Reuben Riffel: at home on the range

Reuben Riffel – chef, author, restaurateur – was born to cook. He just didn’t know it. But the signs were always there.

Even though he did not eat out until his mid-teens, Reuben and his 12 siblings grew up in a family where his grandmother, mother and aunts spent hours preparing ‘good but simple food’, such as tomato bredie, using ingredients grown by his grandfather. His mom brought home richer flavours, such as rotisserie lamb off-cuts or crème caramel, from the Franschhoek restaurants she worked at.

When Reuben was only 12, he was tasked with starting the woodburning stove for his mom. And by 15, he was being reprimanded for making ‘all kinds of stewy things’, spaghetti Bolognese and tapioca pudding instead of peanut-butter sandwiches for his friends.

‘That was all very spontaneous and natural. It was never because I wanted to become a chef,’ says Reuben of his first forays into the kitchen. ‘But all the dots started to connect eventually.’

The biggest dot turned out to be the job he landed waiting tables after realising he wasn’t cut out for joining his dad in construction.

‘My mom just wanted us to work hard. Even if I worked in a restaurant, I needed to be good at what I was doing. So anything that I set out to do – a waiter, barman or whatever – she wanted me to do it properly, and not to mess it up.’

There was one problem. ‘I was a really k*k waiter,’ he laughs, ‘mainly because I was shy and didn’t do well with difficult customers. I just could not deal with that,’ says the soft-spoken chef.

So 19-year-old Reuben was moved into the kitchen, and within three years, he was running it.

‘The chef didn’t show up one day and I had to do his job,’ he says with typical understatement. ‘I had to run the kitchen for that day and, after it was over, people said, “Well done, you did a good job.” I felt like a king, like this was
definitely something I could make a career from.’

And he did just that, eventually moving on from his training ground at Chamonix to a number of local eateries, including the celebrated Monneaux, before going abroad.

‘I wasn’t going anywhere if I moved from one restaurant to another in this small town, or even in the Western Cape or the whole of South Africa,’ he explains of his move to Cambridge, England, with his then girlfriend and now wife, Maryke.

The experience of opening and running Bruno’s Brasserie, located in Cambridge, was revelatory. ‘I realised, it’s not just about cooking food and cooking what you like, it is also about finding out what else you would like, and experimenting, without trying hard to be different,’ he says. ‘When I first had my own kitchen, I tried too hard to be different and I was mixing food that does not go together, purely for the sake of creating something weird and wonderful. When I was abroad, I realised that ingredients are the king. You have to be guided by the quality of your ingredients – and you can start from there. You must have a good understanding of the basics.’

Lessons learnt, he returned to his home town to open a restaurant bearing his name.

‘It was massively scary,’ he admits. ‘Franschhoek is well known for its good restaurants and there are people who have been established here for a very long time. So now this guy comes back from England after only two years and he’s going to open his own place called Reuben’s? It was daunting, but I like those types of challenges.’

He need not have worried. Within six months of opening in 2004, Reuben and his restaurant had triumphed at the prestigious Eat Out Awards. In the ensuing decade he’s opened eponymous eateries in Robertson and at Cape Town’s One&Only hotel, released two recipe books, punted spices on TV, cooked for Martha Stewart and become a bona fide celebrity chef – even if he’s a little uneasy with the description.

‘I’m against the whole celebrity thing and I try not to buy into it. I’m an easy guy, I’m approachable, so I can deal with being recognised,’ he says. ‘It’s actually very flattering when somebody says they enjoy what I do. I value that.’

Although he insists there are no plans to open a fourth Reuben’s at the moment, there are a few projects on the boil.

First up is a ‘really cool beer  bar’ where artisanal brews will be paired with ‘nice, easy food’. There’s also a long-term strategy to combine cooking with tourism. But Reuben is most excited about a plan that proposes to complement the school feeding scheme and life-skills coaching he already offers the people of Groendal, the area where he grew up.

‘I have a goal for next year to open something in the township where I’m from. A restaurant that’s based around food and a little bit of culture, like music and a bit of theatre, and using the talent that comes out of this community,’ he says.‘Hopefully, it will draw more people from other parts to enjoy the real Franschhoek.’

With a hunger for cooking as well as community upliftment, Reuben’s enthusiasm shows no sign of waning.

‘It’s just so important to keep yourself excited in your job. And, sometimes, you just have to try harder, rather than simply doing your job properly.

  • This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group. (Image: Andreas Eiselen)

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