In September 2005 I interviewed Reuben Riffel for the Eat Out Guide, a year after he had been given both the Eat Out Johnnie Walker 2004 Chef of The Year and Restaurant of the Year awards.
So here, From the Eat Out Restaurant guide 2006:
There's something very special about an award-winning chef who asks his mother to come into his restaurant kitchen and make us his favourite suur-mince - that untranslatable dish of minced beef, stock and malt vinegar. I'm touched by his unpretentiousness and moved by my own childhood memories of curry mince which eating the dish evoked. As we sit down in a quiet corner of the restaurant, we talk of food and memories,
Reuben was born and raised in Groendal, a village just outside Franschhoek. While the physical distance may not have been much between the two towns, they were worlds apart, kept that way by the political machinations of the time. But he carries this part of the country in his heart and his love of food and flavours stem from his childhood there.
'We lived in a two-roomed house, one of which was the kitchen -the heart of our home. We always ate at a table in this kitchen, even if it was only sausage, onions and mash. We would eat together and we would talk. we weren't impoverished and we always had enough. We ate from the land. My grandfather farmed with pigs and kept a small tract of land on which he grew vegetables. he called it die tuin (the garden) and I was regularly ordered to go and plant onions or pick peas with him. Sometimes we'd pick grapes, which tasted slightly of pineapple, we called thispynappeldruiwe ( pineapple grapes, probably the Catawba variety).' His grandfather was strict, but so was his grandmother who would call all the cousins together, sniff their hands to ascertain who had been smoking, before making them shell peas. but she could bake the most heavenly bread in her wood-fired stove. 'I would go to their home to collect the bread in the evenings and my ouma would dish up something for me from their table, which I ate before returning home to eat with my own family.'
Sundays were buttermilk pudding and banana bread days. And as the bus unloaded everyone after church, the smells drifting out of the house promised a feast, food made with love and care. Hartskos (food from the heart).
Birthdays were also special for the young Reuben. 'My auntie would always bake me a chocolate cake on my birthday. Her daughter ran one of the two bioscopes in Franschhoek, vir ons mense (for our people). There was a cafe nearby, owned by a Portuguese family whose son had the best toys. So on my birthday, I'd go there to eat my own chocolate cake, watch a Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movie and play with the cafe owner's son and his toys.'
Then there were the family outings. events that centred around laughter and the love of food. Reuben recalls a particularly memorable day trip when he was only eight. The entire family hired an old bus to take them to Paternoster. 'Halfway there, the bus broke down and after much struggling we eventually made it to this seaside town on the West Coast. Not even the smoke billowing out of the engine could dampen our spirits. The fishermen were selling crayfish from their boats and I was helping them and loving the noise, the smells, the wriggling red crayfish which soon found their way onto the braai. That was the best day I've ever had at the sea.'
Listening to Reuben, I am reminded of the saying, 'What is patriotism, if not the longing for the food we ate as a child?' Here memories are of goemahare (candyfloss) bought after school from the vendor in the old Datsun, and freshly baked bread with a slightly burnt crust. And it finally dawned on me that the magic ingredient, the one that this chef uses in his kitchen, is love. That while his cooking is innovative and contemporary, he remains true to his roots. Which is why, when really hungry, you can join him for a slice of bread with crunchy peanut butter and honey. And then dip it into a mug of black coffee. The way his oupa used to do.
A while back, a friend and I were making dinner plans and trying to get reservations at a notoriously hard-to-get-a-table restaurant. 'I'll call them', she offered. 'No, it's ok,'I said jokingly, 'I'll phone, and if they don't give us a table, I'll ask them 'Don't you know who I was?!' and then we both snorted with uncontrollable laughter because people and places are fickle.
In what seems like a previous lifetime, I once edited the prestigious annual publication Eat Out. I was wedged in between the late great Lannice Snyman, and the equally impressive foodie Abigail Donnelly. Two issues, and then I packed my bags to be the Wench of the High Seas when Jacques decided to be a ship's doctor. Those two years were a steep learning curve. Hard, at times, desperately so. But also wonderful. During that time, I met the most amazing people.... people who are passionate about food are generally nice people. Much more open and far more fun than those who disdain butter and cream. I also made some wonderful friends, some of whom have remained a part of my life. Reuben Riffel is one of them. Which is why I was so happy for him and Maryke when the deal with the One & Only was finalized. And yes, much has been written about it and yes, there was a big hoo ha about it, 'Reuben Riffel replaces Gordon Ramsay' and 'Will he?' or 'Won't he?' And this blog is not about any of that. From the outset, I'll be honest and say that Jacques and I regard Reuben and Maryke as friends, that we adore Reuben's in Franschhoek and that I have loved every single dish of his that I have ever eaten. So on this day, the day that Reuben's at One & Only officially opens, a few thoughts:
Firstly I'm thrilled that the new restaurant does not replace the one in Franschhoek and that Reuben will still be very much involved there. I see on the menu at the O&O, that Reuben is the Concept Chef. But knowing Reuben this will be as hands on as one can possibly be with one pair of hands and three restaurants (the third one being The Robertson Hotel). Secondly, walking into Sol Kerzner's prestigious hotel and seeing the name Reuben's on the wall made my heart swell with pride. He has done so incredibly well, and he has done so, all the while being true to himself. Dinner was, as expected, superb, the pricing is more reasonable than one would expect for a restaurant in that calibre of hotel, and the restaurant will, in time, begin to reflect his own style. That would be nice, as it is rather dark and sombre at the moment. But, having said that, the high ceilings are elegant and double volume spacing impressive. On the night we went, Friday a week ago, the restaurant was busy and the staff clearly happy. Almost as happy as I was to see pork belly on the menu. Jacques tried something new and had the lamb curry , with mint chutney and pineapple yoghurt it before I could even beg a bite. In fact the menu is quite similar to the one in Franschhoek and reflects local flavours and ingredients.But there is also a sophistication to this new Reuben's, which is in keeping with the rest of the hotel. As with Franschhoek, the bare tables are branded with the name Reuben's. You have to believe in yourself to do that. And Reuben does. In a good way. Jacques commented that on the night we saw him, Reuben was relaxed; that he had an air of quiet confidence about him. That this is where he belonged. In as much as he belongs in Franschhoek. Or any where else he chooses to be.
Reubens at One & Only call 021 431 5222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org