The winners, the losers, the joy, the tears

The winners, the losers, the joy, the tears

It was a smashing event, last Sunday in a massive arena at GrandWest. Truly, madly, wildly entertaining. Everyone had a total jol from the moment they arrived around midday until they were steered to a shuttle or Uber to take them to the airport, their hotel or home, later that night.

But I need to address a small thing before proceeding: early on, I was asked by a key person at the pinnacle of these awards, and somebody I respect, to “be nice” this year, as if by criticising aspects of the previous awards show in 2022 I was not “being nice”. And I can understand her frustration. But let’s address this.

Why criticism of awards systems is valid and necessary

There are those who go to these bashes just for the jol, and there are those of us who take our role seriously as observers of the industry who write about it for our readership and for the industry, which we care about. It’s a part of our job to do that. We’re not being mean, and no, we’re not being nice. We’re simply forming and offering critical and analytical commentary.

Those of us in the Fourth Estate are observers, commentators. You’re there to analyse it and make sense of it.

Those chefs. That one there, in the multicoloured shirt, holding back while his acolytes go up to take the glory. It’s his show. That chef in the T-shirt he’s wearing to a black tie event, because he rushed here straight from work, which is what chefs do. It’s his show. That harried woman in chef’s whites racing from the kitchen, sweating and heaving, to the stage to accept her award and then rushing back to keep cooking the next course. It’s her show.

That is what they do, as a result of all their years of training and endless hours in the hot kitchen. And this is what I do, based on 47 years in journalism (and counting) and decades of writing about restaurants and food.

I think we want and deserve more depth than to “be nice”. The invited media are not there to gladhand and gush like a red-carpet blogger. OMG, the frocks, the bling! Come on. Leave that to the influencers. Surely professional, considered and analytical opinion is preferred.

So let’s be grownups and examine this thing properly. These are the leading national restaurant awards, and they deserve close attention from those of us who cover the industry.

Let’s accentuate the positive first.

The Party

The stage is set. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

This is one big fat chef’s party. Think about that: These guys hardly ever get to leave the kitchen. Even though they are party types at heart. So, on this one Sunday a year, they get to go out to play. And thanks to Woolworths and a host of other sponsors, so much money is thrown at the event that you can scarcely move for alcohol. 

Fine wines are lavished on you during the five courses that are interspersed with all the awards announcements and sundry entertainments. (J’Something, Freshly Ground). Whisky and vodka are only the tip of the iceberg of booze that flows on this mad, wild occasion.

Over three decades, the Eat Out Awards have grown into an annual splurge of note. I wonder if there’s an event to match it in the country. It’s set in a grand arena at GrandWest in Cape Town’s northern suburbs. Many of the country’s top chefs (but not all) are in this cavernous space, the only time most of them will lay eyes on any other. They eat, they drink, they jol, they high-five, and later on, they may collect in little groups to share their ecstasy or commiserate.

Because for every winner there is at least one loser.

Most of them get to go up on stage at some point to share in the glory of the one, two or three stars their establishment has won, or perhaps a special award of some kind. Some are disappointed to be called up too soon (if you get one star, you’re not getting two or three). Others are happy to be made to wait, especially if the one or two-star gongs have already been doled out. It means you’re very likely to be a winner of three stars. You were invited, after all, and if you have been, you’re there for a reason.

There were frocks and tuxedos, high heels and bling. There were celebrities from television, chefs whose cuisine is so refined and expensive that many could not afford to eat at their restaurants.

A high time was had by (almost) all.

The Food

Spare a thought for the chefs invited to cook for us that day, cooking five courses for a warehouse full of their inebriated contemporaries. (Yes, there are exceptions, not least Richard Carstens at my table who doesn’t touch a drop.) And if they’re sober, they may be less forgiving, so if I were cooking, I’d be hoping that the lot of them would be hitting the bar.

As it happens, five women chefs were chosen to prepare the five courses of the day:

Jackie Cameron from her School of Food and Wine in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, had the modest task of providing the plant-based canapés, delivered with panache by her team of students. Lovely little bites they were too.

Ronel de Jager of Baard & Co took charge of the bread course of beautifully painted whole sourdough loaves shared between every two guests. I loved the lightness of the whipped, salted butter. The loaves were so chunky that at the end of the day most of the bread went back to the kitchen;

Eleanor Coetzee, executive chef of Creation Wines’ The Tasting Room, helmed the second course of an oyster mushroom gojuchang taco. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Eleanor Coetzee, executive chef of Creation Wines’ The Tasting Room, helmed the second course of an oyster mushroom gojuchang taco with corn, black beans, coriander and lime.

Charné Sampson of Epice in Franschhoek created a delightful fourth course of smoked mussels, cauliflower, paprika and smoked snoek, displaying her uncanny way with balancing spices. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Charné Sampson of Epice in Franschhoek created a delightful fourth course of smoked mussels, cauliflower, paprika and smoked snoek, displaying her uncanny way with balancing spices.

Carla Schulze of Luke Dale Roberts’ Salon delivered tamarind beef fillet and ramen broth rice with turnip and cashew purée, garnished with nam jim herbs. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Carla Schulze of Luke Dale Roberts’ Salon delivered tamarind beef fillet and ramen broth rice with turnip and cashew purée, garnished with nam jim herbs. My fillet was supremely tender and nicely medium rare. That’s quite a feat when feeding a room of 850 people.

Megin Meikle, head pastry chef of Marble, Saint, Zioux and Pantry, with Motheba Makhetha, pastry chef of The Jordan restaurant, combined to take charge of the dessert course. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

And Megin Meikle, head pastry chef of Marble, Saint, Zioux and Pantry, with Motheba Makhetha, pastry chef of The Jordan restaurant, combined to take charge of the dessert course of what they called a deliciously malty finalé of chocolate coffee, beer and barley.

If there were to be a dish of the day, I was torn between Sampson’s smoked snoek with oysters and Schulze’s tamarind beef.

The Show

And a show it was. As awards productions go, whether the Baftas, the Oscars or the one these resemble most closely, the Golden Globes (where the booze flows freely and actors trip on their way to get their gong), this was slick and efficient. There was much less of the endless parade of “influencers” who turned last year’s event into an ego-fest.

Those announcing individual awards were succinct, getting it done swiftly. There was no time for acceptance speeches. That this efficiency was possible at an event that had 20% more star awards than last year was impressive.

I wondered how many restaurant staff might be shuffled between this show and the next a year later: it’s a fabulous opportunity to meet your peers, swap WhatsApp numbers and just talk about your passion for your craft. Surely an element of potential poaching is inevitable.

Even I came away with invitations to visit restaurants from Jordan and Elgr to Wolfgat and Jackie Cameron’s food and wine school.

In short, it was a happy room. Even joyous, largely. Which is not to say there weren’t rumblings of discontent beneath the surface.

And for eateries in places outside the Western Cape, it was déjà vu all over again. 

So let’s not eliminate the negative

The South African restaurant industry is alive and thriving in the wake of Covid, although we should spare a thought for those which did not survive. We might hope that they too applaud these winners and the industry as a whole for having persevered.

The winners, with a few debatable exceptions, are deserving. Just look at the crowd of three-star winners: La Colombe in Constantia was chosen as Restaurant of the Year – joined in the three-star lineup by Salsify at the Roundhouse, whose chef Ryan Cole was Chef of the Year and Chef of Chefs (star-winning chefs vote for their favourite); Richard Carstens’ Arkeste in Franschhoek, Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia, FYN in the Cape Town City Bowl, Dusk in Stellenbosch, and La Petite Colombe (Franschhoek). 

Massive congratulations to them all. They’re at the pinnacle of the craft in South Africa.

And they’re all from greater Cape Town and the Winelands.

In this milieu, was it really such a good idea to downgrade last year’s overall winner, The LivingRoom at Summerhill in Pinetown, KZN, to two stars (they were honoured with a sustainability award)? In the wake of having won three stars and that extra accolade a year ago, they had decided: let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s make ourselves even better. Let’s see this as an opportunity for improvement, rather than patting ourselves on the back.

Then to be downgraded. Even against a backdrop of every other three-star winner being from the Western Cape.

And Wolfgat (which did win a best destination award), that Paternoster miracle, also had to endure being downgraded from three to two stars in a roomful of their peers. Everyone was surely thinking: the place must have gone down, wonder what happened?

Is this fair? Is it accurate? Or was it simply a matter of only two judges visiting them, and were they even the same people as a year earlier?

The judging needs revisiting, restructuring, to make it more equitable. Is there too rigid a scoring system, rather than favouring intelligent thought and discussion about what makes each restaurant worthy of consideration?

The system should allow for flow, should encourage logical progression from one year to the next. I have an awful suspicion that different judges may go to a certain restaurant one year compared to the last. This is asking for problems.

How do two people who visit one restaurant and two who go to another decide which is best? Apparently, a second visit by the chief judge is possible if a third star is under consideration. That’s a good factor.

I had, perhaps naively, thought that all of the judges would go to a restaurant together, to get a thorough shared experience of it.

Consider: everyone who follows the industry in South Africa may now be wondering: has The DiningRoom at Summerhill gone down? Has Wolfgat deteriorated? Should we go back? Should we spend our money elsewhere?

And would two different judges have seen improvements that the other random pair didn’t?

Throw money at the judging

If there is one intelligent improvement that the organisers and sponsors make it should be this: slash the budget for this big fat party and spend more on shipping ALL of the judges to every restaurant under review. Only then will a clear and credible picture of the entire industry have a chance of emerging. And this will make the results more credible.

I have some sympathy for the judges in this: they can only do what the budget allows for. So, perhaps Woolworths will look at this next time.

Imagine if all of the judges were flown to Joburg to spend two weeks or more visiting restaurants at lunchtime and at night? It would be revolutionary.

Obviously budget is a factor because they claim proudly that all meals are paid for. Bully for them. A sizable chunk of the sponsorship must surely go to all that.

But should they feel obliged to pay? If all of the restaurants under consideration agreed to sponsor the judges’ meals (and most would oblige), the playing field would be levelled, just like that. And every restaurant would get the full judging experience they deserve. They might like to consider this.

It’s not as if the restaurants don’t know that they’re in the house. They sure as hell do. So what difference does it make whether they pay or are sponsored?

The one-star winners

There were 20 for the Western Cape, mainly the city and the Winelands.

There were 6 for Gauteng (4 in Joburg, 1 in Pretoria). 

There was 1 in KwaZulu-Natal.

Even little Elgin got two, think about that: Elgin got more one-star awards than the whole of KZN. Yes, they deserve to celebrate.

The one-star awards, in alphabetical order:

Acid Food & Wine Bar (Randburg, Johannesburg), Cavalli Restaurant (Somerset West), Chefs Warehouse at Maison (Franschhoek), CHORUS (Somerset West), Creation Wines Tasting Room (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley), Eike (Stellenbosch), FABER at Avondale (Paarl), Farro (Botrivier), Fermier (Pretoria), Le coin Français (Franschhoek), Les Créatifs Restaurant (Bryanston, Johannesburg), Madre Stanford (Stanford), Orangerie at Le Lude (Franschhoek), Ouzeri (City Bowl, Cape Town), Post & Pepper (Stellenbosch), Protégé (Franschhoek), Proud Mary (Rosebank, Johannesburg), Rykaart’s (Stellenbosch), Séjour (Houghton Estate, Johannesburg), The Chefs’ Table (Umhlanga, eThekwini), The Melting Pot (Elgin), The Red Room by Chefs Warehouse (City Bowl, Cape Town), The Table at De Meye (Stellenbosch), The Test Kitchen Fledgelings (Woodstock Cape Town), The Waterside Restaurant (V&A Waterfront, Cape Town), Upper Union (City Bowl, Cape Town), Zioux (Sandton, Johannesburg).

Nobody in Joburg knows why Proud Mary and Acid (it’s a very cool food and wine bar with bar snacks and small plates) are in there. Especially given that David Higgs’ Marble and Darren O’Donovan’s Embarc were not there at all. Not three stars, not two. Not one. I’ve eaten at both and they deserve at the very least one star. 

I would in fact have expected Embarc to get two, as I would Marble. 

Maybe David Higgs’ scintillating ode to meat and fire in Joburg’s Rosebank is too big and bold for the judges’ tastes. (Any bets on them getting gongs when they open its Waterfront cousin? Actually, I may have just jinxed that).

That Darren O’Donovan’s Embarc did not get so much as one star is nothing short of ridiculous. Yet Proud Mary was given a star! This is a place I like, but even the staff must have been amazed to be given a star. It’s uber-cool and on point for what it is: a sexy hotel lobby bar-restaurant with decent food. A fellow food writer in Joburg found the food there “truly execrable”. Well, I can’t vouch for that, but she knows her food.

I felt sorry for Wandile Mabasa in particular. He’d flown four of his staff down for the event and there they were all dolled up and one measly star. Yes, the restaurant did receive a star. But there is no way that it deserves less than two. And he knows it, so being fobbed off with one would not have gone down well.

Let’s hear what my Joburg colleague Marie-Lais Emond had to say when I asked her: “Both Sejour and Proud Mary got one star as did Acid and Les Créatifs. Crazy but true. So did Pretoria’s excellent top-notch La Fermier, a lesson to other restaurants in how to farm everything you need for ‘fine dining’ restaurants. The Joburg kick in the pants was getting ALL our weird nominations out of the way in the one-star category.” [With two exceptions, The LivingRoom at Summerhill and Meraki by Charlie Lakin.] Which brings us to:

The two-star winners

There were 12 two-star winners from the Western Cape, including Paternoster on the West Coast.

There were 2 two-star winners from KwaZulu-Natal.

There were 1 each from Gauteng, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape.

In alphabetical order:

Belly of the Beast (City Bowl, Cape Town), beyond (Constantia, Cape Town), ëlgr (City Bowl, Cape Town), Epice (Franschhoek), Foxcroft (Constantia, Cape Town), Meraki by Charlie Lakin (Hillcrest, eThekwini), Nevermind (Cape St Francis), PIER (V&A Waterfront, Cape Town), Restaurant Klein JAN (Tswalu), Rust en Vrede (Stellenbosch), Salon (Woodstock, Cape Town), Spek & Bone (Stellenbosch), The Jordan Restaurant with Marthinus Ferreira (Stellenbosch), The LivingRoom at Summerhill Estate (Pinetown, eThekwini), The Pot Luck Club Cape Town (Woodstock, Cape Town), The Pot Luck Club Johannesburg (Randburg, Johannesburg), Wolfgat (Paternoster).

The Blind Spot that will not die

This is the salient point: the Blind Spot of the country’s leading national restaurant awards – a rather large city called Johannesburg, which has a great many restaurants that are generally busier than their Cape counterparts – needs addressing now if these awards are to remain the true arbiter of what’s best in the country’s restaurant industry.

I’m saddened that it is yet again necessary to say this. I went to the event hoping that this would be the year, after last year’s hopeful signs of a sea change, when we’d all be applauding a set of awards which had finally become truly national. I really was hopeful.

But, in the wake of what really happened, it needs saying more than ever.

Things were put to rights at this year’s awards if you’re a Cape restaurateur accustomed to taking home most of the big prizes. 

Johannesburg was relegated to the status it has long become used to – that city a two-hour flight away where maybe they’ll get an award if a Cape restaurateur ships north.

And we haven’t even started to talk about all those other towns, cities and rural places in the country that don’t get a look-in.

Nice. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.