“He was in my kitchen as a young chef, but we would play squash and tennis and basketball, and go fishing and hiking, so it wasn’t like it was just a work relationship,” says Badenhorst.
Now the two are partners in a new restaurant, Dusk, in nearby Stellenbosch, with Austin assuming his first head chef’s role. It’s a restaurant where staff welfare is paramount, something they’re not afraid to shout about. Good, because according to our recent Front of House Survey, over 60% of consumers want to know about the working conditions of restaurant employees.
“All of our socials, our website, our media, it’s public what we’re doing. There’s no hiding,” says Badenhorst.
What they’re doing includes opening for dinner service only, to ensure a better work-life balance for all, and offering an outsourced HR department and anonymous virtual counselling. They also encourage their staff to engage with ‘forest therapy’ – group treks out into nature, to forage, brainstorm and talk shop.
“It’s an opportunity to team-build, talk about new ideas for dishes and find interesting new ingredients, and then also just to be out in nature,” says Austin.
Another initiative they’ve started is a ‘Weekly Wastage Challenge’, whereby Dusk’s cooks are encouraged to create new dishes with food waste, with the best making it onto the menu (get the recipe for one of the winning dishes below). It’s not only a way to reduce waste but builds confidence within the team.
“Creating a comfortable space for the employees, giving them a platform to create something… that’s never something that I experienced in any of the other restaurants that I worked in. It was: get to work, work 17 hours, put your hand up if you want to go the bathroom type of thing,” says Austin, who gave up studying engineering for a life in the kitchen.
Badenhorst agrees: “Self-worth is based on self-opinion and if you can assist that natural progression, you're going to have a positive work environment.”
What time is it?
At Dusk, there are no windows, so diners lose a sense of time of day, a bit like a Las Vegas casino, minus the stench of desperation. The lights are dimmed at dusk and the colour palette is dark with copper and brass highlights.
“We designed the space to set a mood. Your focus is not dulled by the space [nor] interfered [with]. So your focus is on the food and the experience,” says Badenhorst.
The food is based around “hyper-local farms and suppliers doing all the weird and wonderful things,” says Austin. There’s snail caviar on the menu as well as a snail tart, “a lot of ferments”, ostrich, abalone, and medicinal plants. At Dusk, they want to create a connection between the producers and the cooks, but also to put the producers centre stage in the minds of the diners too.
“The river needs to run deeper than just the understanding of the ingredients in the kitchen,” says Badenhorst. “If you understand the lifespan of an abalone, the different notes of the meat and where it’s harvested… suddenly there’s a far deeper understanding and appreciation and a deeper flavour profile. Your palette and mind link up.”
“It's more than just them supplying you a product,” adds Austin. “It almost becomes a bit of a friendship and you want to put your friends on a pedestal, just as we would put chefs and front-of-house staff on a pedestal and share their story. It's important that we tell the story of the supplier.”
On the subject of front of house, the pair have struggled to conceive of a similar confidence-building initiative to the Weekly Wastage Challenge for servers. Thus far they’ve settled on an employee of the month programme.
“We’re not looking to have the best employee, but we're looking for employees to be the best versions of themselves and to look back on the previous shift, on the previous day, previous week, previous month, and [ask] how can they better improve themselves?” says Badenhorst.
From mentored to mentor
Looking back on his win at S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2022-23, Austin says the biggest pro has been the “opportunity to mentor young chefs and encourage them to enter the competition.” It was, he says, a big deal for a South African chef to win the S.Pellergino Social Responsibility Award (for a dish highlighting the need for sustainable fishing practices and marine conservation).
He hasn’t quite completed his transformation from mentored to mentor, the pair joke – Badenhorst is still teaching him the financial ropes. In fact, the elder chef is full of business advice for young chefs.
“Sometimes you need, in an emotional industry, to put your heart aside and think with your head,” he says. And be smart. “Learn the lessons when you’re employed by someone, don’t learn them on your own buck. That's what I did. I stayed in one of my jobs for almost 10 years, and I wasn't the happiest there and I was being grossly underpaid and all the rest of it, but I knew lessons that I was learning there would serve me best when I opened my own space.”
“It’s been quite fascinating to learn from Darren all of the different moving parts that go into running a successful restaurant,” says Austin. “There’s a new challenge every day.”
Dusk 'Weekly Wastage Challenge' recipe
'Inspiration from my travels in Asia' – pork dumplings, Asian master stock broth, assiette of vegetable trimmings, and foraged herbs by chef Troy Davey
For the dumpling dough
240g all-purpose flour
175ml boiling water
1 tbsp salt
500ml abalone master stock, reduced to 250ml (this is a stock that we braise our abalone in at the restaurant, but could be remade by creating a broth using soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and aromatics such as lemongrass, ginger and chilli)