Chef James Diack on restaurant trends & challenges


Q. How would you describe your style of cooking? What inspires you?
A: I gain my food inspiration from the seasonal ingredients supplied to the restaurants by my family’s farm, Brightside in Magaliesburg. I remember growing up on the farm and getting excited when it was mango season, or orange season. So, I adapt my style to what comes off the farm each season – if we get something that’s Asian-style, then we develop a dish around that.

Q: Describe a typical day in your restaurant?
A: My day starts early – I arrive at Coobs at 9am and get all my admin done in the morning and then try and spend as much time in each of my kitchens as I can. We use Coobs as a central kitchen and prep all the basics, process and package the meat, and then send the prepped ingredients out to The National and The Federal. I try to spend as much time at each kitchen working with the teams and menu building. Lunch service normally runs from 12-3pm and then dinner from 7pm. A typical day ends around 1:30am.

Q: What have been your proudest moments as a chef?
A: I’ve been proud every time I’ve opened a restaurant, but the moment we opened the doors of Coobs for the first time probably stands out for me a bit more. I always dreamt of owning my own restaurant one day, and Coobs was the moment that dream came true. I am still really proud of it – it’s a great place and has grown from strength to strength.

Q: What has been your biggest learning curve?
A: Learning that getting the right fit of people into a team is so important. I’ve learnt that it’s vital to make sure I get people onto my team who share my passion and enthusiasm for what I do – that it’s not just a job. If you build a team around you that gets as excited as you do for new ideas (despite the 18-hour prep time) then you’ve chosen the right people.

Q. What are your favourite ingredients?
A: I love working with pork. It’s been such an underrated product for so long, and always looked at as the cheap cut of meat. Now, it’s more in focus and makes a great dish. I also love working with marrows! Everyone always just thinks of baby marrows, but at Coobs we have five different ingredients from marrows in our kitchen, including the zucchini flowers from the baby marrows, and the leaves off the plant. It’s light, crisp and a beautiful ingredient to cook with.

Q. What is your favourite dish that you enjoy cooking?
A: I love cooking at home, and when I cook at home it’s often a risotto. I enjoy spending the whole day cooking – slow-braising something for my friends to enjoy later in the day. I think it’s the art of completing a dish – at work, everyone works on a different element and then I plate it. But at home, I can cook a whole dish from start to finish.

Q: Six people (dead or alive) who you would like to cook for?
A: I think to limit it to six for myself would be impossible. My dream meal is cooking for all my mates be it my chef fraternity colleagues Chef David Higgs (Marble), Chef Marthinus Ferreira (dw eleven-13) and Chef Russell Armstrong (Social Kitchen and Bar), my friends in the wine industry (Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Francois Haasbroek) or just my family and friends. For me, it’s more of a time and place thing and not an uptight ‘cooking for the queen’ type event. Rather, its sitting around eating great food and drinking amazing wine and just knowing that all is good when friends are together.

Q. What trends / challenges are restaurants facing?

Pricing: Finding a balance between the ever-increasing cost of food, and what is acceptable to charge customers.

Corkage and ‘Cakeage’: Customers often have issues paying corkage for the wine they bring into an establishment – and now, people are bringing their own cakes. In the ‘old days’ someone would bring a bottle of 1977 Petrus because they wanted to enjoy it with your food. Now people are bringing inexpensive wines, and are outraged to pay R70 corkage. What customers don’t understand is that sometimes the wine glasses cost R135 each – if someone has paid the R70 corkage and they break the glass, I’m still only half covered. In terms of cakes, customers bring in cakes, which means we lose out on a number of desserts orders and even more important, the waiter loses out on that potion of the tip (but still must serve and clear the plates).

Faux food allergies: the proliferation of wheat, gluten and lactose intolerance. Someone even recently said to me they were allergic to lettuce. It’s becoming bizarre and to the point that when people come in with genuine allergies or food related diseases (e.g. Crones Disease) the industry is almost too blasé and desensitized.

Changes to the menu: people treat a menu like a shopping list and can change a dish so much, that it’s not even recognizable to what’s on the menu. Restaurants accommodate this and then customers complain the dish isn’t great. What the customer doesn’t understand is that, technically, they’ve asked us to make a dish we have never tried or plated before.

Provenance: People are starting to really care about where the dish comes from and are clueing up. Customers want to know if their grass-fed steak is 100% grass-fed or finished on 20% corn. In this light, people need to make sure that what they’re being told is the truth – are the eggs genuinely free range, and is the chicken totally organic? It’s important to remember sustainability is all about protection – protection of the environment, protection of our diners’ health and not least of all protection of animal health.

Purity of flavour: If a carrot is a carrot, it must taste like a carrot. Chefs are now focusing on enhancing the ingredient flavours rather than masking or augmenting them.

The end of the individual food revolution: Customers are more focused on ingredients and what they become, rather than seeking out just Mexican from a Mexican restaurant, or just a burger from a burger joint.

Local focus: In Spain, an increasing number of restaurants are focusing on what ingredients are local to them, and then plating them beautifully. It’s essentially knowing who the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker is in your area.

Suppliers being part of the journey: Suppliers want to know what becomes of the ingredients they supply, and how they’re cooked. This closer relationship and interaction ensures the industry will grow, and standards will increase.

Reinvention: Taking certain “old classics” back to what they were originally and giving it back its identity. So, for example, the hot dog. Taking a hot dog from the bright red sausage and a bread roll that stays fresh for five days; back to a handmade, free range sausage on a homemade bun (that goes stale the next day…). In Zurich, there is a hotdog stand which serves free range pork hot dogs – and they’re busy!

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