Like all countries, South Africa has endured a very difficult year and the hospitality industry has borne the brunt of much of it. However, talking to chef Peter Tempelhoff, there is not the slightest hint of regret or doubt Instead the chef is bullish about the future of his own restaurants and the country. It’s a spirit of positivity that can be found in his philosophy and his food.
South Africa is the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and you can see a whole range of international influences in chef Tempelhoff’s cuisine, but the Japanese influence comes through the strongest, particularly at his flagship fine-dining restaurant Fyn, in Cape Town.
“I have a lot of room for Japan in my heart,” says Tempelhoff. “Not just the food but the culture, the people, everything. I worked in kitchens in Tokyo and Kanazawa on the west coast. I’ve really embraced that culture and I’ve been cooking Japanese food from the beginning.”
The idea with Fyn was always to do South African-Japanese food, to marry the two cultures, without disrespecting either one. The food is very Japanese but with a South African influence in terms of ingredients with South African lore woven in.
You might wonder how the marriage of these two cultures works so well, but apart from the culinary alignment – ingredients and technique, there is mutual respect between the two cultures. Call it a warrior spirit, but both cultures respect the ability to battle through, to fight till the end.
It’s a quality found in abundance in South Africans and something that helped Tempelhoff while forging his culinary career in the ‘dungeons of London” as he puts it, working for, among others Giorgio Locatelli and a certain Marco Pierre White.
“It was the time when he was pulling back from the kitchen so he wasn’t the wild Marco you see in all the videos with Gordon Ramsay. It was a learning kitchen, a trial by fire. I learned it the hard way. In those dark London cellar kitchens”
“I think the South Africans are sought after in the kitchens in London. They don’t mind rolling their sleeves up and working an eighteen-hour shift without complaining,”
“But they’re a dying breed, even over here the Millennials are taking over,” he adds with a hearty laugh.
Unlike other countries, South Africa did not impose a log-term lockdown. Restaurants were shut initially but then they were allowed to open up with certain limits on their trading. Tempelhoff chose not to slow down and in December when most restaurants were forced to pull the shutters down on operations, he opened a new restaurant ‘Beyond’ based on a notable estate Buitenverwachting in the Constantia Valley wine country.
“I bumped into the landlord by accident, I was buying stationery,” says Tempelhoff. “I said he was looking for a tenant for the restaurant space there and, well I just thought ‘why not?”
It’s the fearless attitude that the chef exudes, an infectious positivity that it seems, not even a global pandemic can derail.
“This pandemic, it can be many things but I’ve taken it to be an opportunity, an accelerator,” he says. “So far so good, it’s been up and down, but we’ve managed to put a bit away for the winter and we’re building.”
Tempelhoff feels lucky having weathered the Covid storm while largely keeping his team together. “Yeah, we were lucky, we only had to furlough a few positions and then S.Pellegrino came through with a grant through 50 Best and that was invaluable, it allowed us to pay wages. We went down to half salaries for a while and we haven’t lost any jobs”.
Tempelhoff took the opportunity to pivot to takeout and delivery too. His Fyn restaurant was one of the first to do takeout in Cape Town and it was so successful, he decided to shelve his pre-pandemic plan to open a yakitori restaurant, and instead a virtual restaurant Stickman, serving Japanese street food. It has so far been hugely successful and with a potential third wave on the horizon, a very wise hedge bet on future business.
It has been a year dizzying highs and lows for restaurants in South Africa, but with Tempelhoff Fyn, Beyond and Stickman have a real leader to chart them through choppy waters and what really is a good chef but a good chief?