This is one of the hardest blogposts I have written, with a moral dilemma of being an invited guest at what one expected to be a social highlight for the year. The Gala Dinner for Cape Town hosting World Design Capital 2014 turned out to be an embarrassment in poor organisation and food! We trust that Cape Town Design NPC, the company operating the year-long design accolade, will forgive its frankness.
The Gala Dinner was the first substantial function organised for World Design Capital 2014, the New Year’s Eve concert having been an event shared with the City of Cape Town, and was intended to be for all the people of Cape Town. Only 270 guests were invited to the Gala Dinner, and included Cape Town Mayor de Lille and Stellenbosch Mayor Conrad Sidego; Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom; sponsor company representatives such as Media24 Chairman Ton Vosloo; members of the diplomatic corps; top designers; members of the Board of Cape Town Design NPC; and a large media contingent, both local and international. Given the calibre of the guests, the fact that almost everything was wrong with the evening was an embarrassing disaster! The dress code was formal with a touch of yellow, given the World Design Capital 2014 colour for the year. The men seemed better in adding the yellow touches via gold or yellow ties and bow ties, while the ladies struggled to find something yellow in their wardrobes, including Cape Town Design NPC CEO Alayne Reesberg. Surprising was how many guests wore jeans and open shirts, despite the dress code specification.
The dinner was set up in a temporary structure for the Guild Fair, the decor exhibition which is running in conjunction with the Cape Town Art Fair at The Lookout in the V&A Waterfront. Tables seating 20 guests each were set up in long rows, with no decor other than sets of three yellow/gold Monkeybiz beaded animals on the tables. The last time I was in the neighbouring The Lookout venue was for the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards in November, and the New Media Publishing team had done a fantastic job in decorating the massive venue. On Friday night there were no design features at all, and lighting was big industrial spotlights, too bright for a dinner function (but good for food photography)! Luckily I did not see the program on the reverse side of the menu until much later, otherwise I probably would have left, as one speech after the other was listed.
We were invited to walk through to the Lookout building, where the Guild Fair design exhibition could be seen without the public being present. There were no brochures or information other than the designers’ names. There was not one proactive offering by the hired waiters of the Graham Beck MCCs, the official MCC of World Design Capital 2014. Canapés were presented continuously, and the first one I saw was boring spring rolls, which the waitress could not remember the content of nor its creator, saying it was ‘the Robertsons guy‘, none other than Reuben Riffel, which made me laugh! There were oysters too, tuna sashimi, chicken liver parfait, duck samosas, and cured kingklip (on the orange SASSI list!). After we were seated, it took forever for any food to arrive, and when it did, it was bowls of salads, and what looked like more canapés.
The Master of Ceremonies was Talia Sanhewe, whom we had not heard of before but who serves on the Board of Cape Town Design NPC, and was charming and well-spoken, but badly briefed, especially when it came to my ‘friend’! She referred to Riffel as the Executive Chef of the One&Only Cape Town, and a judge on MasterChef Australia – ouch! Riffel was over-promoted on the Gala Dinner menu as ‘South African celebrity chef and cooking sensation Reuben Riffel, renowned for his culinary prowess. His philosophy is to keep things uncomplicated, bringing out the natural flavours of each ingredient, and to strive for perfect balance in the finished dish’! Riffel no longer cooks, and therefore cannot be described as a ‘cooking sensation’. Nothing that he and his team prepared showed any balance in its presentation nor in its menu planning! He did not come out of the makeshift kitchen at all, and no video feed nor interview was done from the kitchen to prove that Riffel in fact was on the property and in the kitchen! I doubt that he was there, the timing of the serving of the food for the main course in particular having been a disaster! Shocking was that the serving staff had no clue about what was on each of the platters they brought in from the kitchen, saying that they had not been told. They work for the event company Urban Tonic on a part-time basis!
Alayne was a star in her simple, very short, and warm welcome to all present. She was followed by Australian Dr Brandon Gien, the President of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, the company which awards the city hosting World Design Capital every two years. We lost most of what he spoke about, but we did get that he loves Cape Town, and that this was his second visit to our city in two months. He said that he can detect the pride of Capetonians and their love for the city. The worst and most self-indulgent talk was by Gavin Mageni, head of the SA Bureau of Standards (SABS) Design & Innovation Entrepreneur Centre, who not only irritated with a more than half an hour speech but also suffered technical problems in his presentation, totally cringe-worthy! Mayor Patricia de Lille has been in the news and under attack about the City’s new logo design, but was diplomatic in not referring to it at all. She is a charming speaker, and puts a subtle political spin to her speeches. The applause demonstrated her popularity. She warned about becoming complacent about all the recognition Cape Town has received of late. She committed to each of the City’s 111 wards that they would be touched by World Design Capital 2014, and councillors had been invited to suggest design projects for their wards. Free computers are being made available at all public libraries, and the waiting time at City of Cape Town clinics is being reduced by means of design, she said.
Erica Elk, another Cape Town Design NPC Board member, announced the launch of the ‘byDESIGN’ Awards, which few grasped, but appear to be the ‘Western Cape Design Awards’, according to the media release! Exactly what they look for in the Awards is unclear, even from the media release! Erica read a very short paragraph on behalf of Western Cape Tourism Minister Alan Winde, who could not attend due to illness, saying that the design industry employs 80000 staff in the province. He also reminded the audience that ‘the world’s eyes are on the innovation in our region’. Dr Gien was back on the stage to provide a background to the World Design Impact Prize, a biennial international industrial design award, for which the trophy design (by Porky Hefer, also a director of Cape Town Design NPC, wearing cool yellow sneakers!) and execution (Bronze Age) was done in Cape Town, the design being based on ‘dolosse’ that protect the coastline, a truly South African design, explained Chris Whelan, the Vice Chairman of Cape Town Design NPC, who let the heavy trophy fall as he was handing it over. The winner of the prize, the three finalists all being from overseas, was Dr David Swann from the UK for his ABC Syringes, about which we received no information at all. Andrew Boraine and Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana of the Cape Town Partnership were acknowledged for having led the successful Bid by Cape Town for World Design Capital 2014. The musicians disappeared, not having had much time in which to perform, given the many speeches, but the Mouille Point foghorn was a special Cape Town sound effect instead!
In between the speeches the food for the supposed ‘Braai feast‘ arrived in drips/dribs and drabs (perhaps due to the pouring rain)! The ‘selection of breads’ was one only, being rye bread! A mesclun salad of green leaves; a tomato salad; a quinoa, radish, and edamame salad arrived without the advertised avocado; as did a delicious but unlisted fig and mozzarella salad. Peri peri prawns arrived without the peri peri! These were a starter selection, meant to have all been part of the ‘Braai feast‘! Endless platters of Boerewors as well as a brie, cranberry and rocket sausage arrived later, with an unlisted potato, corn, and mayonnaise salad. Most waited for the rest of the advertised meat and fish dishes to arrive, meaning that their wors was cold by the time they ate it, as were most of the meat dishes. Every 15 minutes or so something else arrived, the Karoo lamb chops with honey and lemon basil pesto; very burny aged beef sirloin slow braaied with black pepper barbeque sauce; mushy ‘miso glazed aubergine steaks‘, and right at the end, yellowtail steaks with a chilli herb marinade and aioli. The advertised chilli vegetable stir braai char sui did not appear! We saw hordes of platters of meat returned to the kitchen, uneaten! In serving the salads and the meats no serving spoons were available, so we had to use our own cutlery!
The saving grace about the disastrous dinner was the excellent Graham Beck The Game Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and Reserve Shiraz 2012 wines served, the pinnacle of design experienced at the Gala Dinner! Dessert was served after 23h00, the long speeches having given the kitchen more than enough time to have got them ready, but they were slow to be brought to the tables. By the time they came out, most guests had left, delighted to escape one of the most boring evenings they must have attended in a long time! The advertised Graham Beck Rhona Muscadel 2012, paired with the chocolate delice (which fell off its base as soon as it was touched with a spoon), malted barley salted ice cream, sesame ‘tuille’ (sic), and topped with pea shoots (!), never arrived at our table, the KWV 15 year old brandy being served instead.
Given that the cost of the Gala Dinner in all likelihood came from the City of Cape Town and its ratepayers, it was a shocking waste of money and an embarrassing representation of Cape Town and the Winelands being the Food Capital of South Africa, not surprising in that Reuben’s restaurants have not been near the Eat Out Top 20 Restaurant shortlist for the past three years. The highly praised ‘Warhorse’ performance arrived late, when many guests had left, a non-event! One hopes that Cape Town Design NPC will use a professional event organiser in future, The Guild’s Trevyn McGowan clearly out of her depth in not having any skills in coordinating a kitchen and a team of servers! It had been McGowan’s idea to host the dinner inside her Guild Fair, and she co-ordinated all elements of the dinner and the communication with Riffel, I was told, a similar event having been held in Johannesburg recently.
Disclosure: With our media release we received a Rado battery charger; a bag of wood-cut designs of ‘Cape Town memories‘: Table Mountain, The Castle, City Hall, Cape Town Stadium, a taxi, a yacht, a Southern Right whale, and a Jackass penguin; and a Nescafé Dolce Gusto thermos container. The biggest shock was emptying the goody bag on arrival at home, and finding a World Design Capital 2014 fold-up brochure with information about ’76 of the active design projects that are changing your city’, with the controversial new City of Cape Town logo on it, despite it having only been approved by the Cape Town City Council two days prior!
POSTSCRIPT 2/3: Priscilla Urquhart, PR and Media Manager of Cape Town Design NPC, for World Design Capital 2014, made the following comment to a Facebook post about this blogpost: ‘Priscilla Urquhart We tried! Unfortunately the relentless rain did play havoc with our intentions of a gourmet braai and the food was a bit slow out but at the end of it, we’ve had some wonderful compliments and feedback. The article could’ve done with some fact-checking though!‘ She has not communicated with me directly, to explain what went wrong in the kitchen, and which facts needed checking!
POSTSCRIPT 3/3: Anton Groenewald, Executive Director of the City of Cape Town Tourism, Events, and Marketing, and a Board member of Cape Town Design NPC, the most direct link between the City of Cape Town and the World Design Capital 2014 and its funding, responded as follows to the blogpost: ‘Thanks for the very detailed breakdown of the event as experienced in your account. It was a special week in which the city hosted Santana, Eminem, Design Indaba, the Guild, Stormers game, the Art Fair, City Hall Hosted the Tattoo festival with over 5000 attendees, Ajax Cape Town played Polokwane at Athlone Stadium and Newlands cricket. With more 200 000 people at city events, the permit office and my team was at full stretch, including myself. I assumed that since the who’s who of Cape Town would attend the event that eventough (sic) I am a board member there would be more than adequate representation from the city and board. Over representation and too many speeches can kill an event. I am sure your article and others will be reflected on at the next board meeting’.
POSTSCRIPT 4/3: Given Priscilla Urquhart’s Facebook post about my blogpost, and her criticism relating to fact-checking, I called her three times yesterday. She returned the call once, but I could not take her call. I sent her an e-mail last night, saying that I would like to speak to her, and wanted to have the allegedly incorrect facts corrected by her. I was shocked to receive this unprofessional non-PR reply from her, barely acknowledging any problems about the Gala Dinner, and emphasising the happiness with the evening by others (which is not correct if one checks her and her employer’s Twitter feed, with barely any Tweets of congratulations): ‘I was in back to back meetings all day yesterday and returned your call mid-morning in between meetings. The fact checking is as follows: the number of guests, theme for the evening, information about the impact prize winners, and the fact that rain had play havoc with the gourmet braai. This was not Masterchef and so no cameras in the kitchen to see the dinner being prepared; Reuben was very good about chatting to guests while the staff were juggling the weather and getting some rain proofing to ensure the food didn’t get ruined. So the food was delayed I getting out, guests didn’t seemed to mind (the weather “typical” of CT offering 4 seasons in one day, being the good-natured comments from guests) and we have had terrific feedback and compliments since Friday evening. We don’t mind criticism when it is meant and written in a constructive manner. Both Alayne and I were disappointed to read your blog and sorry that you had such an awful evening. I am out of the office most of the week and can be reached on my cellphone, however not sure there is much else to discuss‘.
Priscilla has not corrected the alleged incorrect facts in the e-mail, and appears to have closed the door on any further contact to get them corrected. We have heard that it was a shambles in the kitchen, confirming what we experienced at the Gala Dinner. At no stage did I communicate in the blogpost that I had had an ‘awful’ evening, as claimed by her, reflecting her poor fact-checking. It would have been ever more reason for her to call, one would have thought!
World Design Capital 2014, Cape Town Design NPC, Harrington House, 37 Barrack Street, Cape Town. Tel 086 000 7410 www.wdccapetown2014.com Twitter: @WDC2014
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage