Toffie Food Festival: No toffees, über-design, über-promise, under-delivery!

When writing our blogpost about the Toffie Food Festival, we wrote about a number of aspects about the organisation of the Toffie Food Festival and Conference that left much to be desired, the organisers making a number of promises which they did not deliver on.  I expressed my scepticism in the blogpost, but it was the talk by ex-blogger Julie Powell, theme of the movie ‘Julie & Julia’, that made me book, despite the high price tag.  Despite enjoying the morning sessions on Saturday, it was the organisers reneging on the confirmed booked secret dinner venue for Saturday evening that was the final straw, and therefore I decided to leave, with my money refunded, when the organisers failed to fix their acknowledged booking error.

The Toffie (no explanation was given by the organisers for this odd name, and there was no toffee, except at the SA Breweries food and beer pairing) Food Festival was not explained, and probably referred to the City Hall room with a number of stalls, creating a mini market, including stands for Woolworth’s coffee, the Queen of Tarts, Oded’s Kitchen, and a few more.  Another room had a number of beer brands for sale.  A further room sold pies from Jason’s, and here mini-croissants were available, being the over-promised ‘breakfast’!   A further room had a colourful Mexican Piñatas design (the organisers seemed to get their countries mixed up, as a link to Argentina was intended, with a speaker from this country).  The problem with all the extra features was that nothing was explained on arrival, or at the start of the Conference.   The registration desk staff, acknowledging our booking, said nothing about the bookings for the workshops running alongside the Festival, nor about the Secret Dinners, which took place in the homes of a number of hosts on Saturday evening.  One had to find out everything oneself.

The Toffie Food Conference was a one and a half day presentation of a random collection of speakers, some having nothing to do with food at all (these were last minute replacements for initially advertised international speakers, the programme having been amended as late as two weeks before its start, Wolfgang Koedel of Paulaner  Brauhaus and perfumer Tammy Fraser being added). The only common element some speakers had was that they had published books, but there was no theme commonality for the Conference overall.  The venue was a tacky dark room in the City Hall, on a noisy corner with taxi-hooting disturbance from outside, and not in the downstairs main City Hall auditorium, as one had expected.  We sat on uncomfortable cheap plastic chairs which had been wrapped in brown paper (this was the ‘creative’ decoration used throughout), which meant that there was a lot of rustling in the venue when one moved on one’s chair. The organisers clearly struggled to fill the venue, it not being full, and ‘gave away’ tickets on Groupon(unfair to those who paid for the weekend in full), as well as offered seats as give-aways on M-Net.   Even on late Saturday afternoon, free Secret Dinner seats were offered via Twitter!

The organisers of the Toffie Food Festival and Conference were artist Peet Pienaar (a grumpy looking ex-rugby player with a Paul Kruger look, and who has a bizarre CV on Wikipedia, which I should have read before booking) and Hannerie Visser (ex-publisher of VISI and TASTE at New Media Publishing), both of never-heard-of-before The President design agency, with what must be the sparsest website ever seen, with design work done for Babylonstoren, BOS, TriBeCa, Navigator Films, and Bruce Lee magazines!  Neither have any food experience, nor have they organised a Conference before.  Copied from Argentina, they organise secret CHOP dinners in their offices, with Pienaar cooking bizarre meals (e.g. veal brain ravioli, the dinner and drinks costing R350) on a weekly basis.   This concept was built into the Toffie Food Festival, each delegate being allocated to a host, at whose home one would have dinner. Hosts were mainly from the decor design field.  While it was meant to be a random match of delegates with host venues, I liked the sound of GreyLamp, being a pop-up restaurant, and therefore I wrote to Visser, requesting this as my dinner venue.  She agreed by e-mail a few days before the event.  When I found the desk dealing with the dinners, I was given details of a completely different host, an editor of an art magazine, who had nothing to do with food at all!  There was no explanation for the error, and one of The President staff promised to sort it out, promising to find me to confirm the correction.  As I had experienced during the booking process, this promise was not met, and I had to return to the desk again. Lying on the table was a (brown paper wrapped) ‘present’ for me, with the news that I could not attend the GreyLamp dinner, as it was fully booked!  I went looking for Visser, but saw Pienaar first, and he rudely told me that it was tough that they had made an error in promising the venue.  This was echoed by Visser, when I finally found her.  It was the way in which she spoke to me, in that it was her right to take a promise away by making a mistake, that annoyed me.  When she offered to refund the money I had paid in full, I accepted it, as their error was a major let-down.  So while I missed out on Julie Powell’s talk after all of that, I was happy to leave this badly organised space, and was able to follow her speech on Twitter.  I couldn’t help but smile when I saw a number of disparaging Tweets about the poor Braai that closed off the Festival yesterday, the promised Argentinian Asado barbeque having fallen away, and the R150 Braai package (for those that brought partners) consisted of only a chop, a sausage and a roll, once again a false over-promise.

The speakers at the Toffie Conference tried their best to make up for the poor organisation and behind-the-scenes dramas happening outside the presentation venue:

*  Kobus van der Merwe, of the cutest Paternoster eatery Oep ve Eet, which I discovered a year ago, spoke about his love for foraging for West Coast foods in the preparation of his meals, including soutslaai, dune spinach, veldkool, seevygies, waterblommetjies, wild sage, and wild rosemary.    He grows some of his own vegetables and herbs, and has access to free-range farm eggs, Khoisan salt, bokkoms, cow’s milk, and flour close by.  Not only do Kobus’ dishes look beautiful from the colourful wild plants he adds, but he is also inspired by shapes from nature, having developed a breadstick in the shape of a branch, and uses streussel to create the look of soil.  Bobotie made with calamari, meat or vegetables are a staple at his restaurant, as are gemsbok sosaties, he said.  The books by Louis Leipoldt and Renata Coetzee are his food inspiration. Kobus calls his focus at Oep ve Eet ‘Earth-to-plate’, or ‘Terroir food’ His food ideas and creativity in its presentation are well worth a book, but can already be seen on his blog Sardine Toast.

*   Eloise Alemany is a small-print-run publisher of her own books, written in Spanish, and which she described as combination food journal, cultural diary, story book and cook book.  She has French parents, grew up in Japan, ran ID magazine in the USA for a while, before moving to Buenos Aires.  Her passion is photography and publishing, she said.  The choice as speaker was unusual, as many a local cook book writer and publisher could have probably been more useful to food writers wishing to have guidelines about how to get their work published.  Ms Alemany’s books were available for sale, but are not available in English.  The covers of the books ‘Libro de Cocino’ and ‘Cuaderno Dulce’ are beautiful, but have no food in them.  She launched secret dinners in unique venues, such as an art gallery and a shoe shop, each with a theme, first for friends, and then expanded these when the unusual dinners received coverage in the Buenos Aires media.  Ms Alemany described herself as an ‘accumalator’ of beautiful things, which come in useful for the styling for shoots.  Buenos Aires experienced a ‘restaurant food revolution’ after the country’s financial crisis five years ago, and it led to interesting small neighbourhood restaurants opening. She encouraged delegates to stick to their vision, and to take risks in doing so.  Food styling must tempt the reader, it must inspire the reader in giving ideas of how to serve a dish, and it must be a memorable composition, she advised.  She varies her styling, some being busy, and others neutral.  She publishes a print run of 1000 books, distributing her books via small design shops in the main.  She concluded with the advice that one should do what one enjoys, and not that which one is good at.

*   Anna Trapido was a lively and informative speaker about the foods that have shaped Nelson Mandela’s life, being the author of ‘Hunger for Freedom’, and was the theme for the unusual lunch we were served on Saturday.  We received so much information that I have written a separate blogpost about it, to be published later this week.

*   I was very surprised when I saw a Taiwanese Barista featured on the programme, and even more so when I heard him speak his language, having an interpreter with him on the stage.  Once again, I wondered why an international speaker had to be brought in for this talk, when Cape Town has some excellent coffee specialists.  From Twitter, highlights of this talk by World Barista champion Tung-Yuan Lin were his development of Latte Art, going beyond the usual heart and leaf designs. He opened his first coffee shop GaBee six years ago, serving 100 different types of drinks.  After winning the barista competition, he pushed himself to develop new ideas, by using local Taiwanese ingredients such as sweet potato and melon; coffee, soda water and ginger; coffee and grapes to create a ‘red wine’; sweet corn soup coffee; creating ‘drinkable desserts’.  He advised delegates to push themselves to try unique combinations of ingredients to create as drinks.

*   Tammy Frazer’s talk on ‘Gourmand fragrances’ seemed completely out of place at a Food Conference.  Her talk generated few Tweets.

*  Wolfgang Koedel of Paulaner Brauhaus talked about beer, describing it as ‘liquid bread’.  Draught beer is ‘cool and trendy’ again, he said. During the World Cup 72000 pints of Paulaner were drunk.

*   Renata Coetzee wrote ‘Koekemakranka: Khoi-Khoin Kultuurgoed en Kom-kuier-Kos’, a Gourmand World Cookbook Award winner.  Her interest in food culture goes back 60 years, incorporating etiquette and folklore too.  She was particularly interested in African food culture, which had not been written about previously. Early civilisations would have eaten a lot of shellfish, bulbs and wild animals, she said.  The Khoi prepared food in claypots, and through mixing foods, stews were born.  Fat from sheeps’ tails was the most common ingredient of Khoi dishes.  Ms Coetzee has reworked the traditional Khoi recipes to make them palatable for Westerners.

Julie Powell’s success as a blogger, and subsequent author, in documenting her cooking of Julia Child’s recipe book in one year, and leading to the making of the movie ‘Julie & Julia’, cost her her marriage, which became the theme of her second book, called ‘Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession’. With her marriage on the rocks, Ms Powell decided to do a butcher’s course, a good escape for her, and she enjoyed ‘hacking up meat’.  It is very ‘hip’ to be a butcher these days, she said. She is concerned about the origin of her meat, and it must be organic, sustainable, and hormone-free.   For her, food has good, joyous, generous and loving memories, as well as nasty and divise memories.  She turns to food in times of crisis. She said that she was judged for being a blogger, and stopped blogging when her first book was published.  She does not follow blogs now, she told Elle Decor.  She watches a lot of TV, but does not watch food programmes, finding them boring. In New York pop-up restaurants and food trucks are a new trend.  ‘Technology and blogging have woven us together and made the food conversation more cacophonous than ever before’, she said.  An increasing number of people want to know where their food comes from ethically and environmentally.  Ms Powell is working on her third book, not specifically about food.

It was interesting that Cape Town Tourism did not sponsor the Toffie Food Festival and Conference, as it did the ‘100 Women 100 Wines’ event a week ago, and they only wrote two Tweets about this event.  One would have thought that the tourism body would offer equal attention to all events taking place in Cape Town, and that it would have wanted to demonstrate its tourism leadership by having a visible presence at the event, given its stated focus on Food tourism.  One wonders what the policy is of Cape Town Tourism in its sponsorship of events, and how it decides which events will receive monetary support.

The Toffie Food Festival and Conference was poorly organised, and their over-promised benefits and poor communication are unprofessional.  They have a lot to learn before they attempt to host another such event next year.

POSTSCRIPT 5/9: Sonia Cabano has written in support of our observation about the lack of value for money of the event, as follows:  “Yes, so ToffieFood was expensive and underdelivered. We all know that, and we are all discussing it”.

POSTSCRIPT 6/9: We copied the above sentence by Sonia Cabano from a comment she wrote to this blogpost.  As the rest of the comment was untruthful, disparaging and defamatory, we deleted it, and posted one sentence from it in the blogpost.  She Tweeted a number of times that she felt that the cost of the Toffie Food Festival was too high, but appears to have subsequently deleted these Tweets.

POSTSCRIPT 7/9: Sonia Cobana has Tweeted her Comment that she sent to this blogpost, which we have not allowed.  She is blatantly dishonest in claiming that she was with me when I talked to the organisers Hannerie Visser and Peet Pienaar.   She walked past us while I spoke to Peet Pienaar, gave him her new recipe book ‘Relish’ launched earlier that day, and walked off.  She was not party to any of the discussions I had with the organisers.  I left the event with a staff member of The President (organisers of the Toffie Food Festival), and not a security person, so that he could collect the delegate badge from me, walking me to my car in an area that is not particularly safe.   It appears that she is Tweeting this disparagement in retaliation to our blogposts about Cape Town Tourism, having hounded me on Friday evening, calling seven times to beg me to not write about Ms Grove anymore, being her friend.  I explained that nothing is written about Ms Grove or Mrs Helmbold in their personal capacity, but in that of their work for Cape Town Tourism.

POSTSCRIPT 10/9:  One of the Surprise Dinner hosts told me today that they had been very disappointed with the organisation, only having 13 of the 30 booked Toffie Food Festival delegates arrive, and many of these were ‘freebies’, who had received the dinner place for free, in a last minute desperate attempt by the organisers on Twitter. Hosts were given a budget of R150 per head for a three course meal, and were paid in Woolworths vouchers by the organisers.  Spier sponsored the wine. One wonders why Woolworths backed an unknown ad agency in putting on a first-time food festival and conference that clearly is not their field of expertise, was not well-organised, and was controversial, sullying their own brand.

POSTSCRIPT 11/9:  In her (libelous) report on the Toffie Food Festival, which she did not attend in full, given that the launch of her new book ‘Relish’ co-incided with Saturday morning of the Festival, for the BY supplement to Beeld, Die Burger, and other News24 titles, Sonia Cabano confirmed the complaints about the expense of attendance.  She gets the Festival cost wrong at R1800 (it was R1710), and writes about the near give-away of tickets on Groupon to fill the Festival.  She also mentions that no speakers of colour were included in the Festival programme, and the disappointing food market, which offered nothing new, most of the stallholders selling their wares at weekly markets too.  She also writes about the complaints about the poor Sunday lunch braai, and that Julie Powell, the keynote speaker, was a disappointment, being ‘babelaas’ from the Secret Dinner the night before (‘…dat haar aanbieding die dag daarna belemmer is deur haar selferkende hewige babelaas’) !  Her report confirms that I made the right decision to leave the Toffie Food Festival on Saturday afternoon, after the Secret Dinner booking mismanagement, which was admitted to by the organisers, and therefore they refunded my fee.

POSTSCRIPT 14/9:  Today we received an e-mail from the Toffie Food Festival organisers, advertising their Toffie Food Festival food tour to Buenos Aires from 23 – 30 October, in conjunction with TASTE magazine, at a cost of R 28426 for a single and R23327 for a double, inclusive of the flight, accommodation and meals.

POSTSCRIPT 20/9:  Dax Villanueva, of Relax with Dax Blog, is also rather critical of his experience of the Toffie Food Festival.

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

9 replies on “Toffie Food Festival: No toffees, über-design, über-promise, under-delivery!”

  1. Hey Chris,

    I very much disagree with you on the weekend. I had an amazing time and though it wasn’t perfectly organized to me the talks, the atmosphere and overall buzz made up for that. I was going back and forth trying to decide whether I should buy a ticket due to the price. I agree with you that the last minute Groupon deals, did annoy me as well though I feel I got my moneys worth.
    I think they had a wonderful mix of international and local speakers – why should the barrista come from SA?? To me it was an appeal to have people from all over the world.
    The last minute additions in form of Tammy and Wolfgang were great. Tammy’s talk was quite interesting and whether it created lots of tweets or not, her story about gourmand fragrances made sense to me in the context. Wolfgang was lovely and it made me quite happy to see that a German got the most laughs and was quite charming.
    Regarding the secret dinner, I can understand your disappointment, I can not however understand why you would be able to select your host to begin with. Surely that wasn’t the point? I had a favourite too, but it didn’t occur to me to request them and in hindsind I got very lucky with my dinner at SAB.
    I guess overall one can agree to disagree, but I must say I was a bit upset to see all your re-tweets of negative comments of the braai. I didn’t attend myself as I had other plans for the afternoon, but neither did you. To re-tweet negative things that other people are saying seems a bit spiteful, don’t you think?

    Annika

  2. darren says:

    well done Chris for highlighting this rip off weekend…..we should unite and not put up with this kind of crap which both insults our intelligence and our city. Its notable that some of the “well known ” food bloggers who also attended kept their heads down and didnt complain maybe for fear of not being invited back to other so called food fairs.

  3. Thank you Darren.

    This blogpost clearly struck some raw nerves, and I have received some vicious comments by ‘foodies’ (pardon the pun in one case in particular) about it, which have been deleted. There are some really nasty food bloggers out there!

    Chris

  4. Dear Annika

    Thank you for sharing your views about the Toffie Food Festival and Conference.

    I was willing to forgive all the poor organisation for the benefit of hearing some of the speakers, and Saturday morning went really well. You will have noted how much I Tweeted, and I took copious notes. I was upset about the Secret Dinner mess-up, and was happy to leave rather than to compromise my expectations about it.

    I often retweet others’ Tweets, without comment, and they usually are positive informational Tweets. Given that three Tweets reflected Toffie Food Festival delegates’ unhappy feelings about the poor rip-off braai, I retweeted those, as they confirmed the poor organisation and over-promise by the organisers, as I too had experienced. ‘Spite’ had nothing to do with it.

    Chris

  5. Annika says:

    Opinions differ. I find retweeting negative comments from someone else about something you didn’t attend a bit spiteful. You are using their opinions to support your own and are coming across quite biased in the process.

  6. Thank you for your point of view Annika.

    Twitter is a biased medium most of the time. Even when you mean good, someone can read something negative into a Tweet.

    I didn’t see you react to Sonia Cobano’s negativity and her dishonest Tweets about the Toffie Food Festival. As I have explained, the Tweets supported my point of view that not all was perfect at the Toffie Food Festival, and there were at least four Tweeters who thought so too.

    Chris

  7. Annika says:

    I actually never heard of Sonia Cobano before attending toffee and don’t follow her on twitter, so that would probably explain why I didn’t comment on hers.

    I don’t have a problem with you pointing out certain things you didn’t like as you also pointed out the ones. But as I said finding only tweets to support your point of view doesn’t sit right with me.

  8. I think that you have more than made your point Annika.

    I have explained why I reTweeted the Tweets.

    Chris

  9. Just to add Annika: NO one complimented the Braai at all! There was only one point of view expressed, by more than one person, and it was negative.

    Chris

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