imageDuring my dinner at five hundred at The Saxon in Johannesburg last week, I asked Chef David Higgs about his new (as yet unnamed) restaurant. Whilst guarded about many of the details, he did reveal some information about it.

The location: Chef David had indicated publicly that the restaurant would be a 250-seater in Rosebank. Driving on Jan Smuts Avenue through Rosebank, I saw only one building with construction work, and in describing it to Chef David, it appears to be the one. He told me that they have had to add an extra slab to carry the weight of what is to come above for the restaurant.

The restaurant concept: Chef David told me that a large part of the restaurant will be a bar, where they will ‘spoil their guests’.  He and his business partner Gary Kyriacou visited New York last month, for inspiration, focusing on bars, and latest trends in cocktails. He was impressed with how welcoming bar owners were, and how they shared their experience and advice. I asked him about the food style, but he says that it has not been finalized yet, and therefore he has not yet appointed any staff. Whilst he was traveling, he used the hashtag #fire, but he would not provide more detail about what type of cuisine this would represent. One of the persons they met with was Danny Meyer, the founder of Eleven Madison Park (but sold in 2011 to Chef Daniel Humm), Union Square Café, and eight other restaurants, some of which have Michelin stars. Chef David and Gary also visited Marta, Gotham Bar and Grill, April Bloomfield, Nomad, Union Square Cafe, King Cole Bar, Empire, Gramercy Tavern, Maison Premiere, and Tertulia.

Chef David leaves five hundred on 11 December, and opens (with the help of the builders) in March.

POSTSCRIPT 22/11: Business Day published an article about Chef David Higg’s new restaurant earlier this week:

TAKE one South African chef on the cusp of a new culinary adventure, add his zesty business partner and dropDavid+Higgs+Gary+Kyriacou+xxx them into a city that’s home to some of the most buzzed-about restaurant trends and you have a partnership that will soon be ready to serve.

David Higgs is preparing to leave Five Hundred, at Johannesburg boutique hotel The Saxon, to open his own restaurant in the city. Last week, Five Hundred was ranked in the top 10 at this year’s Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Awards.

Higgs and business partner Gary Kyriacou recently spent a week eating and drinking their way through New York City in the name of research. A food safari, if you will, to bring back ideas and inspiration for their new venture — one they hope will do much to boost the fine-dining culture in Johannesburg.

“Essentially, we’re not talking about SA’s dining scene, we’re talking about Joburg,” says Namibian-born Higgs, when we meet at Union Square Cafe in New York. Higgs, who moved to Johannesburg from the Western Cape in 2011, believes there is not enough on offer for those in the city looking for an elegant-yet-affordable dining-out experience.

“So if you’re beautifully dressed for a lovely lunch or dinner, you either have to go to this end,” he raises his hand up high, “to where food is stupidly priced, or you go to The Butcher’s Shop, Turn ’n Tender or Wombles. You have to go into those very masculine environments. Women don’t feel very comfortable there. We’re not making this specifically for them, but we’re pitching something that’s sophisticated. It’s authentic, not pretentious, there’s no bulls***. It’s just warm and welcoming.”

“And authentic and honest,” says Kyriacou, whom Higgs met when selling his house through Kyriacou’s property company, Century 21.

Higgs says while he relished the opportunity of being at Five Hundred, he’d been frustrated for his last eight months there.

“It’s great to be at one of the top restaurants in the country, but it doesn’t matter because 15 of the 30 people that it seats every night have no clue what they’re eating.

“It’s not molecular and it’s not weird, but it’s creative, because that’s what people are paying for. Our average spend there is R1,600 per person, which is huge for SA. But half the people don’t get it, and half of those who don’t get it don’t want to get it.”

He became frustrated at not being able to see people enjoy the experience of fine dining.

When Kyriacou went to see him for advice about an idea, Higgs knew he wanted to be part of it. As Kyriacou explains, he and his wife enjoy travelling and couldn’t find the kind of dining experiences in SA that they were used to abroad.

“My wife can’t get dressed up and we can’t spend an evening together having a meal. I can go to Five Hundred, sure, but I can’t go there every week and spend a fortune.”

He decided to come up with his own concept for a place he and his wife could go — along with others yearning for the same kind of experience.

“I don’t have the expertise to get the quality on the plate every single time, but David does,” he says.

What they want to create is a place of the quality of Union Square Cafe. The restaurant is the definition of casual elegance. It was the first restaurant opened by businessman-founder Danny Meyer, who’s managed to create a balance between impressive food and an impressive setting in a number of his restaurants. It’s refined, but not stuffy. Elegant, but not pretentious.

It’s the kind of atmosphere Higgs and Kyriacou are aiming to capture with their new restaurant venture. Just as Union Square Cafe, and Meyer’s other restaurants, from the Gramercy Tavern to North End Grill, embody a New York sensibility in fine dining, so they want to create something specifically for Joburg.

The pair are working out the finer details — even the name of the restaurant is still undecided. They do, however, know what will be at the core of the concept. “People ask me a lot, ‘What is South African cuisine?’ I still can’t honestly answer that,” says Higgs, as he peruses the Union Square Cafe’s menu. It is made anew every day.

“Where do you start? There are pockets of very different influences. One thing I can say with honesty is we have incredible quality of meat. Yes, Argentina has beef, and New Zealand lamb, but we are lucky that we have such good meat across the board. Lamb, beef, pork, game, and then in-between — Karoo lamb, Free State lamb, West Coast lamb, springbok from the Kalahari. And there are so many stories behind the food. I think that something we have is how we cook it. Essentially, it is on a fire, a wood fire. That’s where we want to be,” Higgs says.

Perhaps that is why he used the hashtag #fire for many of his Instagram posts while travelling around New York.

“Meat is a big part of it, but so also is the South African tradition of gathering around a fire. We all migrate to it. Somehow, where there’s a fire, everybody gathers around it. That’s where we are heading to.”

He says they have bought a big piece of equipment from the US that will be a centrepiece in the open-air kitchen, so that foodies can enjoy the theatrics of cooking.

“You come to a world-class city like (New York), and it almost just firms those thoughts we’ve been having,” says Higgs. “It all starts making sense.”

The city that never sleeps is also the city that never stops eating, and the trip to New York has provided Higgs and Kyriacou with the opportunity to hop from one place to another, to see how restaurants and bars with a reputation for good food have managed.

“The vibe in Joburg mirrors New York to some degree,” he says. “The energy of people coming and going. New York is very cosmopolitan, similar to Joburg too.”

Higgs says he fell in love with Johannesburg almost immediately after stepping off the Gautrain, headed to a new life as chef at a Radisson hotel.

“There was such a buzz, literally. It was a Sunday and there was a Heineken pool party happening at the hotel. It was such a beautiful integration of people that you don’t see in Cape Town. That afternoon, I decided, ‘I’m here to stay.’ “

Physically being in the Big Apple allowed Higgs and Kyriacou to experience not just the food and the drinks, but the vibe and atmosphere of the places.

“You can read all you want on the net, but … unless you go and speak to the locals, you won’t know the place where all the bartenders go for drinks after they’re finished working,” says Higgs.

Just as Union Square Cafe has been widely credited with revitalising the area around 14th St in Manhattan, so Higgs sees their new venture as doing the same for Johannesburg’s Rosebank.

“We’re right next door to Circa Gallery and the Rosebank art market. We’ve taken over the roof, and so we’ll have incredible views over Sandton and the West Rand for sundowners too,” he says.

Kyriacou says they aim to charge 10%-15% more than the average Joburg restaurant, “but nothing stupid”. Higgs picks up: “I really believe if you give Joburgers what they want, at an elevated level, where they can dress up and come and spoil themselves, and not spend ridiculous amounts of money, it really is a winning formula. It’s not a fine-dining experience, it’s just a great dining experience’.

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog  Tel 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage  Facebook:  click here