Correction Appended January 24, 2011
To hear anyone else tell it, Reuben Riffel defied stupendous odds in apartheid South Africa to become, at 35, one of Africa's top chefs. To hear him tell it, well, it was a slog, but nothing that family support and luck couldn't fix.
"Ramsay was here, and now it's me," he says, sitting at the bar of Reuben's, tel: (27-21) 431 5222, his restaurant in Cape Town's One & Only Hotel. The space was home to a branch of superstar British chef Gordon Ramsay's high-end Maze chain, but business disputes led to Ramsay moving out back in the summer.
It's all a long way from the tiny house in Groendal, 90 minutes east of Cape Town, where Riffel grew up with 12 siblings. They lived in an area allocated to Cape Coloreds, a mixed-race ethnic group. And it is Cape Colored cuisine, inherited through his family, that has always inspired him. Beginning as a kitchen hand, he worked his way up the restaurant ranks in nearby Franschhoek, opening Reuben's, his own eatery there, in 2004. Its eclectic dishes coconut poached-chicken salad, trout with cardamom froth were in his now signature style: smart reinterpretations of the flavors he grew up with.
Reuben's was an instant hit. Within months, it was named South Africa's restaurant of the year, and Riffel chef of the year. In 2009, he took over the Robertson Small Hotel and restaurant at the other end of the Cape Mountains. In October, he opened at One & Only. And that's it, he says. Riffel has no global ambitions, believing that South Africa offers the irresistible opportunity to shape an emerging cuisine and transcend the social barriers that, to a young kitchen hand in Franschhoek, once made most things seem impossible. These days, Riffel says, "Someone will talk to me in Afrikaans, give me their number and say, 'You must visit. Bring your wife and kids.' That's fascinating. That's amazing."
In the original version of this article, the photo caption read that South African chef Reuben Riffel drew on his Eastern Cape heritage. In fact, he is from the Western Cape.