Friends of Wüsthof - Reuben Riffel
From construction worker to international, award-winning Chef – the film script for Reuben Riffel’s life story would probably be derided for being implausible… Despite having no formal training, his work has taken him all over the world and allowed him to open a series of self-named restaurants, guaranteeing him a spot as one of SA’s global food ambassadors.
His mother worked in a number of restaurants when he was younger and always brought home new food for the family to try, awakening an unexpected passion in Reuben. His earliest foodie memory is tasting his first oyster – and later, French-style creamy baked potato gratin with roast lamb – food, a universe away from where he grew up with 11 siblings on the outskirts of Franschhoek.
Despite the global attention, MasterChef SA judging experience and being a brand ambassador for a host of kitchen-centric products – including Wüsthof – Reuben’s food remains, in his own words, “easy, simple and with a focus on fresh, bold flavours”. Indeed, his nomination for SA’s national dish would be braaied snoek.
A lack of experience at a culinary school – most of his learning was done on the job – has been both a help and a hindrance to his career. “There are many things I would’ve benefited from learning at a good Chefs’ school - kitchen management, for example takes years to master and I struggled in my early years,” he says. “On the other hand, in-service training and not having a choice regarding succeeding or not taught me the benefit of hard work and toughened me up for this industry”.
Awards are great recognition for the hard work he and his team put into every service, but Reuben believes people can put too much stock in them. “There’s a whole world of restaurants that have operated for many years, just pleasing their customers and making a big success,” he says.
To Reuben, food does more than just nourish the body. “It stimulates the mind, it brings us together, it allows for creativity and just awakens all the senses,” he says. With that in mind, he says that amateur cooks often cook outside of their comfort zones with a view to impressing guests – but that instead the focus should be on allowing visitors to enjoy the combination of conversation, with food, wine and service being part of the experience, rather than the focus. “I don’t like overly-cluttered tables, believe in beautiful crockery, think that warm dishes should be served on warm plates – and that the old cliché that ‘less is more’ should always guide you,” he says. “Always over prepare and design the menu to require less slaving in the kitchen and more time with your guests – do all the slaving before they arrive and always cook within your abilities”.
Given the choice, he’d eschew the chance to cook for a dream celebrity guest list and choose, instead, local heroes who do amazing things, under the radar. His menu would focus on locally-sourced, natural products – a starter of steamed crayfish with farm butter, lemon thyme and a hint of garlic, for mains, a whole rack of lamb, slow rotisserie cooked over coals from old ‘wingerstompies’, with Rosendal’s Barrel-Aged Vinegar gastrique, cream-baked sweet potatoes with ginger and for dessert, his favourite heavy dark chocolate soufflé with orange ice cream.
A Chef relies on quality tools in the kitchen for consistency and speed, and Reuben is a fan of the Wüsthof Classic Range of knives, with the Santoku knife, a particular favourite. The tools of any trade need to be looked after, and Reuben says that maintenance, storing and cleaning will help prolong a knife’s life – he’s a big fan of using a stone to keep his knives kitchen-sharp.
The best dish he’s ever eaten in another restaurant? Steamed spider crab from Vancouver’s Chinatown – so much so that he can’t wait to return to repeat the experience. Reuben reckons that fresh curry leaves are the world’s most underrated ingredient (“so many more uses than just curry”) and can’t wait to see the back of the ‘pulled pork’ craze (“I’ve had it and it’s not bad – just overused”).
For more about Reuben, his restaurants and his food philosophy, visit www.reubens.co.za. Instagram @chefreubenriffel Twitter @reubenriffel