After two disastrous years, New Media Publishing was brave enough to take stock earlier this year, and asked the industry what it wanted in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards. Last night that hard work paid off, with a new venue for the event, a slick and short presentation, new Awards introduced, and three new restaurants making the Top 10 Restaurant list. The surprise was the emotion which the chefs expressed when receiving their plaques, challenging MasterChef SA Season 2 on tears!
We were one of the interviewees, meeting with Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly, its GM Aileen Lamb, MD Bridget McCarney, and Director Irna van Zyl. We were forthright in our feedback and suggestions, including that a team of judges would be needed again (we suggested Garth Stroebel, and have yet to meet him!). We fed back that the preferential relationship with Luke Dale-Roberts in TASTE magazine (also published by New Media Publishing, and of which Abigail is the Food Editor) was unfair towards all other chefs, by featuring him every month – we were told that Woolworths had a contract with him, and therefore he received the coverage in the magazine. This contract was terminated earlier this year, which is excellent news. Other recommendations can be read here. Flowing from the interviews and discussions with previous Top 20 chefs and restaurant managers, owners, and suppliers, as well as media representatives and bloggers, New Media Publishing allowed restaurants to apply to be included in the Eat Out Top 500 Restaurant List, which was selected by a panel of 50.
The function was held at The Lookout in the V&A Waterfront for the first time, the decor being very less-is-moreish, with some white paper cutouts on the tables and the odd bulb light hanging from the ceiling, Long tables were set up, with gaps in-between, to seat the 500 guests, the largest number of attendees ever. As we entered we were offered popcorn ice cream by Sorbetière, and one walked through a paper and then a popcorn curtain. In the centre of the venue a platform had been set up, with massive screens in each direction, allowing everyone to see the action. The timing in the program was adhered to strictly, and the event finished five hours later, at 22h00, few of the guests wishing to go home, and many joining the after-party. The venue allows doors to be opened to the decks, helping to cool things down, the few airconditioners not able to keep up. I was lucky to sit with the fun team from Burrata, opposite David Donde from Truth and MasterChef SA Season 2 winner Kamini Pather. On my left I had the further luck to sit next to Steve Chase and his delightful partner Maki.
Aileen Lamb welcomed the guests, spoke about the interviews done at the beginning of the year, and how it helped them to get to know their audience better. They appreciated the honesty of the feedback, and they heard how important the Top 10 awards are for the chefs. From this they finalised their strategy, and redeveloped their branding, which will be carried over into the redesigned website to be launched at the end of the month. It led to a new TV commercial, the largest ever Awards event, and the use of five outside judges. They saw the passion of the chefs, and this inspired New Media Publishing to ‘reinvent the game‘.
Abigail looked fantastic, trim and slim, and beaming, leading the chef and waiter walk into the venue, with Daisy the butter cow’s head being ceremoniously placed at the opposite end of the hall. She announced that four of the Top 20 finalist chefs were not present, something which had never happened before: Chefs Richard Carstens, Christiaan Campbell (in Dijon), Rudi Liebenberg (in New York), and Neil Jewell (in Johannesburg). She spoke very briefly about food trends being top-to-tail pork usage, using wagyu beef, the imaginative use of breads, with butter piped, whipped and churned. She highlighted some dishes which had impressed on their judging journey: Bread & Wine’s confit duck pie, and La Colombe’s cheese fondue. Chefs have stories to tell, she said, sharing their food memories. The judges team with Abigail was Andy Fenner, Liam Tomlin (who was in Mauritius), and Garth Stroebel (feedback from the various tables I visited was that all the judges other than Fenner were a pleasure to deal with), all of whom we had guessed to the surprise of Eat Out, before they were announced last night. Abigail recapped the rule of a restaurant and its chef having had to be in place since November 2012 to be eligible for the Top 10 Restaurant Awards. The restaurant scoring was done on food, including the styling, composition of the dishes, price value, and wine service, counting for 70%, 20% for service, and 10% for decor. Scores were very close, and the judges were unanimous in the Top 10 list, Abigail said. She announced that two new Awards categories had been added: Rising Star, to recognise an up and coming chef who will be in the future league of SA cuisine, as well as a Wine Service Award.
The guests were less impressed with the food, which was prepared under very trying conditions outside the venue. Bread was baked by Jason Lilley from Jason Bakery, Riggs butter came from Mooivallei Dairy, both served with an exclusive Eat Out Catch of the day Golden Ale made by Triggerfish Brewing especially for the event. Canapés by Nobu’s Dil Tamang were not seen. Jordan Restaurant’s Chef George Jardine’s ‘spicy curly kale, smoked tofu and lamb kaaings’ was exactly that – very spicy, the kale not being fresh, there being no kaaings, and the tofu boring, a disappointment from such a talented chef. His starter was paired by Jordan The Real McCoy Riesling 2013. Hartford House Chef Jackie Cameron’s first main course, being ‘smoked mussel soup with fond seaside memories‘, was also felt to be too busy, even though it had interesting hard-to-identify elements in the plate (biltong shavings, edible flowers, and more) with a very thick mussel soup which we poured over these elements into the bowl, made especially for the event by ceramicist Mervyn Gers. The SASSI green soup was paired with Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2012.
Chef Chris Erasmus of Pierneef à La Motte prepared the main course, being ‘confit pasture pork necks, rose-glazed sweetbreads and smoked and pickled lamb ribs with crayfish caramel and bordelaise butter sauce served with pumpkin vegetable pots, mushroom-and-almond snysels and pickled vegetables’, served with Jacobsdal Pinotage 2011. The vegetable platter looked amazing, with skewers, but a second platter of items could not be identified, nor the sauces, even by the chefs sitting at our table. The meat platter arrived quite a while after the vegetables did, so many wondered whether the meat was hiding in the pumpkin pie! The sweetbreads did not receive much interest. It was commented that the meal was more like a family Sunday lunch, and not reflecting the calibre of the food served by the Top 10 chefs in their restaurants.
The dessert was a collaboration between The Greenhouse and five hundred, but really were two separate desserts, that by five hundred Chefs David Higgs and Minette Smith being served on a plate, being ginger beer gel, yoghurt crumble, meringue sticks, compressed apple, yoghurt-and-apple mousse and verbena custard. The dessert by The Greenhouse Chefs Peter Tempelhoff and Amy Young was a little jar of citrus caramel, ginger white soy panna cotta, apple yazu jelly, hazelnut crunch, lemon crème fraîche parfait, and yuzu sherbet. The desserts were served with Monis Vintage Muscadel 2001. Macaroon trees were created by Chef Tanja Kruger of Makaron.
The Awards handed out were the following, Jenny Morris having been announced as the surprise judge of the Best of Awards, previously having been Abigail’s selection alone.
* The Eat Out Boschendal Style Award: The Pot Luck Club – cynically we see this as a way for the restaurant to have won an award, given that it did not make the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist, and given that Abigail has such a soft spot for Chef Luke Dale-Roberts. There were 20 finalists in this category.
* The Eat Out Jacobsdal Best Steakhouse Restaurant: Carne, for the second year running, owner Chef Giorgio Nava no longer dishonestly claiming that his meat is reared organically as he did a few years ago. Abigail also has a soft spot for Giorgio, and as he no longer is good enough to make the Eat Out Top 20 list, she has awarded him a Best of three years in a row, giving him Best Italian for 95 Keerom in 2011. We had an extremely rude interaction with him at his Caffe Milano yesterday, when he would not accept that the service was slow, that the food was not up to scratch, and that the waitress could not explain why they do not serve iced coffees.
* Best Italian: went to Burrata, for its Italian food with a modern twist, its service and good wine knowledge praised too. This led to a rather unprofessional sour grapes Tweet by Manley Communications, on behalf of their client Giorgio Nava, writing that he had been ‘snubbed‘ in this category, as if he owns ‘Italian’ cuisine in South Africa, which caused a little Twitter riot!
* Best Bistro: went to The Leopard in Johannesburg
* Best Asian: Kitima, not everyone at our table being in agreement, but the choice was a huge improvement on Saigon last year!
* Lannice Snyman Lifetime Achievement Award: Michael Olivier. This was a huge shock, and a chef asked via Twitter what exactly he has achieved. He used to own Paddagang. Burgundy, and Parks restaurants, and has not run a restaurant for a good twenty years. He had a short stint with Crush! digital food and wine magazine, which has improved hugely since he left. He has been criticised for his poor ethics as a ‘copy-and-paste’ blogger and ‘advertorialist‘, being dishonest in not revealing that his clients pay him to evaluate their wines on his blog! He also has grossly overinflated his Twitter following and the FMR listenership of his wine talks. One wonders what could have motivated Eat Out to salute Olivier, whose focus is wholly on wines, and who is disliked by many wine estates for being so pushy in his sales attacks! It was said of him that he has never said a bad word about anybody, but he lets others do his dirty work, as we have documented on our blog, having been on the receiving end of his WhaleSpotter Twitter abuse campaign, as well as his attempt to close down our blog!
* Eat Out TASTE Bursary: Amanda Manyatshe
* Wine Service Award: Joakim Blackadder of Rust en Vrede
* Rising Star: Vanessa Marx of Dear Me Foodworld, who looked fantastic, still glowing from her marriage the day before!
The Top 10 Restaurant countdown was the following, announced from 10th onwards:
1. The Test Kitchen: Chef Luke Dale-Roberts, his emotions coming out in a string of f-words.
2. five hundred: Chef David Higgs, also using some f-words in his acceptance speech.
3. Rust en Vrede: Chef John Shuttleworth
4. The Greenhouse: Chef Peter Tempelhoff
5. Hartford House: Chef Jackie Cameron
6. Jordan Restaurant: Chef George Jardine
7. Overture: Chef Bertus Basson
8. Camphors at Vergelegen: PJ Vadas was a very emotional recipient, acknowledging the role of his parents in moulding him as a chef
9. The Tasting Room: Chef Margot Janse (a massive fall from 2nd place last year, and being Best Chef last year).
10. Pierneef à La Motte: Chef Chris Erasmus.
Best Service Award: Rust en Vrede
Eat Out S. Pellegrino Chef of the Year: David Higgs, to massive applause! He announced that he is participating in the Cape Epic next year, and that he is starting a children’s charity linked to healthier eating, funds being raised via cycling.
Restaurants that made the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist that did not make the Top 10 list were Tokara (a surprise, given that they have made Top 20 three years in a row), Delaire Graff Restaurant (Top 20 two years in a row), Indochine, Bread & Wine (regarded as having been the oddest Top 20 finalist), Makaron (on the Top 20 list twice), Planet Restaurant (on the Top 20 list three years in a row), Waterkloof, DW11-13 (a regular Top 10 restaurant), The Kitchen at Maison, and La Colombe (a Top 10 restaurant ever since Chef Luke-Dale Roberts worked there).
While Chef David may have referred to Johannesburg as the ‘Capital of Africa’, it is clear that Cape Town/the Winelands is the Gourmet Capital of the country, with eight of the ten Top 10 Restaurants being located here. Stellenbosch has 3 Top 10 restaurants; Cape Town and Franschhoek 2 each; and Somerset West, Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal 1 each.
An odd note was the brand representative of sponsor San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna, whose bottles now sport labels in honour of Luciano Pavarotti. She praised Giorgio Nava as the best Italian chef in South Africa, when the award went to Burrata last night!
Despite the Nava, Olivier, and Pot Luck Club awards being inappropriate, in our opinion, and the food being disappointing generally, the Eat Out 2014 Restaurant Awards was a huge improvement on previous years, The Lookout venue being big and open, the technical support working well, the smooth and slick flow of the proceedings (except for the boring unidentified presenter), the vastly improved service staff drawn from Silwood and the Institute of Culinary Arts students, and the temperature in the venue being reasonable. Canning the gross comedians as MCs is a huge improvement. The Top 10 countdown was accepted by those that were recognised, with disappointment and a determination to get onto the Top 10 list next year by those that didn’t!
I would like to thank New Media Publishing for my first ever invitation to attend the event, and for the VIP parking outside The Lookout.
POSTSCRIPT 14/11: Today we received an e-mailed questionnaire, requesting feedback about the function, the food, the venue, and the audio-visuals. It offered a R2000 dinner voucher, at The Test Kitchen, Hartford House, or five hundred, to encourage one to participate in the survey, meaning that one had to provide one’s contact details, contrary to professional market research conduct! A number of the questions were leading, which will introduce bias into the results!
POSTSCRIPT 15/11: Today I received delivery of one of the ceramic bowls made for the mussel soup by Mervyn Gers, Valrhona Initiation Grands Crus chocolates, and Boschendal Brut Rosé, which were in the goodie bag each guest was meant to receive on leaving the function.
Eat Out 2014: www.eatout.co.za Twitter: @Eat_Out New website and 2014 magazine with Top 500 restaurants out on 29 November.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage