A buffet for artists to…
Richard Griffin is for the community. Everything for that. He chose one of the more community-conscious areas of Jozi in which to open Emzini. And Emzini is very Richard Griffin, which is for local hearts and the arts, and for those who support the arts, and that’s the best way to do it.
The Emzini Buffet, presented daily between noon and two, is known as the Arts Buffet. It is a wonderful way to support these artistic projects, these artistic actions against corrupt arts administrators and to help artists who are not otherwise supported, many of whom come from this community and surrounding communities. Arts people were a neglected sector of society during the pandemic.
I thought I was in for the Emzini buffet today, but picked the day when it’s not displayed in its culinary glory on a long table in the farmhouse-style ‘kitchen room’. It was December 29. And Richard had guessed that no one would pick him up that day, but I didn’t know that. So I continued, after asking Bridget too.
I saw this food buffet. There is often an excellent chicken pot pie, Janet Telian’s famous tomato pie, eggplant roulade with hazelnuts and cheese, enthusiastically filled bowls, platters and always salads of great content and interest. I know the super quality of the chef responsible for the buffet but can’t help but not eat anything from there today. It’s not like the food on the menu doesn’t look so good anyway. The chef, whom I’m about to discover, often refers to other chefs: Telian, Jackie Cameron and Karen Dudley. However, Emzini’s buffet has something else special that I will return to.
Westdene is known as a home for artists of all kinds and those working in arts-related jobs. There are cameramen, screenwriters, costumers, musos, promoters, agents, actresses, actors galore that I can think of. There are undoubtedly many more people here and around, in supporting roles, the people who make the productions happen in all their detail, who light them, edit them, edit them, clean up before, during and after. In fact, I know it.
I also know Westdene for being the place whose community has deliberately ceded its walls to graffiti artists, leading visitors to come here to view the area’s ever-growing art collection. Westdene’s own community is made up of many life walkers, remarkably different walkers, who do things, together, in exemplary ways, regardless of ages, genders, religions, histories, incomes and the results are different.
Richard Griffin has this welcoming eating place, Emzini, a place for everyone.
Judging by today, everyone likes to sit on this wide and comfortable step stool. The Westdene councilor seems to do it, along with her team, just like a woman I see all the time in TV commercials, with people who look like parents and so on. I also like to sit here and did, even when this restaurant was a Portuguese style place called Tasca do Sol. People ate garlic or piri piri prawns here and while the other food wasn’t always wildly exciting there was wine and there was and is the Westdene Dam on the other side of the road. The dam is filled by Westdene Spruit just above, a tributary of Jozi’s Braamfontein Spruit.
His grass is long from vacation today. The wide entourage of slightly drooping trees looks wonderfully cool and the water satiny.
Unfortunately the restaurant building got a bit run down a decade ago given its great location and then suddenly there was a Pole with his national flag walking neatly with boots and what looked like a Polska military outfit. I know a few cheerful Poles but still didn’t feel drawn to eating or drinking here at the time.
Now I’m lounging outside on this hot day with a cold Ken Forrester Sauvignon Blanc and a friend who lives in Westdene. I invited her here mainly because of that and, funny enough, because of the buffet that is missing today. We will order from the menu instead.
Bridget van Oerle promotes the arts and artists. I first met her with Pieter-Dirk Uys at De La Creme in Melville, the same cafe he returned to every time he left Darling. He lived in Melville.
I look around me, surprised and amused by the changes made here. It’s now quirky, cozy, country in some parts, brothel in others, with nooks, places to brood, tables of happy friends and family, deep sofas, even a TV screen in one corner. away from the stoep.
Richard Griffin may well hold a record for having worked in the most restaurant kitchens in the world, including some in his own. He says he’s “always been into food”. At 13, he ran away from home, a perfectly kind home with kind parents, who later became business partners in his endeavors. He was “a nightmare child” and went to work in a kitchen, to comfort himself. “The kitchens saved me. I can express ideas and feel safe in kitchens. This first was Jonkershuis in Groot Constantia.
At 17, Richard was overseas, starting a career in food as a chef. Over the next decade he worked on different continents. I counted four as we talked. He worked the extremes of the Vendôme and the small cheeky and shady corners. At 30, he was accepted by the Cordon Bleu in England and qualified. “I fell in love and came here,” Richard said, waving to all of South Africa.
When did he become the host of the restaurant who is also the chef? Because, throughout his journey as a star chef, Richard has realized that having a restaurant is more about making people feel at home and some of the tricks are warm service and, funnily, a decor. Lighting is essential, as are remarkable “things” to inspire commentary and conversation.
It will come as no surprise to many to know that Richard started, directed and directed Madame Zingara, the fantastical event in a fabulously mirrored circus tent. It was all about hospitality.
I only enjoyed this after being invited to a show at the time of the Cape. I had hesitated, saying that “it wasn’t me”. The then-boyfriend said, “Oh puhlease! You can come eat too. It is you.”
It was an evening full of welcome and happiness. There were about four comfort food style dishes with awfully cheffy twists and surprises. Strangely, I especially remember one dish that I didn’t have. I tasted it. The boyfriend had a chocolate chilli steak. It was not a silly fashion plate, excellent meat, tenderloin. The enriched chocolate in the sauce was fine Belgian and dark, as dark as mushrooms, sweet as opposed to small pieces of crispy potatoes or pasta, with radicchio or other bitter leaves. This dish led me to make turkey and rabbit dishes with dark chocolate, mimicking the rich umami shift I had tasted delivered by the mushrooms and meat.
I am not surprised today that people, speaking of Madame Zingara, remember this dish among all the others, as a popular squid and a salmon and lemon aioli too. When I compare Richard Griffin’s food as seen, but not today, on Emzini’s buffet table, I recognize the basics of unscary comfort food, flourished with laid-back professionalism and few surprises in taste or of ingredients.
Instead of this buffet, Bridget and I are getting pizza fresh from the wood oven today. Yes, I know, I should never have said that I rarely eat it. Either way, it’s not that stringy type and it’s topped with artichokes and gorgonzola, a burst of tangy fresh herbs from the garden. Of course, it’s wonderful. We also have a small portion of calamari, a constant Griffin favourite, and one that reminds me that Chef Richard makes the best reconstituted calamari dish I have ever seen.
He loves cooking with as local stuff as possible and decorating with very local stuff. Our salad proves everything I say culinary about our host-chef.
Bridget van Oerle, who is having lunch with me, is, of course, involved in I’m 4 The Arts, as well as her other artistic works. The NPO was started by indigenous opera and jazz dean Sibongile Mngoma in 2020 and recorded last year.
A few days later, a knowledgeable friend of Jozi’s, Kennedy Welani Tembo, introduced me to a great place he discovered called Emzini. I say that I arrived before him for a change and I ask him what he liked the most there.
“The atmosphere,” he replies. And we at Jozi can eat for the arts now, while we enjoy it too. DM/TGIFood
Emzini, 12 Lewes Street, Westdene. 067 776 8455
Follow Marie-Lais Emond on Instagram Marie-Lais Emond.
The author supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi’s feeding programs with food “saved” from the food chain. Please support them here.