In his early restaurant jobs, Reuben Riffel worked as a waiter, a barman, and a kitchen hand in his hometown of Franschhoek, South Africa. Eventually he became a sous-chef, helping to run the kitchen at Chamonix Restaurant. One afternoon the executive chef called in sick. “I had the opportunity to cook the food that day,” he recalls. “We had quite a few guests who came into the kitchen to congratulate me. That’s when it dawned on me that I’m going to become a chef.” He opened his own restaurant in Franschhoek in 2004 and received South Africa’s Chef of the Year award six months later.
Today Riffel owns four restaurants in the Western Cape, has four published cookbooks, and can say he taught Martha Stewart how to pickle fish. From a hotel in Johannesburg, where a food festival was just getting started, Riffel spoke to Smithsonian Journeys about the challenges of defining South African cuisine, how the food culture there is changing, and why he feels lucky to be at the center of it all.
Had you been born a generation earlier, apartheid would have prevented you from operating and owning a restaurant—let alone four. Is that history still felt in the kitchens of South Africa today?
Well, we’re always going to have a little bit of that legacy and the effects of those days. That’s why this is something that I would never take for granted. I’ve always looked at people around me, my own parents, and saw their talents. I was sad that they could never be more than what they were. Because I knew they could do so much more. Today there are still a lot of people in our industry who fall into the trap of not getting the opportunities to move forward. It’s a difficult thing for me to talk about. I’ve been doing this for quite some time and still, today, I don’t see any of my brothers coming up.
Is there pressure in being one of the few prominent black chefs of your country?
I feel there is an expectation that I’ve got to give back more to the people who come from where I come from, in terms of my time. I spend a lot of time at schools and charitable organizations.
How much has the country’s food culture changed since the 1990s?
There is this question that we always ask ourselves: What is South African food? Because after the ’90s we just started to become interested in everything from all over the world. We all wanted to cook with truffles; we all wanted to go with different types of imported ingredients. And now we’ve moved toward everything that is local. That is a lot more important. Now if there is a restaurant opening, part of what they have to say—it’s a normal thing now—is that they grow their own vegetables and their own herbs. So I think we’re going through that stage now. But the question still is: What is South African cuisine? It is difficult for me to define.
What goes into your thought process as you create a new dish?
I’d like people to read about a specific dish on the menu, and get to the end and think, ‘Now I’ve got to try this.’ So I look for something that is recognizable—something that people don’t necessarily eat in fancy restaurants—but then serve something with it that they’re not familiar with. I always try to put combinations together like that. I like it when there is a flavor that people haven’t experienced before.
What is one essential South African flavor, spice, or ingredient?
It’s more the combination of spices and the use of dried fruits. I’ve had dates and cloves with something akin to venison, in what we call a potjie. Or cumin and a sort of dried apricot cooked into a lamb dish. Those flavors I think are very unique to South Africa. Normally you’d have them cooked into meat or fish. There is a fish called snook. Very traditional, cooked over coals with soy sauce, apricot jam and Worcester sauce, and then cumin, coriander seeds, and a bit of turmeric. You make a mix of those and brush it over the fish and put it over the coals. It can go onto rice. It can also be served over pap, a type of maize porridge, with glazed apricots and onions and spices.
I’ve read about South African mopane worms with curry, and ostrich omelets, and pineapple sandwiches. Do you have a favorite dish that might surprise people?
I’ve tasted mopane worms. That’s something you get up north a lot. The closest we’ll probably get [to something so exotic] is cooking with crocodile. Ostrich, I don’t even find that odd at all. If you ever come to South Africa and taste ostrich, I can promise you you’re going to love it. Ostrich neck in a stew is delicious. It’s very close to oxtail—a lot more delicate though—and I would say it has a lot more flavor. That’s something we cook all the time.
What can South African food tell us about its people and culture?
I think our food speaks a lot to the generous spirits of our people. We open our hearts. I can generalize because I think most of us are like this: We always invite travelers to a braai [barbecue], and basically if you do that, you’re not just inviting them to come and eat with you. You’re inviting someone into your space. It’s about connecting with them.
What should a foodie know about South African cooking, and where they should go?
There is this real respect that people have for the art of cooking. Not only when it comes to chefs, but people at home. And that has pushed chefs to do better and better. There is definitely this constant improvisation and improving of food.
I think [travelers] have to start in the Cape. And then you have Johannesburg, with a bit more of an African vibe. There is an area in the middle of South Africa where the best lamb comes from because the animals eat a certain vegetation. There is so much that any visitor to South Africa would be able to experience. But there is so much more that we haven’t even discovered yet.
Roast Duck With Black Rice and Pineapple-Caramel Sauce
Duck is my mother’s favorite. Whenever I have a chance to cook a meal for her, it’s what she requests. This is my own way of roasting duck. I boil it in stock first, which infuses it with flavor and helps to eliminate a lot of the fat while keeping the duck tender and succulent. —Reuben Riffel
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup Kikkoman soy sauce
1 cup brown sugar
1.5-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 whole clove garlic, peeled
1 cinnamon stick
Zest of one orange
1 star anise
1 whole duck (about 4.5 pounds)
1 cup glutinous black rice
21⁄2 cups cold water
1⁄2 cup coconut cream
1⁄4 cup oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
2 teaspoons palm sugar
1⁄2 cup palm sugar
1⁄2 cup water
2 red chilies, sliced
2 green chilies, sliced
2 tablespoons crushed pineapple
4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
Juice of 2 limes
Heat the chicken stock in a pot large enough to fit the duck snugly. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, cinnamon stick, orange zest, and star anise. Bring the stock to boil, then reduce heat and add the duck. (It must be completely submerged.) Simmer uncovered for 50 minutes. Remove the duck from the liquid and place it in the refrigerator on a drying rack, uncovered, until completely cool. Preheat the oven to 320 ̊Fahrenheit. Place the duck in a tray and roast, uncovered, for 3 hours. Remove it from the oven and let it rest. Carve the duck and serve hot portions on top of black rice with pineapple-caramel sauce spooned over and around it.
Place rice and water in a pot and slowly cook over medium heat until the rice is al dente. If the rice is still too hard for your taste once the water has all been absorbed, add a little more water and cook for a few minutes more. Add coconut cream, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Stir through and keep warm.
In a saucepan, slowly bring the palm sugar and water to a boil. Simmer until the mixture starts to caramelize. Add the chilies, pineapple, fish sauce, and lime juice, and cook slowly for 2 more minutes.