The rise of Reuben Riffel
South Africans may know the face and voice of Reuben Riffel promoting Robertson’s Spices as well as Rama margarine. Young cooking apprentices may envy Riffel for his three Reuben’s restaurants, but he has come a long way from humble beginnings with a life-long appreciation of good food in remarkable circumstances to where he is today.
When Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant moved out of Cape Town’s luxury One&Only hotel, Reuben Riffel stepped up to the plate with his namesake restaurant, Reuben’s. It’s a name that plenty of South Africans are already familiar with, having sampled the menu at his hometown branch of Reuben’s, and was a good fit in the enviably posh One&Only establishment.
So where did it all begin for truffle-loving Reuben Riffel?
Having eaten at no other establishment than a humble Wimpy before the age of 15, Riffel did have an extraordinarily varied experience of hotel food via an uncanny avenue. His mother worked in a few Franschhoek restaurants and she would return home with samplings of buffet fair, leftover delicacies like potato gratin, salmon mousse, rotisserie lamb, and crème caramel. He developed a rich, tasty palate over the years, but wasn’t to be thrown into the deep end of the kitchen until later in his teen years.
He worked with his father in building and construction, though not with satisfaction, so his mother opened the door for him to a restaurant where she worked and he manoeuvred his way into the kitchen. At age 19, Riffel was being mentored by a French chef in the “French corner” in the Cape, developing a taste for French wine and cuisine and for the “mechanics” of it all. He developed his passion for food in that kitchen, so that when the time came that he was handed the kitchen for two months, he had the proper skills and mindset to do so with an expert flair.
For a time, Riffel ran a restaurant in Cambridge, England, where he learned to work with the basics and not be so serious and envelope-pushing all the time. He worked with basic, fresh ingredients, trying different recipes and new techniques – playing in the kitchen. And when he returned to Franschhoek, he opened the original Reuben’s to mass acclaim, winning two top South African chef awards within a few months.
Reuben Riffel continues along his path of culinary success and fame in a country known for its broad palate and love of different foods. Riffel’s culinary specialities include rich foods that would go down well in other establishments in Africa – any hotel in Tanzania, Mozambican beach restaurant, or Namibian eatery would do well with a kitchen presided over by Chef Reuben.