If any South African restaurateur has jumped successfully from cook to celebrity chef status, it is Reuben Riffel. His Franschhoek restaurant has just re-opened, and he has several other ventures. You can also catch him often on foodie TV shows.
John Fraser caught up with him in Franschhoek…
JF. Do you remember your first car, and what can you tell us about it?
RR. Yes, it was a Nissan Sentra 1.6 gl. Good runner, light on fuel, not cool or sexy, but it got me from A to B. I do remember on one date the exhaust had an issue, and it sounded like a loud V6. It was OK, but it made conversation in the car a bit awkward.
JF. You are seen as one of SA’s finest celebrity chefs. How carefully do you have to concentrate on the chef side, to maintain standards in your restaurants?
RR. It’s challenging, and I get this a lot – as do many of my colleagues. I guess if you are restaurateurs, it’s frowned upon if you try to expand into other avenues. It’s not easily accepted in our industry. We employ quite a few people and are always looking for great talent. These are the people that we trust to do the job when we are not around. It’s easier said than done, as I suppose in any other industry, but it’s not a reason to decide to never give anything else a go.
JF. You come from an area where Afrikaans is spoken a lot. Do you think the language has much chance of surviving?
RR. I wouldn’t know. It won’t disappear in my lifetime or in my kids’ lifetime.
JF. A lot of folk watch TV cooking shows. Do you wish people would cook more for themselves?
RR. I think they watch because it’s entertaining, and maybe they will learn something different. I really don’t care either way. Not everyone loves cooking, but if it’s your way of de-stressing, or you want to give people pleasure with your food, why not?
JF. You have written a few cookery books. Do the recipes work?
RR. They are tested. And if you can read recipes, and you have an understanding of cooking, then they do work. Yes.
JF. Your former Franschhoek restaurant is now a Woolworths. Do you regret that somewhere that was known for fine dining is now a place which sells toilet paper?
RR. No, I don’t. I like to move forward. I guess we take stock of where we are on a regular basis, and I did the same and decided it was time to make a move. As far as I’m concerned, the building can be a home to whatever the landlord wants.
JF. You lead a busy work life. You also have a lovely family. Do you spend enough time with them?
RR. I do. I make enough time for them. It’s the nature of our business and many other businesses, so finding the balance is important. I have not yet been totally successful, but you constantly work at it. We are lucky, as we have family around us as well.
JF. How important is water to a restaurant? And does the Western Cape water crisis worry you?
RR. It’s very important: in terms of hygiene, we do use quite a bit of water. Lots of cleaning is always going on. By that I don’t mean we are wasteful; we are very mindful of our dire water situation and we do use water sparingly. I’m very concerned, but the only way we can get through it is, in general, to use water more cleverly, to have a strong focus on being water-wise, to limit our usage in our daily lives, and to recycle where possible.
JF: Who have you been most pleased to cook for?
RR. We had Sean Connery in the restaurant. That was very cool. He tried to be incognito, but it just didn’t work. Also Sol Kerzner, a legend in the hotel business.
JF. What is the most unpleasant thing that a customer has done?
RR. We have had people disappear without paying their bills; we’ve had drunk customers that started fighting with neighbouring tables; we’ve had people stealing cutlery…..
JF. You have gone into the beer business. Why?
RR. I enjoy craft beer, as do my partners. Craft is quite the rage, and it’s a growing business. Other than that, it started as an interest amongst friends that’s now turned into reality. Our brand is The Franschhoek Brewing Company, and hopefully, our tasting room will be up and running before the end of the year.
JF. You offer a cheese platter. Do you pop across the road to source them from Woolies, or how do you approach it?
RR. HAHAHAHA. Ya, maybe we should do that.
JF. Is there any road rule you would scrap if you were in charge?
RR. No, but I’m really worried about the points system that’s coming. Losing one’s license would be disastrous. I’m not sure whether this is (being brought in) for solving the carnage on the roads, or whether it’s to make more money. Either way, we love copying rules and customs from other countries – without even thinking whether they will work here. How about being a bit more creative?
JF. What annoys you most about other drivers?
RR. I have a deep issue with people slowing down in front of me – and then on the turn, they start to indicate.
JF. Is there any food or dish you really hate?
RR. No, not really, I stay away from anything that smells of bell peppers. I enjoy eating them, but not especially in the way they are used in airline meals.
JF. Would you like to own a wine farm of your own?
RR. No, I would not. But if it was a successful wine farm, then yes! I’ve heard it’s a quick way to throw away money. I just don’t have any to throw away.