Monneaux made French-influenced continental cuisine, and Riffel was good at it. One evening, the chef couldn’t make it in, and Riffel was put in charge. He was soon promoted to head chef, and by 2000 he had a following.

The next year, Lee Browne, an American woman impressed with her meal, offered Riffel the chance to head a restaurant she was opening in Cambridge, England. He went there with his girlfriend, Maryke Swanepoel, a white Afrikaner who is now his wife, and in a matter of months they turned Bruno’s Brasserie into a cult upscale eatery. It was especially popular with white South African immigrants.

Vintner Marc Kent, whose Boekenhoutskloof Estate is one of the top boutique wineries in South Africa, invited Riffel to form a partnership and open a restaurant back in Franschhoek. “I didn’t want it to have a French name or serve French food,” Riffel says. So he called it Reuben’s and set out to cook what he calls “Cape Colored cuisine, the food my mother made.”

The year it opened, 2004, Reuben’s was named South Africa’s Restaurant of the Year. In 2009, he and Swanepoel opened a second restaurant in a luxury hotel in Robertson, a wine-growing town to the east. Last year, Alan Leibman, a director of Kerzner International, which owns One&Only, watched a TV cooking show during a flight to Cape Town. Leibman, who was born in South Africa, couldn’t believe his eyes. “Here’s this handsome black guy being called the top chef in South Africa,” Leibman recalls, “and he’s making the kind of food I recognize from my own childhood, only better!”

Last October, Riffel opened his third restaurant in the lobby of One&Only—alongside a branch of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu empire, in the space previously occupied by a venture of TV celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Riffel is often at the tables, greeting customers, recommending a dish, asking his regulars how their kids are. In return, it’s clear that his multiracial clientele adores him. “It’s strange,” he says. “Often, white customers will invite Maryke and me to their homes, or to go away with them for a weekend, and I have to stop and think, really? Have we come that far?”

For the past seven years the Tasting Room has been named one of Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the only African restaurant on the list. Arguably, this makes Margot Janse, a 41-year-old blonde from the Netherlands, the finest chef on the African continent. She’s come a long way from the suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe, where Janse found herself living in 1989, at age 20, having accompanied her journalist boyfriend to Africa. She recalls being so poor back then that she baked bread in tin cans because she couldn’t afford baking trays. And she ate lots of sardines, “cheap pilchards that came in little red tins.” She took a liking to the African ingredients she found at the local market, foods such as gem squash, a green-skinned, yellow-fleshed pumpkin relative. It would stand her in good stead later.

In 1993, Janse moved to Johannesburg and trained with an Italian chef, and two years after that she got a sous chef position at the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek. A year later, she was promoted to head chef. Part artist, part alchemist, Janse applies high-end European methods, including molecular gastronomy techniques, to almost entirely local ingredients. Her eight-course African Surprise Tasting Menu includes a palate-cleansing Franschhoek porcini mushroom jelly topped with green nasturtium-leaf foam. A Wild Coast oyster is smoked virtually before your eyes: The server lifts a glass lid from the plate and a gust of beechwood smoke wafts into the air.

Also famous for cooking with Cape mountain herbs, Janse flavors her risotto and roasted Eastern Cape blue wildebeest with buchu, a medicinal plant used for centuries by the indigenous Khoisan people. Like Riffel, she hasn’t forgotten her past. The bread plate includes a corn loaf that’s baked and served in a red sardine tin, and gem squash appears as a puree with caramelized honey. The Tasting Room presents food as performance art, yet it never slips into artifice. “I used to do French cuisine,” Janse explains. “Now our produce is so good I consider my menu African.”

Every creative movement needs a mad genius, and Bertus Basson, 31, plays that role for South Africa’s new cuisine. An Afrikaner born in the Cape and raised in the rural north of the country, he’s been working in kitchens since he was 17. He started his own catering company at 25, and in 2007, along with friend and fellow chef Craig Cormack, opened Overture in the Cape Winelands town of Stellenbosch. The restaurant sits on a slope of the Hidden Valley and overlooks craggy hills, olive groves, and vineyards, with a view of Table Mountain in the far distance. Overture was ranked among the top 10 restaurants in the country by the Eat Out Awards in 2010.

Basson’s Overture menu changes daily; he decides what to cook based on a whim, the weather, or whatever local ingredients happen to arrive at his restaurant that morning. The food, like the view, often seems more Mediterranean than South African, but to Basson the style is natural. “Our climate is Mediterranean and our produce is similar, so our food should be the same,” he says. You may find cubes of tangy-sweet balsamic jelly and mozzarella floating in a chilled zucchini soup with olive ice cream. A whole poached crawfish comes in a bowl of ginger-foam broth served on a bed of gnocchi. “To think,” Basson says, “the British thought we should eat roasts!”

The chef exudes an infectious optimism that is emblematic of a new confidence in South Africa. Ten miles away from this high-end eatery, in the slums of Stellenbosch’s Kayamandi Township, sits AmaZink, the braai (barbecue) restaurant Basson helped establish with Loyiso Mbambo, a 36-year-old black chef-entrepreneur. AmaZink hosts numerous corporate and charity events, and Basson is often found behind the grill with Mbambo, serving up boerewors, lamb chops, pap (maize-based porridge), and chakka lakka (a spicy African vegetable relish) to busloads of schoolkids, office workers, and corporate executives. It’s a mix of people that not long ago would have been unthinkable in this country, brought together by food they can all proudly claim as their own.

Photographs by Dook. This appeared in the September/October 2011 issue.

From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR