2018: A Year in Review by JP Rossouw

The restaurant reviews and Story of a Plate features on this website continue to take on more and more of an indigenous angle as it is my belief that we need to celebrate and thereby develop South African cuisine in all its forms. So this year’s writings have been slanted to those chefs and establishments that carry the flag for cuisine that is expressly rooted in our country. These are the establishments and dishes that in-bound food lovers would not find elsewhere – for is this not what we all want to find and explore when we travel to new places? And for the local food lover, should we not be expecting our best chefs to be diving deeper into our food history and culture? It’s high time South African chefs and diners look inward for inspiration, and not only adopt imported food trends. 
I’ve been heartened by a sense of momentum in this regard – that local chefs are beginning to realise that it’s precisely our own that will distinguish us; not how well we cook “international contemporary” food. If we compete on this front, we are merely a bit player on the world stage. It feels like there’s a growing realisation that cooking from the roots up is the obvious way to differentiate ourselves – and a growing confidence that what we have domestically is both interesting and unique. But we have some way to go; also with local diners who seem to want the exotic and international when they dine out. It will help chefs immensely when the South African diner also feels proud and interested in finding indigenous food and ideas at our finer restaurants, and doesn’t think that a bredie is only something we make at home. Put another way, why is it that tourists can usually eat “local food” only when they visit someone’s home?

Roti, steamed mielie bread, pumpkin chutney, seaweed butter, walnut and popcorn crumb at Upper Bloem

This is why restaurants like Eike by chef Bertus Basson and Upper Bloem by chef Andre Hill are not only wonderful but vital additions to the culinary scene – and worthy of celebrating. Another bastion of being indigenous in a more idiosyncratic way is the fascinating Wolfgat by chef Kobus van der Merwe – it’s not for everyone, and that is precisely why it’s important.

What we need now, and in concert, are more and more casual/lower cost eateries that showcase indigenous ingredients, cooking and flavours. We need South African food and cooking to occupy the middle ground between these fancier places I mention and those that cook (certain dishes) locally at a “street food” or café level.

I’ve had many excellent meals this year, and I thank the chefs and their teams for the hard work. The season is upon us, so it’s game on… but in closing I’d like to suggest another idea – not to contradict my points above, but to illustrate what heights we can reach. It’s my contention that Johannesburg’s Marble Restaurant by chef David Higgs could well be South Africa’s most significant contemporary-styled restaurant. When you consider the impressive (and multi-use) space, the exemplary service (and superb wine service), the consistent quality and delicious nature of the food (and the fact that it is ever-evolving), and then add to all this the fact that Marble does it all at a very consequential scale… such establishments are lodestars that define an era in any city. They add energy to our dining scene and they are dynamic training grounds, teaching valuable skills and helping hundreds of people see there’s a future in food.