Reuben Riffel has become a well-known media personality. In 2004, Eat Out Restaurant Awards honoured him with Chef of the Year, as well as Restaurant of the Year. He hosted MasterChef South Africa Celebrity in 2015, becoming a permanent judge on the popular TV show. In 2011, Reuben appeared on The Today Show and The Martha Stewart Show in the United States. He’s also published three acclaimed cookbooks.
Reuben’s, his flagship restaurant in Franschhoek, has earned a well-deserved reputation for superlative yet seemingly guileless cuisine. “He might be famous for his food … but he’s really just a very normal guy,” says his wife Maryke as we get comfortable in his home kitchen.
ASA asked Reuben a few questions:
When did you know that you wanted to cook for a living?
It started when I’d often help my mother in the kitchen. Initially, I did it to just assist her but later I started to actually enjoy it. I worked as a waiter at a restaurant and one day they needed an extra hand. I volunteered and enjoyed it so much that I asked if I could stay there. The learning curve was steep, but I knew it was something I could sink my teeth into.
How were you trained?
I was an apprentice, so it was on-the-job training.
Where did the desire to open your own restaurant come from?
It was the logical next step after working in a few other restaurants as a sous chef and then head chef. Some people encouraged me to open my own place and eventually I decided it was time.
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
There are many, but the opportunity to be creative and to change the menu as often as you like. Ultimately, it’s great being part of a community, from growers, suppliers, fellow chefs and our customers. It’s a very satisfying job on many levels.
When are you happiest at work?
When we have the best produce and the team runs like a well-oiled machine. Reuben the celebrity chef is someone that’s created by the outside. I’ve always loved trying out different avenues in terms of my profession but ultimately, I’m a chef that enjoys food, cooking and being part of a team.
Is there a chef you admire the most?
I’ve enjoyed following chef Neil Perry in Australia over the years. I enjoy his style of food and the use of exotic spices in his cooking.
Which celebrity have you most enjoyed cooking for?
Sean Connery. I didn’t get to meet him as he was trying to be very incognito, but it was quite surreal.
What do you do to stay current on new food trends?
I read a lot about food in different parts of the world. There’s a fascination with trends but I think the world’s top chefs are constantly pushing the boundaries in terms of cooking techniques and presenting familiar flavours in different ways. After the pandemic the focus will again be on simplicity and sustainability. Highlighting produce from our farmers and growers has also evolved as being very important.
How did you pivot your business in tough times?
We’ve always had a good local following. We now direct our focus even more on local diners as well as offering more easy dining options. Plus, we started a takeaway side of our business.
As you look at the rest of 2021, what’s in store for you?
The pandemic has thrown us some challenges that made us think differently. Understanding what I stand for and enjoying and discovering new things about myself have been great for me. I know better now what I want and what I still want to do. So, even though this year will still be difficult for the restaurant industry, I feel that for food and cooking there’s still a lot of scope and many opportunities.
Here’s Reuben’s lockdown recipe to try out at home:
Hake & calamari with honey-harissa cream, toasted coconut-cinnamon couscous and tomato-mint salsa
200g x 4 portions fresh hake (or similar)
1½ cups cleaned baby calamari
1 garlic clove chopped, with ½ cup olive oil
2 tbsp store-bought harissa paste
1 tbsp honey
1 ½ cups fresh cream
Salt and lemon juice to taste
2 cobs corn (kernels cut off the cob)
2 baby marrows (courgettes), sliced
Salt and pepper
2 cups couscous
1 tbsp desiccated coconut
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tbsp olive oil
Tomato mint salsa:
10 mint leaves chopped
10 coriander sprigs chopped
1 garlic clove finely chopped
1 small jalapeno pepper chopped
200g Rosa tomatoes sliced
Salt and pepper
Toss all ingredients together
- Place the harissa paste, honey and cream into a saucepot and heat until it starts to bubble. Allow to slowly cook until it starts to thicken.
- Season and squeeze a little lemon juice into the sauce to balance. Keep aside.
- For the couscous, take 2 cups of hot water, add the olive oil and salt, then pour over the couscous in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave for 5-10 minutes.
- Toast the coconut slightly in a dry pan. Once the couscous is cooked, add the cinnamon and coconut and test for seasoning.
- Heat the oil again in a non-stick pan; season the hake and place into the pan.
- Cook on medium heat unto nicely browned and cooked all the way through, about 5-6 minutes.
- Flash-fry the calamari in the same pan together with the chopped garlic.
- Watch that the garlic doesn’t burn, otherwise it becomes bitter. Season with salt and pepper.
- Flash-fry the courgettes and corn in a hot pan with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Serve the hake and calamari in generous amounts of the sauce with the couscous and vegetables to one side.
- Finish off the plate with a tablespoon of the mint and tomato salsa as an accompaniment.