We have been asking for some time how Chef Reuben Riffel can reconcile the international restaurant trend to foraging and growing vegetables and herbs, and endorsing the Robertsons spice range. Now it has become clear that Chef Reuben is just putting his name to the brand for advertising purposes, given that he uses fresh herbs in his Reuben’s restaurants. This is a serious blow to the credibility of Chef Reuben, his Reuben’s restaurants in Franschhoek, at the One&Only Cape Town and in Robertson, the Robertsons brand, as well as MasterChef South Africa, which is sponsored by the spice and herb brand.
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival ten days ago we asked Chef Reuben a question in this regard, and he had a well rehearsed answer to it, justifying his endorsement of Robertsons on the basis of not all herbs being available all year round, and that fresh herbs and his restaurants are not affordable for all. The question must have irritated him badly, as he wrote a disparaging comment about it on his Facebook page later that day. He must have realised that it would get him into terrible trouble, and he has since closed down his Facebook page. Robertsons’ response to the disparagement and damage to their brand is surprising: ‘We were alarmed when we received this complaint and assure you that we have taken this very seriously. We would like to clarify that as a brand Robertsons does not condone the use of inappropriate language in any forum or in any social media channels. We have however discussed this further with Reuben and believe this to be a personal matter with a deeper history and would suggest that you address it directly with him. Our team of lawyers have reviewed the complaint and advised that contractually there is no breech (sic) or transgression to our contract. Our contract and relationship with Reuben is limited to his chef expertise and his appearance in our advertising, it only governs his opinions in relation to our brand and does not extend to personal opinions on a private matter’. There is nothing ‘personal’ about asking a valid question about Chef Reuben’s endorsement of Robertsons, and the impact it has on his credibility as a chef, a question asked by many of his chef colleagues too. One wonders what ‘personal’ issues Chef Reuben could have been referring to. The endorsement, and the resultant lack of attention to and focus on his Reuben’s restaurants, has already cost Chef Reuben dearly, in that he did not make the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant shortlist of twenty late last year, the first time in Reuben’s Franschhoek eight year history. He achieved a miraculous Top Chef and Top Restaurant accolade in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant awards six months after opening, an unheard of achievement at the time.
It is the programme for ‘Cook Franschhoek’, to be held in the gourmet village from 15 – 17 June, that is the confirmation that Chef Reuben believes in and uses fresh herbs. The write-up for his outrageously-priced R1500 sessions, information which must have been supplied to the organisers by him, refers to a ‘stroll to our secret vegetable garden to pick fresh vegetables and herbs (Reuben believes firmly that only the finest ingredients should be used for the best results)’, a clear confirmation that he believes that fresh is best! This is confirmed in his latest cookbook ‘Reuben Cooks Local’, which does not have a single recipe in it necessitating any Robertsons herbs or spices. When asked, Franschhoekers said they have no idea where the ‘secret‘ herb and vegetable garden is, which must be in walking distance from his restaurant. Someone jokingly saying it must be his Robertsons’ spice rack! Another local has guessed that it must be the garden of Klein Olifantshoek, across the road from his restaurant parking, but staff of the boutique hotel deny this. It is said that when Reuben’s Franschhoek moves to its new location close to Place Vendome later this year, they will develop a vegetable and herb garden there. Currently Chef Reuben sources his restaurant herbs and vegetables from Roubaix in Franschhoek.
Robertsons has had a bad time in choosing its marketing partners, not only in signing up Chef Reuben to endorse its brand, and in running Masterclass videos with Chef Reuben on the Robertsons’ website aligned to its sponsorship of MasterChef SA, but also in having appointed controversial Sonia Cabano as its Social Media Manager when MasterChef South Africa started in March, and then having to terminate her services when she abused the Robertsons’ Twitter account to settle personal scores.
Celebrities and brand endorsers are not protected from social as well as legal norms in writing what they think about others on Social Media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. Cabano went on a shocking Twitter rage last week, making it unlikely that any brand would wish to be associated with her in future. She is a cookbook writer, and her racist, religious, political, and other views expressed on Twitter last week could cost her potential book purchasers and publishers. Chef Reuben seems disillusioned by Social Media, even though he was looking for trouble in writing his disparaging Facebook comment, and it appears that he has given up on Social Media, writing on Twitter a few days ago: ‘To all real friends on twitter, fb. See you in the real world. Unfortunately people with bad agendas makes (sic) this less enjoyable’.
We have always held Chef Reuben and his Reuben’s Franschhoek in the highest regard, and recommended it to our guests for seven years. Last year we had a particularly bad service experience at the restaurant, and an unsatisfactory response to our feedback from Chef Reuben, and decided to remove the restaurant from our portfolio of restaurant recommendations in Franschhoek. It would be a shame if it were true that Chef Reuben has sold his soul, in endorsing brands such as Robertsons and SAA Business Class on the African and USA routes, in writing books, in doing live and TV demonstrations, all for the revenue, and no longer caring about his Reuben’s restaurants, as the Franschhoek locals and fellow chefs say. Celebrities become the focus of media scrutiny, and even parody, Chef Reuben’s Robertsons’ endorsement being the subject of Another Damned Food Blog last year.
Chef Reuben was praised for his humbleness despite his fame for many years, but as the cover of his cookbook shows, there is a change in attitude with a taste of arrogance, confirmed by those who are looking to do business with him. We wish for the return of ‘old’ Chef Reuben in the Reuben’s kitchen(s) again! He also owes Robertsons and its customers honesty in his endorsement of their brand.
POSTSCRIPT 22/5: The Advertising Standards Authority is an advertising industry self-governing body, and its Code governs what advertisements may or may not say. The Preamble in section I states:
“1.1 All advertisements should be legal, decent, honest and truthful.
1.2 All advertisements should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to the consumer.
1.3 All advertisements should conform to the principles of fair competition in business.
1.4 No advertisement should bring advertising into disrepute or reduce confidence in advertising as a service to industry and to the public”.
Expanding upon this, clause 2 in section II focuses on honesty in advertising:
Advertisements should not be so framed as to abuse the trust of the consumer or exploit his lack of experience or knowledge or his credulity”.
Testimonials are addressed specifically in clause 10:
“10.1To be genuine
Advertisements should not contain or refer to any testimonial or endorsement unless it is genuine and related to the personal experience over a reasonable period of the person giving it. Testimonials or endorsements which are obsolete or otherwise no longer applicable (eg where there has been a significant change in formulation of the product concerned) should not be used.
10.2Conformance to the Code
Testimonials themselves should not contain any statement or implication contravening the provisions of this Code and should not be used in a manner likely to mislead”.
POSTSCRIPT 22/5: We accept Chef Reuben’s apology for the disparaging comment on his Facebook page, which he has reinstated (see the Comments to this blogpost).
POSTSCRIPT 22/5: In the Robertsons’ commercial in MasterChef SA last night, Chef Reuben is described on screen as ‘South Africa’s top chef’. As Chef Reuben did not even make the latest top 20 Eat Out Restaurant shortlist, this is a misleading advertising claim.
POSTSCRIPT 23/5: Elizabeth Pretorius, Communications Director: Africa for Unilever, has responded to our feedback and this blogpost as follows, not addressing the real issue: ‘Unilever is committed to conducting its operations with honesty, integrity and with respect to human rights and as such we do not condone any actions to the contrary. We strive to provide our consumers branded products that meet their needs and aspirations, and Robertsons is one of the main brands in our stable, making herbs and spices available to the widest possible consumer base’.
POSTSCRIPT 29/6: The Wall Street Journal today published an interview with Chef Reuben, providing an interesting insight and confirming the essence of this blogpost!:
* he first ate a restaurant at the age of 15
* he would love to have Chef Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) cook for him at home
* he loves making interesting sandwiches with unusual ingredient combinations
* ‘making a great meal is one of the nicest gifts you can give’, referring to his home cooking for his wife and daughter
* he would ‘struggle if I don’t have things like garlic and fresh chillies that I grow in my garden’. He admits to having spices in his cupboard at home, specifying ‘curry powder and garam masala‘, not quite the kind made by Robertsons.
* when entertaining at home, contrary to the Robertsons TV commercial, Chef Reuben writes ‘I always try and do steam pots. We have all sorts of raw ingredients and vegetables and a steaming pot of stock and you can cook your own food’.
* He doesn’t work on Sundays, ‘being my family time‘.
POSTCRIPT 8/7: Chef Reuben’s ‘secret vegetable garden’ is at La Motte, where vegetable farmer Dan Kruger grows vegetables to order for a number of Franschhoek chefs, including Pierneef a La Motte’s Chris Erasmus, Haute Cabriere’s Ryan Shell, Ryan’s Kitchen’s Ryan Smith, Delaire Graff’s Christiaan Campbell, Dish restaurant’s Oliver Cattermole, Le Quartier Français’ Margot Janse, and Reuben’s Reuben Riffel.
POSTSCRIPT 11/7: Chef Reuben seems to be written out of the Robertsons’ TV commercials, appearing in only one commercial out of the six flighted on MasterChef SA last night. From Twitter and a comment on this blog we have read that Chef Reuben is now endorsing another Unilever brand, being Rama margarine, an absolute no-no for chefs to be seen to be using anything but butter.
POSTSCRIPT 13/7: What a surprise it was to be in the same tiny Nedbank in Franschhoek with Chef Reuben Riffel today, and an opportunity to connect again. He justified the Rama commercial on the fact that many consumers cannot eat at top restaurants, and cannot afford to use butter. He shared that he and his wife Maryke are leaving for the UK and France to eat at top restaurants on a two-week trip next week, and that a little baby Riffel will make its appearance early next year.
POSTSCRIPT 16/7: Sonia Cabano, recipe book writer and Tweeter for Chef Reuben Riffel, is bashing Chef Reuben’s new Rama commercial in which Rama is added to rice: ‘Putting cubes of Rama margarine in rice is not part of our food culture. I’m sorry, but it isn’t. It’s not only wrong, it’s bad for health’ she Tweeted this evening.
POSTSCRIPT 7/10: The Sunday Times today has clarified what everyone has wanted to know about Chef Reuben’s use of Robertsons’ spices, when interviewed at The Sunday Times Chef of the Year Awards earlier this week: ‘Celebrity chef Reuben Riffel, one of the judges of the competition, told me people constantly asked him whether or not he really uses the spices he endorses. He said he uses them at home but uses herbs at his restaurant’. If this is true, it would be misleading to feature Chef Reuben in a chef’s outfit in the Robertsons’ advertising!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage