By Sarah Cangley
Photography supplied by Roots
It’s the wettest day of the soggiest summer in Jo’burg in 50 years. My mud-spattered car thumps into puddle-filled potholes as the doves fly startled from the long grass in the Letamo Private Game Reserve as I go in search of Roots. Not my own, mind you, but Roots restaurant, the culinary adjunct to the Cradle of Mankind’s latest boutique hotel, Forum Homini.
Not many chefs would come in on their day off in this weather, but chef-patron Philippe Wagenfuhrer has a positive attitude: “When life hands us a lemon, let’s try to make lemonade.”
There’s no lemonade waiting inside the cheery, well-lit interior, but Philippe is next to a roaring fire, nursing a glass of Bouchard Finlayson’s Blanc de Mer. Well, if lunch won’t be alfresco, at least it won’t be ‘al soggo’.
Philippe turns out to be a first-class talker and lover of wine. His approach to wine is like a woman who buys shoes first and then picks out an outfit to match—he chooses the wine first, and only then looks at the menu. “You can’t influence what’s in the bottle, only what the chef can produce,” he says. “With weather like today when it is very rainy, I want a wine with warmth, so there are dominant Viognier flavours and a little touch of petroleum in this.” There are only 12 South African estates in the temperature- and light-controlled cellar of Roots, as Philippe believes he can’t build up more than 12 relationships at a time (although he does buy every label of each estate).
It’s all about roots today, and Philippe’s roots are firmly in Alsace, on French soil. Although he grew up in French-speaking West Africa, as a child he would visit Strasbourg, where his uncle worked at a restaurant. His uncle, who used to shout out the orders, was a giant of a man enhanced by an enormous chef’s hat and a voice of basso profundo magnificence. From a tiny boy Philippe admired “the mass of passion and caring element”, which this important mentor in his life stood for.
“Passion is what drives people; without it you are incomplete,” he declares. This Gallic approach translates into the restaurant’s food, which has French roots incorporating Asian flavours, and using excellent African seasonal produce. I love the ‘microshoots’, used as a vegetable component. A neighbouring organic farm supplies Roots with tiny, tender leaves and shoots of carrot leaves, rocket, onion shoots and mustard, which set off a mini-explosion of flavours in the mouth.
As I dip my bread into a rough bouillabaisse broth, Philippe expands on his early apprenticeship at L’Arsenal in Strasbourg, followed by catering school for seven years. His itchy feet then took him to Scotland, where he worked for 14 years at Cameron House on Loch Lomond, then Darroch Learg in Aberdeenshire, followed by The Sheridan in Edinburgh.
He met his wife in Scotland while he was working for South African Clive Davidson at Champany Inn. She was a tough cookie, by any standards. “She used the f-word on me the second day and showed she couldn’t be pushed around. And I thought to myself, ‘Finally, a woman who matches me’.”
With his quail we drink a Zorgvliet Pinot Noir, and he tells me about his relationship with many of the Cape winemakers. He’s always first in the queue for a virgin tasting of their wines.
Roots has both a manager and an executive chef. “It’s not just about being a chef or a manager these days, but more of a restaurateur. Eating out is all about the experience, so the restaurant develops all elements of the trade to the maximum, from the supplier to the quality of the food and value of what is offered. I was trained the old-school way, very tough and hard, but I have a soft core and get better results by showing that.”
The hotel has instituted a ‘mood criteria’ training programme, in which staff members have three seconds to identify their arriving patrons’ mood—on a scale from one to ten. No customer is allowed to leave before their mood reads nine.
We talk about how he landed up in the Cradle of Mankind, after working in Antigua and Barbados. After a five-year sojourn in the Caribbean, the Wagenfuhrers decided to settle in South Africa, where Philippe worked at The Michelangelo. This was where he met Hendrik Marais, whose brainchild Forum Homini is. Hendrik turned out to be Philippe’s second most influential mentor, and taught him about business ethics and human behaviour. Within 30 seconds of their meeting there was an immediate connection. Hendrik wanted a restaurant with multiple courses, up to six at a time, which could give patrons a real experience, with time for conviviality and discussion. He called it Forum Homini because it would be a place for humans to meet and discuss and celebrate their origins.
Philippe wants to gives patrons a heightened level of education. “I can do avant garde food, but I want the food that comes out of this kitchen to be more adventurous and epicurean. I need to lead patrons to a place of understanding, which is a natural part of education in France.”
Two things about his new home bug him: African time (I guess he was born too close to the German border), and South Africans’ attachment to Five Roses tea.
As we slip our spoons into crème brûlée, dotted with cranberries and crunchy candied sugar, he talks about some of the other activities which Roots is involved in. Besides whisky and wine tastings, he also makes his own beer from honey. As a reaction against the Five Roses, he has started up tea ceremonies using different infusions, and he handcrafts teas to different personalities.
At this stage my mood gauge stands at about 12, all thoughts of puddles banished. Getting away from 21st century homo horribilis and back to Roots has never been more enjoyable. I can see why Roots has been ranked among the country’s top restaurants, and the accolades are only just beginning.