NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Relying on the past is not enough for chef Reuben Riffel, who wants to incorporate more local influences beyond his childhood in his exploration of South African food.
His namesake restaurant in Franschhoek, a town in the wine region of the Cape province of South Africa, has been consistently ranked as one of the country’s top restaurants. He opened another eatery at the One & Only hotel in Cape Town at the end of 2010.
The 36-year-old chef spoke to Reuters about his native cuisine and his reluctance to become a chef.
Q: Have you seen a pickup in interest in South African cuisine since the country hosted the World Cup last year?
A: “There has been a steady interest in South African food over the years. With the World Cup, you had people with certain perception of South Africa in terms of crime and what it would be like. If I look at those people who came to us at Franschhoek, people were pleasantly surprised.
“With South African chefs, you used to have more European-style food. We are now seeing them looking more inward. We realize we have something different and unique we should try to explore. I think we had lost that a little bit. People who visit South Africa insist on the South African (food) experience.”
Q: Describe that experience.
A: “We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking we could simply draw from our parents and how we grew up because that’s not enough. My parents used to cook in a way. It was food that was probably more Dutch and a mix of a bit of Indian influence and a bit of Malay influence. Look we should be open and say we have more influences than that in South Africa.
“We should explore that a bit more. We have the black culture which has a particular way of enjoying their cuisine like meats for instance. And yes, it’s based on trying to get as much substance. It also has a lot of flavor and they use a lot of vegetables. They use a lot of spinach. They use spinach with maize for example.”
Q: So what is your definition of South African cooking?
A: “I don’t want to give you a lot of nonsense of what South African food is all about. There are certain restaurants which follow certain parts, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to follow the part which I could discover. We cook with ostriches and springboks. We use crocodiles. My definition of South African food is using South African ingredients with the spices I grew up with, staying close to what I know and what I’m comfortable with.
“But I also want to get out of that and explore as well and get to know the food from the other cultures.”
Q: Then what inspired you to become a chef?
A: “I never wanted to become a chef even when I was in a position to become one. I fought against becoming a chef.”
Q: Yet you became one anyway. Why were you so resistant?
A: “I wasn’t keen on the hours. I wasn’t confident. When I started, I looked at chefs. It didn’t look like a nice job. I didn’t see any fun in what they were doing. I like food and I like eating it. I enjoy cooking and I cooked a lot with my mom. I just didn’t enjoy seeing these sweaty guys when I was a waiter. They were always nasty people. But then it wasn’t always the best of places where I worked.”
Q: What are your childhood food memories?
A: “I probably grew up with better food than most people. We weren’t poor. We lived in a two bedroom flat. My grandfather had a patch of land, growing all sort of stuff. He had pigs and goats. On our piece of land, we had chicken. My dad would occasionally have sheep. He was also into gardening. He was a farmer at heart but he never really had the opportunity to get into that. I grew up with good fresh food all the time. Our grandmother baked our bread. On Sunday, my mum cooked a big spread, nice curry. She would do chicken in different ways like with pineapples. She was very experimental. Sometimes it didn’t work but she was always trying to do different things. There were always good cooks in the family.”
Q: What continues to inspire you?
A: “I surf the net all the time. I look at (British chef) Jamie Oliver. I think he’s unbelievable and I like his food. I follow food bloggers around the world. I’m not looking for new recipes. I’m trying to understand the expectations of my customers. Eating out is more than a plate of food in front of you.”
Malay Fish Cakes
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp. mild curry powder
10 oz. flaked snoek (a South African fish)
2 tsp. parsley
flour for dusting
Salt and pepper, to your tasting
1. In olive oil, fry the onions and garlic together with the curry powder until the onions are soft but not brown.
2. Mix the onion with the smoked fish and add the parsley, taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
3. Mix in the egg.
4. Form little balls and roll in the flour, shake off the excess flour and press flat into a cake.
5. Fry on medium heat in a little oil until golden brown on both sides.
6. Serve with peri peri cream, mango chutney and shoe string fries, crisp lettuce.
Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney