From laying bricks, to laying tables, to laying on a spread, Reuben Riffel’s path to culinary stardom has been an evocative one.
He grew up in Groendal, in Franschhoek – renowned for its beauty and world-leading wines and restaurants – in the Western Cape, and from an early age reaped the joys of a large family, with whom he shared his mother’s home made meals.
But Riffel says he wasn’t attracted to the catering industry; “It happened by default. I had no real interest in the industry. The passion of the people I started to work with rubbed off on me and I decided to give it a go.”
As a young man, he first worked in construction, before landing a position as a waiter at the Chamonix wine estate. Not long after, Riffel made his way to the kitchen and under the strict guidance of Chef Christophe Dehosse, learned food preparation basics. He was eventually responsible for the restaurant’s Sunday buffet lunch carvery.
Riffel’s next step was up to sous chef, or assistant chef, under the tutelage of Richard Carstens, now executive chef at Tokara, a much-loved Cape restaurant and vineyard.
Riffel followed his own advice to budding chefs; “Don’t rush it, take your time when working under good chefs, study them and learn from them. Make sure you have a good grasp of the basics of cooking, good people skills is important and always be aware that hard work takes on a new meaning in our industry.”
When Carstens didn’t arrive at work, Riffel stepped in, to a chorus of compliments. Carstens didn’t return and Riffel found himself in charge of his own kitchen.
Riffel and Carstens worked together again at Franschhoek’s award-winning Monneaux restaurant, with him perfecting his art. Here, he received an invite to be head chef at Michelin-starred Bruno’s Brasserie in Cambridge, England, and his travels show in the heady combinations in his food. His signature dish is a delectable chilli-salted squid with mint.
Riffel was lured back to South Africa by friends, including Carstens, to open his own restaurant and has since become a household name in the country; synonymous with excellent cuisine and as the face of local herb and spice brand Robertson’s.
Reuben’s, offering rustic yet sophisticated meals, is spread across the Cape, in the Boland, Cape Town and Franschhoek. The restaurant’s ethos focuses on using in-season fresh ingredients and has an eclectic menu, featuring many of Riffel’s favourites.
It’s been voted one of Eat Out Johnnie Walker’s Top 10 restaurants in 2005 and 2006; and in 2007 Riffel won the invitation-only Unilever Chef of the Year title. He’s also published Reuben Cooks – Food is Time Travel, voted Best Chef’s Book in South Africa 2009 at the international Gourmand World CookbookAwards in Spain.
PLAYING HIS PART
Playing his part in building South Africa’s future Riffel partnered with Ngwenya Glass, in 2010, to create the Reuben & Ngwenya Glass Collection, available at the country’s home ware chain, Boardmans. Five percent of all proceeds from the collection’s sales go to the Peninsula School Feeding Programme, which provides a nutritious meal a day to school pupils, ensuring they can concentrate in class.
Swaziland-based Ngwenya Glass’s artisans produce handmade, mouth-blown drinking glasses from 100% recycled glass.
Reuben’s is also a participating restaurant in Street Smart; the initiative adds R5 to every restaurant bill, with 100% of this being donated to organisations that work with street children.
Good food, good wine and good works, and a permanent position as a judge on popular cooking show Masterchef, mean Reuben’s, and Riffel, will top South Africa’s culinary charts for a good while.