The latest Opulent Living magazine, one of the best lifestyle magazines available currently, and clever about marrying the magazine with a regular e-magazine that is easy to navigate, as well as with a blog, contains an interview with three leading chefs, and all three said that restaurant awards have both negatives and positives attached to them.

The three chefs interviewed were David Higgs of Rust en Vrede, number one on the South African Top 10 Eat Out restaurant list, Margot Janse of Le Quartier Français, and Luke Dale Roberts, previously of La Colombe and now owner of The Test Kitchen and number one Eat Out Top 10 chef in 2009.  All three chefs made it to the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants in the World, Dale-Roberts’ ranking being the best ever South African performance, with his 12th position in 2010.

Acknowledging the  power of restaurant awards, in terms of increased awareness and resulting in bookings, the chefs felt that it created a negative pressure on themselves and their staff prior to the awards events.   “To be honest with you, the less awards, the less stars and all those things that we have to think about, the better our lives are” said Luke Dale-Roberts.   He added that he thought that awarding stars was better, as it means that there are no winners and losers.  Then it is no longer a competition, and one is just competing against oneself, to maintain that star.  David Higgs added that awards place a lot of pressure on chefs.

David Higgs said that he felt that South African cuisine is on a par with international restaurants, but it was felt that service levels were not yet on a par with the food.  All three restaurants work hard at this.  Rust en Vrede is only open five nights a week, and the other days are used for training, hands-on by the chef.   It was felt that South African chefs are not moulded by a particular food style as may happen in Europe, and there is more standardisation and duplication of dishes on European menus (e.g. cauliflower pureé with scallops, or foie gras).   As South Africa does not have a distinctive food style, it gives chefs a far greater opportunity to experiment, and to not be pigeon-holed in their cuisine style. 

All three the chefs focus on local produce, but introduce an imported product on occasion, to share a special treat (e.g. a French cheese, Kobe beef) with their patrons.   The three chefs agreed to sharing supplier names, but felt weary of too much sharing as they are sometimes blatantly copied.   The internet and television have added to the food knowledge of chefs and their restaurants, and David Higgs said that the public are appreciating food better.

POSTSCRIPT 15/4: It has been announced that David Higgs has resigned from Rust en Vrede, and will leave mid-June. 

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio:   Twitter:@WhaleCottage