What Makes a Great Restaurant?
From a convivial atmosphere to great restaurant management, food journalist Ishay Govender-Ypma discusses what makes for an excellent dining experience.
While good food and drink are paramount to any enjoyable dining experience, a great restaurant is defined by so much more than its appetising quaffables. In reality, it’s actually what diners don’t see – the plating of dishes, the training of staff and the overall restaurant management – that elevates an eatery from standard to spectacular.
As a seasoned food and travel journalist, Ishay Govender-Ypma is no stranger to great restaurants. Since leaving a career in commercial law and re-establishing herself as a writer in 2010, Govender-Ypma has launched an award-winning blog, released a cookbook, written for numerous publications and worked with non-profit organisations to assist with literacy, women’s upliftment and food security.
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We spoke to her to find out more about her favourite eateries, the importance of restaurant management and which food trends she’s noticing right now.
5 Minutes With Food Journalist Ishay Govender-Ypma
Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience.
I'm an author and food and travel journalist, exploring larger cultural themes through the lens of food. I try to centre the narrative on women, minorities and people whose stories have often been neglected. I also judge on international restaurant panels and am the founder of South African People of Colour (SA POC) at the Table, a group that fosters opportunities for skills exchange, networking and collaboration for people of colour in the food, beverage and related creative industries on the continent.
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What are your favourite local restaurants, and why do you love them?
I enjoy Upper Bloem in Green Point, Cape Town, which draws heavily on chef Andre Hill's background growing up in the Bo-Kaap. It combines a clever use of spice and well-loved ‘home foods’, like samoosas, salome, snoek pâté, koesisters and bunny chow, and presents them in sumptuous bites on sharing platters.
I also enjoy Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia, which is another sharing plates concept. Chef Ivor Jones' love for what he does, paired with a picturesque setting against the vineyards, sets the stage for a memorable meal.
What makes a restaurant great?
The holy trinity of outstanding food that is consistently great; warm and knowledgable service staff; and a good drinks offering.
The latter two depend on the eatery: I don't want nor expect wine in a traditional halaal restaurant, and I don't expect wait staff to know as much about the ingredients, ethos and techniques at a bistro as I do at a fine dining restaurant.
The atmosphere and decor, including crockery and stemware, also play a part, but setting and context are key.
What role does restaurant management play in creating an enjoyable dining experience?
Adequately training staff, one of the primary roles of restaurant management, is key in successfully running a restaurant.
A pleasant, switched-on front of house manager or head waiter often sets the tone, and staff tend to follow these cues.
Managers need to have more than good 'people skills' – they need to know how to read a room, when to acquiesce on demands and how to stand up for staff if they are being harassed, as well as how to leave a lasting impression on patrons so that they're inclined to return. It's often a tightrope to walk.
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In your view, how does the hospitality industry in South Africa compare to other countries you've visited?
I think we compare very well, all things considered. Very few wait staff in modern South African restaurants are career waiters, nor aspire to be, like in the case of Italy, Spain and other regions. They simply don't receive the same kind of training or compensation.
Staff at restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park in New York City and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain are able to eat out at other fine dining restaurants, whereas our staff don't earn enough to do the same. For many, it's a job on the way to something else or the best they can do for now.
I cringe at the comment that we're far off the mark compared to others in the international sphere. I've had the privilege of eating at nine out of the top 10 on this year's World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and our staff are doing a great job. We can improve on finesse and ingredient knowledge, but our waitrons tend to be friendly, polite and gracious – qualities I value greatly when dining out.
What food trends are you noticing right now?
1: Urgent advocacy for understanding local and indigenous ingredients, particularly lost food knowledge that was wiped out during conquest or colonisation. Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz is doing groundbreaking work with Mater Iniciativa in Peru, and working closely with small-scale indigenous growers to document lesser-known knowledge and empower them in the process. Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa De La Ossa is also a noteworthy leader in the field in Colombia, and serves as an example to chefs worldwide.
2: Fostering relationships with farmers beyond markets. In many cases, the chefs themselves have taken on the role of growers. This is not new, but the movement continues to strengthen – think of chefs Dan Hunter of Brae and Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne; Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York City; and Christian Puglisi of Relae and Manfreds in Copenhagen, who runs Farm of Ideas.
3: Vocal and visible political activism. Leading by example – and feeding the destitute at the same time – is Spanish chef José Andres. San Francisco-based French chef Dominique Crenn is currently mobilising other chefs to raise awareness around climate change and asking for them to commit to certain actions.
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