No restaurants which opened in South Africa from 2010 onwards (with the exception of The Test Kitchen) were judged to be good enough to make the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards 2012, held at the The Westin hotel last night.  As predicted, Chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen was named the number one restaurant on the Top 10 list, while Margot Janse of The Tasting Room was named Chef of the Year.  The Best Service Award went to Rust en Vrede.  Stellenbosch now is the Gourmet Capital of South Africa, with four Top 10 restaurants, followed by Cape Town with three, and one each in Franschhoek, Johannesburg, and the Natal Midlands. The biggest surprise of the evening was the ‘slap’ Chef George Jardine of Jordan Restaurant, making third place on the Top 10 list, gave Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly (wearing Gavin Rajah) from the stage, criticising the use of an imported judge for the Awards, clearly referring to the controversial role Bruce Palling played in the Awards. A number of other controversial aspects once again clouded the Awards evening.

Lets start with Mr Palling.  The relationship between New Media Publishing and its ex-judge went sour after the judging, when New Media Publishing was said by Palling on Twitter to not want to offer him a ticket to Cape Town to attend the Awards last night.  He declined their offer of an economy class ticket or a video interview, demanding a first class ticket.  New Media Publishing gave us a statement for our blog, but the company never went public about what went wrong between them.  It was a surprise therefore to hear Mrs Donnelly praise Palling’s role and contribution in her presentation (‘Thank you for your honesty, intuition and your ability to generate such enthusiasm’), and in the Eat Out Tweets, as if nothing had gone wrong between the two parties.  Eat Out Tweeted comments by Palling about four Top 10 restaurants, to emphasise his involvement. It is not surprising that he ignored the Eat Out Tweets completely, praising only Hartford House (but criticising its desserts), ironically praising Jordan Restaurant for ‘its gutsiness’ and ‘not presenting yet another tasting menu‘, and generically praising The Test Kitchen and The Tasting Room as being ‘far away the best meals of my entire trip’.   As the Eat Out 2013 magazine quotes Palling’s feedback about each of the Top 10 restaurants, and dedicates a page to him, Mrs Donnelly had to keep up the pretence that all is well between them!  The criticism of ‘foreign judge’ Palling by Chef George, himself a ‘foreigner’, was absolutely unexpected, and it is likely that he will not ever make the Top 10 Restaurant list again as a result!  He received applause for his bravery!

Palling was given a full page in the new Eat Out magazine, and countered the criticism that he had never been to South Africa. He criticised that some of our restaurant dishes were copied from those of other international chefs, and the use of too many ingredients, up to ten he counted on a plate.  He praised Jordan Restaurant for ‘everything had a purpose, and the intensity of the flavours was life-enhancing’.  The Test Kitchen was praised for not being ‘swamped with ingredients’. Each ingredient had a purpose. He wrote about The Tasting Room, ‘which could easily qualify as one of my most satisfying meals in the past year, thanks to the playfulness of the dishes and the deft use of local ingredients’. Palling advised our restaurants to simplify their dishes, to reduce the number of ingredient, and to ‘shorten the lectures about the menu and wine both before and during the meal’ !

The biggest loss of credibility for Mrs Donnelly was in the Best Of’ restaurant categories, where she had indicated that she had sole judging power as her ‘Editor’s Choice’.  She had nominated scores of restaurants per category, with more than 160 nominations for six categories.  It was for the Best Asian category, with 43 nominees, that she received the most criticism, the award going to Saigon in Kloof Street, Cape Town, when it had been speculated that Kitima (winner of the category last year), Nobu, Indochine at Delaire Graff, or even the ever-popular Willoughby’s could have been worthy winners. Tweets shared the disbelief in the result, which was described as a ‘Mr Delivery’ Asian restaurant!  The other surprise was the Best Steakhouse award going to Carne, yet should not have been, as we know what a soft spot Mrs Donnelly has for Chef Giorgio Nava, once a regular on the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list, until we wrote three years ago about the dishonest claim on the Carne menu and website that all the beef, lamb and game comes from Nava’s Karoo farm!  Last year Nava was awarded the Best Italian category for 95 Keerom Street!

The MC comedian Rob van Vuuren was an absolute disaster, not reading his audience.  Do we really need crass clowns to entertain foodies?

Foraging and the use of local ingredients sourced seasonally have been highlighted for the past two years as an important criterion for a Top 10 Restaurant, referred to as the ‘New Naturalists’ by Mrs Donnelly last night, yet she has been paying lip service to this criterion, in not recognising what top chefs have done in this regard, not awarding Top 10 status to Makaron Restaurant, Babel, Pierneef à La Motte, and Delaire Graff.  Once again Mrs Donnelly excluded Tokara Restaurant from the Top 10 list!  Bridget McCarney, MD of New Media Publishing, shared (defensively) that the late Lannice Snyman, in her time as the Eat Out editor, was the sole judge too, attempting to address the criticism that Mrs Donnelly had been the sole judge in 2011, and had her choice of Top 10 restaurants rubber stamped by Palling this year.  The difference was that Lannice’s selection for the Top 10 list was rarely questioned.  The question was asked last night how 2011 number one Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant The Greenhouse could fall to 8th place this year.

The service from The Westin managers and staff was outstanding, much improved compared to previous years, the managers checking on every table regularly.  Four of the Top 19 chef finalists prepared the food, from ingredients supplied by Woolworths for the event.  Each chef was interviewed in the kitchen, talking about their dish as they were plating them.  Despite arriving punctually, no promised canapés made by The Westin Chef Grant Cullingworth were seen nor tasted, said to have been super. Chef Marthinus Ferreira of DW Eleven-13 prepared the starter, a Nori-wrapped Springbok tataki, with mushroom soil, beetroot gel, parmesan spheres, soy-sake reduction, pickled mushrooms, and radish Springbok tartare, which was paired with Waterkloof Circle of Life 2011.  Chef Scot Kirton of La Colombe prepared a beautiful looking Umami broth, with samphire, seaweed, miso scallop, langoustine, abalone and soy caviar, with a sea fog brought to each table to enhance the marine effect.  This was paired with Constantia Uitsig Semillon 2011.

Chef Bertus Basson of Overture made a wonderful homely, generous, and beautiful self-serve home-smoked pork belly with crackling, served with Camilla’s potato pie, organic beetroot, and asparagus with truffle butter, paired with Hidden Valley Pinotage 2011.  Florian was a true gentleman, assisting all the ladies at our table with the vegetables.  The dessert was made by Planet Restaurant Pastry Chef Vicky Gurovich, being layers of Valrhona ganache, crème, crèmeux, sponge and caramel, with a passion fruit sorbet, paired with KWV Medium Cream Sherry.

The winners of the 2012 Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards were as follows:

The Top 10 restaurants:
1.     The Test Kitchen
2.     The Tasting Room
3.     Jordan Restaurant
4.     Overture
5.     Rust en Vrede
6.     DW Eleven-13
7.     La Colombe
8.     The Greenhouse
9.     Terroir
10.   Hartford House

Restaurant of the Year
The Test Kitchen

Chef of the Year
Margot Janse of The Tasting Room

Service Excellence Award
Rust en Vrede

The Lannice Snyman Lifetime Achievement Award
Alicia Wilkinson of Silwood School of Cookery

Best Bistro
9th Avenue Bistro

Best Steakhouse
Carne SA

Best Country-style Restaurant
Fresh at Paul Cluver Wine Estate

Best Asian Restaurant
Saigon (Gardens)

Best Italian restaurant
Café del Sol

Boschendal Style Award in association with Visi
Green House at Babylonstoren

It was heartening to receive so much feedback and congratulations for speaking out about the Eat Out Awards, and the bias that has been introduced, clouding its credibility!   Ms McCarney came to chat, and said she welcomed critical feedback, but felt that I had been too harsh on Mrs Donnelly.  I assured her that there is no personal issue with Mrs Donnelly at all, and that I write what I hear the industry say, no chef being able to voice his/her opinion (other than brave Chef George Jardine), for fear of the consequences. I reminded her that many a chef’s soul and ego, and a restaurant’s fortune, is made or broken by the Awards, so that they must be impeccably impartial, which they are not currently.  We have promised to meet soon.  I enjoyed meeting the Hartford House team, sharing a table with them, and promising to visit next winter.  It was lovely seeing Chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara of the world’s 5th best restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, whom I had met at the Eat Out Conference on Saturday.  She wore a most unusual choker made from the cork of a special wine bottle, encased in sterling silver.

It will be interesting to see if Mrs Donnelly will continue to use Chef Luke for every issue of Taste magazine, or whether she will now bestow the honour upon Chef of the Year Margot Janse!   The message to Mrs Donnelly and New Media Publishing is clear after last night – please judge our South African chefs using local judges!  Please do not let friendships and favouritism cloud the judgement in making the restaurant selections, as the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards are now described as no longer being ‘kosher’! For this reason, we call on New Media Publishing to appoint a new editor for Eat Out, as Mrs Donnelly has tainted her own, her publisher’s, and the restaurant industry’s reputation!

Eat Out 2013, New Media Publishing, www.eatout.co.za Twitter: @Eat_Out

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