Q&A With South African Chef Reuben Riffel: Building His Brand, Gaining Global Attention

Avatar
Written by Ann Brown

People flock to Chef Reuben Riffel’s Cape Town restaurant to dine on grilled peri-peri tiger prawns and butternut-spinach wontons.

Reuben’s Restaurant, Bar & Deli is one of South Africa’s hottest restaurants right now, offering such innovative dishes as shellfish bisque and whole grain mustard-crusted ostrich fillet. And of course, there is an extensive list of South African wines. It’s South African cuisine with an international flair.

Riffel is fast becoming a culinary legend with this and other restaurants he has around South Sfrica. And he even attracted the attention of Martha Stewart. Riffel flew to the U.S. to cook her on the popular Martha Stewart TV show.

Riffel grew up in a family that enjoyed cooking and dining together. His grandmother, mother and aunts would spend hours preparing feasts, always using fresh fruit and vegetables grown by his grandfather on a small plot in the fertile valley of Groendal, Franschhoek.

Riffel did a brief turn in the construction business before deciding on a culinary career. He joined the wait staff at Chamonix restaurant and later transferred to the kitchen, where he worked under respected classical Chef Christophe Dehosse.

Riffel was promoted to sous chef at the restaurant under Chef Richard Carstens, who one day failed to show up for work. Riffel found himself left to run the kitchen.

After stints at various restaurants, he was invited to run the kitchen at a restaurant in Cambridge, England. He relocated with his partner, now wife, Maryké, becoming head chef at Bruno’s Brasserie. The restaurant attracted Cambridge’s upper crust despite its less-than glamorous setting in a lower-rent part of town.

When friends approached to open his own restaurant bearing his name in his hometown, Riffel and Maryké left England returned to Franschhoek.

Besides Reuben’s Restaurant, Riffel also has Reuben’s at The One&Only Hotel on Cape Town’s waterfront, where Denzel Washington has been spotted dining. And there is also Reuben’s at the Robertson Small Hotel in the Boland area.

AFK Insider:  How did you get into the culinary industry and what inspired you?

Rueben Riffel:  I was in the right place at the right time in the beginning. After three years of being a waiter I was pulled into the kitchen. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the pressure and the creativity.

AFK Insider:  How did you come to open the restaurant?

Rueben Riffel: I was offered the opportunity by someone I’ve done some work for to partner with him. I was actually reluctant to call it Reuben’s but later gave in.

AFK Insider: What were some of your business challenges?

Rueben Riffel: It was difficult to be in the kitchen and run the business. Me and my partner wasn’t schooled in running finances, to deal with banks, legal issues, etc. I realized we needed someone outside our business with experience and knowledge on how to deal with these things and guide us a bit, especially in the beginning.

AFK Insider: What are some of the obstacles for small business in South Africa?

Rueben Riffel: There are a few: Access to finance, labor law compliance issues, rapidly rising costs (are) more difficult to pass on to the customer in our business.

AFK Insider: The restaurant seems to get a lot of press, how has that come about?

Rueben Riffel: That’s an interesting question. I almost don’t know how to answer that. We are fortunate in that respect. I hope it’s not just because of who and what I am and where I come from.

AFK Insider:  Do you see yourself opening other locations?

Rueben Riffel: We are only still opening in Paternoster (old fishing village on the West Coast of South Africa) for now. There are no plans for any more restaurants for the next two years.

AFK Insider:  I read somewhere that you said food is sort of an equalizer -that it can be used to bring the races together. How so?

Rueben Riffel: We all have pride in our heritage. Food plays a big part in that. Discovering new customs and trying out different tastes is always exciting. The one place in Khayelitsha (township in Cape Town), for example, where people from all races and nationalities feel comfortable to visit and enjoy revolves around food and eating; the same in other areas that were previously no-go areas for people from the “other side.”

AFK Insider:  Did you face any unique difficulties being an entrepreneur of mixed race?

Rueben Riffel: First of all we are all of mixed race, aren’t we? I get what you ask though. Obviously, yes you do have issues with other people and also within yourself. I never felt that I was ever treated as an equal, but that was never an issue, you deal with it. It takes a bit longer to prove yourself and to get people to trust you. I just did what I had to – be honest, pay your bills on time, create friendships.