Nic Dawes, writing in the Mail & Guardian Online last week about the poor presence of good restaurants in Johannesburg relative to Cape Town, with the alliterated headline ‘Dining in the Dumps’, has stirred a North-South culinary debate.  It was restaurant reviewer JP Rossouw’s  response to this article that motivated me to write, to add to the debate about Cape Town’s culinary prominence.

Dawes slates the Johannesburg restaurant scene, blaming restaurants and their chefs for not following international trends, for being expensive, for offering poor service, for offering food which is ‘rote’, for there being too many steakhouses, and for chefs being ‘restaurant entrepreneurs competing to extract money from your wallet”.  He writes about Johannesburg: “…for all its creativity and cosmopolitanism, for all its monuments to material consumption, this town is a culinary desert or, perhaps more accurately, parking lot — which is what you will find yourself looking on to from most of the very few places I do feel able to recommend. The fine-dining scene is most impoverished. Not a single serious restaurant in Johannesburg sets the national food agenda in any way. They don’t even try very hard to follow the big global trends a few months in arrears, as so many Cape restaurants do, or to give them local relevance as the best South African chefs are able to”.

Rossouw responded to the controversy created by Dawes by stating that good restaurants open where there are tourists, stating that :“…the Cape gets the lion’s share of tourism.  Eating out as a tourist means you are ready to spend.  You’re likely to be relaxed.  Restaurant industries naturally do well in these environments”.    It would appear that Rossouw knows more about restaurants than tourism, and almost every part of his quote can be challenged and refuted:

*   Cape Town does not get the most tourists – KwaZulu-Natal receives more tourists than the Western Cape

*   South Africa’s major tourist source countries are Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mocambique, ahead of the UK, USA and Europe, and these tourists mainly visit Johannesburg

*   Tourists have become cash-strapped too, due to the recession, and are therefore far more demanding in respect of value for money and good service.  Bertus Basson, Chef at Overture, says they have seen far more demanding foreign diners this past season than ever before.

To respond to Rossouw fairly, we called three 2010 Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant chefs, one each from Johannesburg (Marthinus Ferreira from DW Eleven-13), the Cape (Bertus Basson from Overture), and KwaZulu-Natal (Jackie Cameron of Hartford House), to hear their views on the North/South culinary debate.  The following emerged:

1.  The Cape is ‘sexy’ as a culinary destination, and therefore young chefs are seeking work in the Cape, where they can work alongside the country’s top chefs. Linked to this is that the cost of living is lower in the Cape, compared to Johannesburg, motivating young chefs to start off in the Cape, to retain more of their income.  It is this young blood that helps feed the top restaurants.  Cameron said it was a shame to see talented young chefs leave KwaZulu-Natal, and head for Cape Town.

2.  The Cape chefs are less motivated by money, and more by lifestyle.  They love being able to go for a walk on the beach before or after service, or forage on the mountain.   They love the beauty of Cape Town and the Winelands.  Basson said he blew all his money on a walk-in fridge this month, and he is excited about the new chairs that are due to arrive in August.  One can imagine chefs being inspired by beautiful Cape days on a wine farm (an increasing number of wine estates are opening restaurants, Leopard’s Leap being the next to do so in Franschhoek), or in the bustling city close to the sea. 

3.   The Cape chefs have excellent quality suppliers, which helps them make excellent food.  This is not unique to the Cape, as Cameron says she too is blessed with superb supply sources close to Hartford House.  This supplier quality is not seen to be available to Johannesburg restaurants.

4.  A very real consideration for the location of chefs is where their families and partners are.  Chef Marthinus studied at the Stellenbosch Institute of Culinary Arts, and worked at La Colombe, Le Quartier Français, and Schulphoek in the Cape before working overseas.  When he returned to South Africa, there was only one city for him – Johannesburg – as his family lives here.  So too Cameron grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, and loves living in this province, where she needs five minutes to get to work, and the only reason why she would be late would be because the cows have blocked the road! 

5.   The client profile seems to have a huge influence.  Overture has seen an upswing in local guests, on average of about 65 %, he said.  For Hartford House, it is exactly the opposite, about two-thirds of its clients being international patrons.  In winter, however, their clients are predominantly Johannesburgers, easily reaching the Hotel restaurant in a 3 – 4 hour drive, as well as receiving guests from Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Umhlanga, thinking nothing of driving up to 90 minutes to get to Hartford House.  Similarly, Capetonians will drive up to an hour to travel to Franschhoek or Stellenbosch for lunch.  Cameron was complimentary about her Johannesburg clients, saying that they understand about good food, and are appreciative about what she and her team prepares for them.

It was depressing to hear Ferreira talk about his experience.  First, his Johannesburg clients appear to have a short time window for a three course meal, few staying longer to relax and really enjoy the meal.  At lunch, they arrive at about 12h00, and are out by 13h30, the average lunch period being only 45 minutes.  At night patrons arrive at 18h30, and his restaurant is almost empty by 21h00, the dinner being a ‘starter’ to an evening of entertainment, which could include clubbing, the movies, and/or the theatre.  The businesspersons eating at his restaurant by day are under time pressure and less demanding in terms of their food, almost becoming ‘functional eaters’, rather than ‘dining appreciators’, but they eat at the restaurants as often as five times a week, making the restaurant an extension of their office, he said.   The short time that the guest spends at his restaurant has restricted Ferreira from offering a Tasting Menu.  It was something Ferreira tried when he first opened, but he dropped it, due to his patrons’ time constraint.  He is introducing it again on Monday evenings. 

Ferreira also spoke about the Johannesburg restaurant clients being hyper-critical, posting disparaging comments on websites such as Trip Advisor, but not passing on feedback directly to him and his staff while they are at the restaurant, probably to not offend him.  Yet these clients come back to his restaurants regularly.

Cameron said that Cape Town’s regular international visitors raise the bar for the restaurants in the city, as these patrons want to experience better meals on their subsequent visits, helping to improve the quality that the Cape restaurants offer.  She said that her Johannesburg clients are of a high standard, know their food and wine, and do not order a ‘well-done’ fillet! 

It emerged that the Cape restaurant client tends to be more appreciative of the food and wine that is served, and makes an occasion of a meal at a restaurant, making it the evening’s entertainment, rather than using it as a quick stepping stone to the rest of the evening’s entertainment programme. 

6.  Competition attracts more competition, Ferreira said.  This means that good restaurants in an area attract more restaurants.  He is starting to see this in Johannesburg, and talked about Cube, Roots, Mosaic, The Saxon, and Linger Longer being good Gauteng restaurants.  By contrast too, he said, the lack of good restaurants in Johannesburg had been a good opportunity for him to do something good and different, and it clearly has paid off for him.  He is confident that Johannesburg will improve its culinary performance as new restaurants open.  The move to Johannesburg in July, by Rust en Vrede Eat Out Top 10 chef David Higgs,  to join an hotel group it is speculated, is a huge vote of confidence for the Johannesburg restaurant industry, Ferreira said.

7.  There is no doubt that the money is in Johannesburg, and Cameron noted that more recipe books are sold in this city than in any other in South Africa, there is a larger potential market due to its larger population size, and it has better weather throughout the year, allowing more outdoor eating.   She does not understand why the top-end Johannesburg restaurants are not better supported, and that chefs are not attracted to these restaurants, given the better Johannesburg salaries.

8.  The type of restaurants that patrons support differ vastly in the two cities.  Rossouw wrote that Johannesburg has better steakhouses, and Asian and African restaurants.   Ferreira said that Johannesburg has wonderful restaurants, but these are not necessarily fine dining ones, being ‘curry houses and tratorrias’, more relaxed than fine dining restaurants.  In his two years of running his own restaurant in Johannesburg, Ferreira says he has seen an increase in the number of better restaurants.

 Dawes’ article about Johannesburg’s poor culinary performance is a challenge to the Johannesburg restaurant industry, to prove Dawes and the Cape wrong, Ferreira said.   I loved Basson’s analogy of the difference in the restaurants in Cape Town and Johannesburg, likening them to wines from different terroirs, “both tasting delicious for what they are”!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: @WhaleCottage