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Hot Lunch

LISTEN | David Higgs talks Instagram, omelettes and cycling podcasts

Chef takes a well-earned lunch break but can’t resist a little grill action

17 October 2021 - 00:00
Well known Chef, David Higgs, speaks about his journey and poses for photographs, at Banchan, a Korean Restaurant, in Parkmore, Sandton.
Well known Chef, David Higgs, speaks about his journey and poses for photographs, at Banchan, a Korean Restaurant, in Parkmore, Sandton.
Image: alon skuy

David Higgs, SA’s most genial version of a celebrity chef, has not watched Squid Game, the bloodthirsty Korean series at the top of the global Netflix popularity charts, when he proposes we meet for lunch at Banchan, a Korean restaurant in Morningside, Johannesburg.

“I don’t usually eat out,” he says. “My house is my safe space, I just love being at home with my dog.” But here we are on a Monday — his only free day in the week, and I am rather glad about it, as the traditional food being presented in a steady stream of fiery but subtle freshness by Jamie Jeong, the general manager, is outrageously delicious.

David has a mild cold, he warns me, but it is not Covid — he had that in December and it knocked his health badly and took out his plans for a big 50th birthday celebration. I am glad to say that the cold does not curb his enthusiasm for taking charge of the grill on the table, and giving our Korean tjoppies a good seeing to. He also has the banter that you may have noted on DStv’s My Kitchen Rules with Jay Something, so it is a bit like having my own reality cooking show unfold before my eyes.

I wonder how he keeps his insanely busy lifestyle together: the multiple restaurants Marble, Saint, Zioux (opening in two weeks’ time), a glorified garage/convenience store called The Pantry opening in November, TV shows and an active Instagram presence that has kept us warm and fed during the pandemic.

“The restaurants are intense at the moment. People’s demands are high — you can understand that, people have been cooped up. When they come out they think about how they spend their money and to be personable in these big spaces is exhausting. Everybody has a comment, you know. Generally people don’t say they are happy, they say things on your social pages. It’s exhausting. So I love coming home, my beautiful space, and I get onto my bicycle — I generally ride for two hours every day — alone.”

It’s been 32 years of being public-facing. “It’s taken me a long time to be able to spend time with myself. To be able to just take a step back every day. You become very selfish with your time.” 

He does not have a TV, to avoid staying up all night. “I can watch anything and go to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning — you come home, you are wired  after the shift — but I do love a cycling podcast.”

I wonder about his very active social media presence: “It was the first time in my career of 32 years that I slowed down. The restaurant never closes, you never switch off. Now, other than worrying about your staff, I had nothing to worry about — I found myself lying in my scullery taking a photo of myself and Carlos [his photogenic bulldog] and already on the fifth day I thought I would engage with people. I started ‘What’s in your fridge?’ — people sent me pictures of their fridge contents. Then I started making omelettes — I only did it because I was on my own. Afterwards I got messages from people, it was so special. I still talk to those people today.”

David and his business partner, Gary Kyriacou, seem to have cracked the Joburg food code. Their restaurants are supersized, beautifully designed, slick operations that have the joyous energy of a party but with damn nice food.

So what has he learnt about the city’s food culture? “People like to see value for money. A lot of people don’t understand what that is — it’s the food on your plate and how much you are getting, it’s where you are sitting, it’s the bar area, everything has been curated for that experience. If you give a guy a tiny piece of springbok, and foam — there is a place for that but I think people want to come around and have a good time.”

And lest you think he is slowing down, “50 was such a major turning point just having my health back”, so in January he is riding for Reach for a Dream with a friend, from Plett to Stellenbosch — 1,000km. “We are going to do it  in one go — it will take me three days. We will sleep on the side of the road.” Why ride like this? “If you want to raise funds you have to do something extreme.” Quite.


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