I recently had the privilege of sitting down with the chef and creator of Coobs, The National and The Federal, James Diack. It was an eye-opening conversation, to say the least. What Chef Diack has achieved is verging on miraculous. No small feat, it’s been years and years in the making. When you eat at any of Chef Diack’s three restaurants, you are assured of 100% Provenance. What exactly is provenance, you might ask, and why does it matter? Guys, I’m not lying when I say that provenance in the restaurant and food industry is the future and should mean everything to you as a consumer.
So let me tell you a little more about that before I get to the chef’s own words.
All of the above ties in with the resurgence of what’s called seasonality, which is also one of the chef’s commitments. This is something else you’ll be hearing about a lot more. More and more, chefs are realising the importance of using the right ingredients at the right time, and changing and updating their menus toward this end. Chef Diack changes nearly 60 to 70 % of his menu on a weekly basis to align with his strong drive toward seasonality. If it’s on the menu in their restaurants, it means that those ingredients are what’s currently being harvested and it might be gone in a week or two. Only the best, at the exact right time, will ever reach your plate.
“I’m 100% of the belief that fresh is good but there’s nothing wrong with preserving.”
I commented that I can only hope most of his patrons will understand the value and importance of that fact, since it makes his job all that much more difficult. And it’s one of the reasons Chef Diack is working so hard to get the information out there, to the public. All so the general diner can begin to grasp the importance of Farm to Table, of seasonality, and what it really means to know where your produce comes from and the value it adds to your meal, as the final consumer. And to your health and general well-being going forward. It might not seem immediately obvious, but chefs like James have your best interests at heart, and this is the way of the future.
What is the concept of provenance insofar as food goes? It’s the idea of knowing exactly where the ingredients used in dishes come from, personally ensuring the source is what it claims to be. Where is your food coming from? In the case of Chef James Diack, he can tell you exactly with 100% certainty where the ingredients your meal is comprised of comes from and how it came into existence. To this end, 90% of the ingredients used at his restaurants come from their very own family farm! ‘No small feat’ is putting it mildly!
“In the last year, we are now up to, I can honestly tell you, 100% provenance.”
Chef James told me in detail about his move toward provenance, ensuring as little waste as possible, and making seasonality the driving force.
“What we’ve done is we’ve gone and made [a] seasonality calendar and it is what is available in South Africa at these times. We’ve tried to put into our calendar the best time to use certain ingredients. So that’s the idea of the calendar. Obviously, I only did it with vegetables cause pigs and sheep and ducks … they’re not very seasonal.”
“Essentially, nothing on the farm goes to waste. If a fig falls off a tree, there’s a fight between a chicken, a duck and a pig because they’re free-range, they roam around under the trees and in the groves and that, in our view, is part of the sustainability of the farm. You can’t direct things in a certain ways, you can’t orchestrate anything. This calendar is fantastic but in the middle of March, you have a hail storm and that [vegetable] there and that little [vegetable] there fall away. So it is about adaptability. And I think that’s where the strong provenance drive comes from. It’s knowing where you get your ingredients from.”
“When we opened here (Coobs), we were 35% sustainable, 85% provenance … 35% from my own farm and 85% of knowing exactly where everything came from. In the last year, we are now up to, I can honestly tell you, 100% provenance.”
“I know people always say chefing is a lifestyle but this truly is. You have to believe in it. There have been times when we’ve run out of pork belly, and you’ve had to make a plan in the sense that “sorry guys, it’s not off the menu, it’s just not on for 2 weeks” and we’ve had to do it and it’s a top selling dish and it would have been so easy for me to go to let’s say Eskort and say to them “Can you give me some pork bellies?”. But for us, it’s not an option.”
“It’s the honesty of the restaurateur. It really frustrates me how many people claim free-range, organic, grass-fed. If you wanna sell a grain-fed piece of meat – there are some amazing feed lots in this country that are humane – but just call it what it is. There’s no rule stating that you have to call it grain-fed or grass-fed. Just say “aged sirloin” instead of claiming [organic, free-range]. Cause all it does is it devalues the product [from those] trying to sell organic. So their prices get driven down and it becomes an unsustainable industry. It’s happening in this country and it’s happening a lot faster than we want to believe.”
“I pay probably 20-30% more than industry standard per hour because you can’t expect people to understand what you want if they’re living a substandard life. How do you expect people to produce at this level, and respect your ingredients … and themselves, when they are nickel and diming and rubbing coppers together. It’s unsustainable. You invest in people.”
“We try and change 60 to 70% of my menu every week. At least 50% of the desserts, at least 4 out of the 6 mains. People love to know there’s ‘New’. You have your stalwarts. The two dishes that make up the 5% of the menu that never changes are my wild boar ragu and my pork mince bolognese. Cause people just love it. All the farm stuff comes to Coobs and then the guys order out daily. So we use this as our head office. It also allows me to keep the consistency.”
“None of the restaurants are further than 6km away from each other. If anything goes wrong, I can be there in 6 to 7 minutes. I will never have a restaurant out of a 10 minute reach of me. If we do another restaurant, it’ll be close by.”
“The provenance of everything, of my ingredients … I could never run another restaurant [in a different way]. A supplier’s not that someone that rocks up with a bag of onions twice a week. It’s someone that you know and you speak to and you go to and there is a relationship cause if there’s that relationship, there’s that respect for what you do.”
“Everyone that’s been involved … it’s been a *massive* learning curve … there is no blue print for this. The uniqueness of us is that it’s *everything*. It can be inconvenient at times when you can’t do the dish exactly how you would dream of it because you haven’t got it. But you then kick yourself in the ass because everything else in the place is so amazing.”
For a PDF copy of Chef James Diack’s Seasonality calendar, pop me an email or comment below.