The celebrity MasterChef Reuben Riffel fondly remembers the dishes his late mother, Sylvia, would prepare over the big days: beef tongue, fruit trifle and honey-glazed gammon. Oh, how she loved cooking her gorgeous gammon, even though she was a top baker by trade.
Riffel (46), who is also the former face of the Robertsons Spices retail brand, grew up in the picturesque Franschhoek, one of the oldest towns in South Africa.
“Both my parents loved cooking and we always had fresh fruit and vegetables in our yard,” he recalls his childhood in the neighbourhood he still resides in.
Although the Riffel family has always lived a healthy lifestyle, they still celebrate Christmas in all its glory.
“It’s very traditional. We love seafood, including braaied crayfish or langoustines with a mango mint salad. Of course, we’ll also do pickled tongue, gammon and cured salted lamb rib with lots of salads.
“A sweet and sour bean salad. Roast potatoes. Beetroot salad. Tomato salad. Mixed salad. It’s way too much food, but we’ll end it off with trifle or cassata ice cream.”
Sweet first steps to success
Ironically, despite his clear love for food, this professional cook was initially very uncertain about his future prospects after completing his schooling in Paarl. He worked with his father, Isak, in the construction industry for a short period of time, but wasn’t very fond of it.
“I liked writing stories and I once had a dream of becoming a traveling journalist to experience new places and cultures,” Riffel reminisces. However, the hospitality industry soon called his name and he started off as a waitron at Chamonix, a local restaurant.
Shortly thereafter, he started working in the kitchen due to a shortage of staff. Riffel had no formal training in the food industry, but entered the kitchen with his natural feel for food and prior knowledge. He was fascinated by all the different types of food he did not grow up with, such as mussels and oysters.
“When I started to manage my own kitchen, I always tried to combine homemade recipes that I was familiar with, such as my mother’s pineapple salad.
“The main idea was to keep the natural flavours and aromas of the foods,” recalls the gifted chef, whose eateries were in the top 10 restaurants between 2004 and 2008.
Furthermore, today he is the proud owner of a number exclusive restaurants. He is also actively involved in the composition of cooking books, often underlying the significance of the South African agricultural sector.
Riffel says, “We strive to support the smaller, local farmers, especially in the surrounding areas. The kitchen’s ingredients should always be as fresh as possible, therefore we try to purchase local foodstuffs such as poultry and red meat as often as possible.”
Working in the hospitality industry requires commitment and can be very demanding since one needs to juggle a few balls at the same time, but Riffel still enjoys every moment.
The former Chef of the Year still aims to uphold the highest standards. “Balance is crucial, seeing that people change their pattern of eating regularly, hence you need to modernise your menu as well.
“We ensure that our customers are always happy and we try to retain our unique identity of keeping the food fresh, but still delicious and interesting.”
Riffel is not only a successful chef, but also a husband and father who enjoys playing golf whenever he has time. “Family is very important to me and we always try to spend as much time together over the festive season. I also enjoy cooking at home for my family.”
With such a big heart, it is no surprise that Riffel also actively gives back to his community. He was involved in both the Franschhoek Hospitality Academy and the Franschhoek Hospice, and also helps aspiring chefs to find their feet in the food industry.
And his advice to young chefs? Nothing in life comes easy. Hard work is non-negotiable and you always have to be curious to absorb new knowledge and gain new skills.