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Stirring it up with the Eat Out awards

The new-look Tasting Room at Le Quartier FrancaisANOTHER year, another list of the same old restaurants winning the annual Eat Out awards for the country’s top restaurants. For “country” read “starts at Cape Point, ends at Huguenot tunnel” – but for two exceptions.

Yes it is the same old gripe, and the organisers of the awards must be sick and tired of some of us carping about it. But if they are truly meant to be national awards, the Eat Outmagazine and brand ostensibly being a national title, shouldn’t they be trying a little harder to make the selection more representative of the entire country?

Should they not have a breakdown of categoties allowing for, say, the top three in each of Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and, yes, Port Elizabeth, or at least a top three for the friendly city and East London combined?

The top 10 for this year, announced at a glitzy function in Cape Town (where else?) comprises:

1 The Test Kitchen (Woodstock), 2 The Tasting Room (Franschhoek), 3 Jordan (Stellenbosch), 4 Overture (Stellenbosch/Somerset West), 5 Rust en Vrede (Stellenbosch), 6 DW Eleven-13 (Johannesburg, hurray), 7 La Colombe (Constantia), 8 The Greenhouse (Constantia), 9 Terroir (Stellenbosch) and 10 Hartford House, KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, yippee).

Top chef of the year was Margot Janse of The Tasting Room, she having been wallowing further down the list for several years before the judges remembered quite how brilliant she is.

The shocker here is The Greenhouse plummeting from the top spot last year to eighth this year. Given that executive chef Peter Tempelhoff is producing the most intriguing and gastronomically articulate menus and food in the entire region, and the finest food I have eaten outside of London, this is gobsmacking.

And where, many are asking, is Richard Carstens, who continues to produce exquisite food at Tokara (yes, also in Stellenbosch)?

Then there is the small matter of an “international judge” being brought in to co-judge the top contenders with the respected local chief judge, Abigail Donnelly. No matter how good Bruce Palling’s credentials are, this is a particular restaurant market with its own traditions and there are several people in South Africa qualified to judge our own restaurant awards – if that is what they indeed are.

The publishers of the Eat Out magazine have built the title and brand superbly for very many years, and have given us to believe that their awards represent the country, and therefore represent us. Unless they want to risk losing some of that hard-won success and brand recognition, they might want to reconsider a few things.

With respect to the organisers, who are professional people who take their job very seriously and put a lot of hard work into it, I understand how complex a task it is to whittle down shortlists with the help of judges in Cape Town and elsewhere in the country. But something is wrong with their system, and it’s time somebody put it as plainly as that.

If it can only produce, year after year, a list of top 10 South African restaurants of which only two are from outside of the Mother City, then they have two choices:

Change the awards to a top 10 list of the best Cape Town and the Winelands have to offer and drop the pretence that they are in any way national awards. And if Cape Town is to this country what London is to Britain, that’s actually okay, and the argument would certainly hold some weight.

Or rethink the entire system and give us a new breakdown that will provide for the top restaurants in each city with one overall national winner, as well as the top chefs in each city and one overall national chef of the year.

It’s really not that difficult, if the ethos at Eat Out is to present itself as truly a national publication with an awards system that celebrates the very best places to eat out in – in all of our major cities.

 

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