Jozi set to rival Cape Town as a culinary destination of note
Joburg might not be able to match the settings of Cape Town's best restaurants, but when it comes to talented chefs with drive and creativity, it has all the right ingredients.
Three years ago, Rosebank's Bolton Road was home to a rather run-down building notable for nothing except for the fact that all enterprises that set up shop here seemed doomed to failure. Then, one day, the faded ad for scooters adorning its façade was swapped for an eye-catching restaurant frontage. Tables were set outside, an awning erected, hanging baskets strung from the rafters - and the Bolton Road Collective announced its arrival.
It was joined shortly by Coalition, boasting the only Neapolitan-style pizza in Joburg (and acting as a front for the hidden bar, Sin + Taxes, where the city's best cocktails are mixed behind a secret door), wok wizards at Saigon Suzie and, later, kasi-style cooking and jazz at Blaque Wine Bar and Grill.
With its diverse and cosmopolitan offering, the new Bolton Road could be considered a microcosm of Johannesburg's burgeoning food scene. Seemingly out of nowhere, a city that was best known for mall culture and bistro tables wreathed in exhaust fumes has morphed into a place where there's a plate for every palate.
Sizo Henna, who opened Blacque seven months ago after several years of private cheffing, says the fact you can now order oxtail just like your gogo used to make, right in the heart of Rosebank, says everything you need to know about the food scene's growth. Unsurprisingly, he attributes the exploding number of restaurants in SA's ugly sister city to the cooking shows which birthed a thousand aspirant gourmands.
Jackie Righi-Boyd, owner of Dolci Café, agrees that, all of a sudden, Joburgers are in a mood to eat out. As the next generation in a dynasty of chefs (her mother owned the Italian landmark Assaggi), she has an insider's view on the evolution of Joburg's dining circuit.
"My mother used to struggle to find authentic Italian ingredients like prosciutto. Now, I meet a long line of reps selling these products every day. That definitely contributes to a chef's creativity - when you have the right ingredients, you can go wild."
Even so, she notes that franchises still account for a large number of Joburg's eateries - perhaps not surprising, giving the expense and risk involved in setting up a restaurant. It's lamentable, but then not wholly unexpected considering that, while Joburg's chefs might be in a mood to experiment, its diners aren't quite there yet.
JOBURGER'S EATING HABITS
This has certainly been David Higgs's experience. The acclaimed chef's first Johannesburg venture after leaving Cape Town was Central One at The Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel. Then came 500 at The Saxon, a stint which taught him a lot about Joburgers' eating habits. With some diners opting to order a steak to be brought up from Qunu (another of The Saxon's restaurants) and choosing a tequila slammer for libation, rather than a vintage off the carefully curated wine list, it became clear to him that his patrons weren't entirely confident around fine dining.
His current restaurants, Marble - known for its steaks - and Saint (which offers a new spin on Italian food) are among the most popular in the city - but Higgs maintains that's because they give Joburgers what they want. And that's food they recognise.
That being the case, Johannesburg's chefs would be forgiven for feeling frustrated and forced into a box. But Vusi Ndlovu, head chef at the Marabi Club and one of the top seven in the 2018 San Pellegrino Young Chef Awards, insists that the city is testing itself.
He doesn't deny Higgs' observation that Joburgers are more reserved than, say, their Cape Town counterparts ("they know what they know", as he puts it), but he's observed more willingness to try new things.
He's outspokenly excited about this, because it means that, in much the same way as Australia is known for its Asian-fusion cuisine, Johannesburg is developing its own food identity - albeit slowly. The city's sudden status as one of the world's coolest neighbourhoods (according to Forbes magazine) has contributed to this in no small way.
"In the past, tourists who wanted to experience Joburg wouldn't necessarily look to its food scene," Ndlovu says, noting that the city had a tendency to imitate Cape Town's food culture.
In fact, the rivalry between Johannesburg and Cape Town chefs is well known in the industry - although that's slowly changing as some chefs switch destinations and social media dispels the mystery around who's preparing what in the kitchen.
Either way, Ndlovu feels that Johannesburg may be gaining the upper hand - ironically, because of its lack of experience. "It feels as though everything is the same in Cape Town; if you eat at only four good restaurants, you've basically sampled the city. In contrast, Johannesburg doesn't follow trends. That's because the scene is not yet mature. We still have so much to discover and experiment with."
He applauds the chefs who are doing this, pointing to Coco Reinarhz (who recently set up Epicure, an African-themed restaurant in Sandton) and self-taught chef Sanza Sandile, who cooks up a different "Pan-Afrikan plate" every night at his Yeoville Supper Club.
Cape Town's food is fancy. That's not where Joburg's strength is. We're like the girl with purple hair - we're more out thereChef Vusi Ndlovu
This, Ndlovu believes, is where Joburg has the chance to shine. "Cape Town's food is fancy. That's not where Joburg's strength is. We're like the girl with purple hair - we're more out there. Joburg's food isn't about a taste as such; it's more of a style that's born out of the fact that there's no single, defining South African cuisine."
That's where the gap lies: "Tourists always want to experience Africa, but they feel it's a little inaccessible. On the other hand, South Africa is seen as not foreign enough. This might be where Johannesburg's food has a space to play: we can create a taste that blends Africa and South Africa with a bit of a European mashup."
It's food that's true to its continental roots, but still highly relatable - not all that different from Joburg itself.