I walk into Coobs and immediately spot Chef James Diack. I’m a little starstruck by the man who is leading the farm to table movement in South Africa. It takes me a few moments to gather myself. Our coffee arrives and we sit down to chat food. I furiously scribble notes but get distracted by the presence of this admirable chef.
Farm to table is a movement that is gaining in popularity and one man who is passionate about this is Chef James Diack. And when you talk to him about food, you can feel his passion and you can’t help but be caught up in his enthusiasm for the entire food process.
Coobs and The National, two of James’ restaurants in Johannesburg, are proud to be able to trace the source of the ingredients used in the kitchen. The farm where James grew up on, out in Magaliesberg, supplies 80% of the ingredients for the restaurants. James and his chefs plan the menu around the availability of produce. James also includes the chefs in his kitchen and the style of the dishes carries their influence.
Sitting down and listening to James talk you can’t help but be caught up in his enthusiasm for the process, the people and the industry. James is about more than just creating an authentic dining experience, he is about sustainable produce and building young chefs.
Sachin Gosai, a contestant on Top Chef SA, worked closely with James at Coobs for many years and now he is the Head Chef at The National. The growth and development of his team is important to James and that is why he he has looked internally for his latest venture The Federal in Melville.
As diners become more aware of the story of the food on their plate, it’s important that restaurants use ethically sourced food and lessen the wastage. This remains a key of chef owned restaurants – responsible management of the ingredients. James is outspoken about nose-to-tail cooking as well educating young chefs and diners about the practice.
Coobs will remain the flagship restaurant, offering patrons an authentic, classic dining experience. The restaurant has built up a loyal following not only from residents in the neighbourhood but from foodies who enjoy good meal at a restaurant where the staff are professional and who get to know their regulars.
The National takes a more laid back approach. The meat supplied by the farm has been smoked, celebrating the lesser known cuts of meat and giving diners a new taste experience.
The Federal will be a combination of a diner, a deli and bar. Situated in a spot that James has been eyeing for a while, there is a lot of excitement among foodies for this new dining experience. The Coobs kitchen will prepare many of the items to be served at The Federal, purely for logistical reasons. This will be where James has more fun with his food, keeping the menu unpretentious and relaxed.
The interview ends as James has another meeting to get to. I feel like a tornado has just passed. I am on a high, caught up in his energy, passion and enthusiasm. For a brief moment I want to ask him for a job, eager to learn from him and to be in his kitchen.
Part of the interview includes a lunch at Coobs. I try hard to study the menu but I cannot absorb the descriptions. Each dish sounds as intriguing as the next. I am torn. Eager to try something new, I also want to try something that celebrates James’ ethos. Thankfully the rest of the table agree to order different items so we can sample them all.
As each dish arrives, everyone “oohs” and “aaaahs”, as you do when each plate looks beautiful and delicious. The food has been prepared perfectly. But what blows me away is the flavour. The intensity of the supporting characters is as strong as that of the main ingredient. You know exactly what you’re eating. You also know that the person who planned and prepared the meals know not only what you’re eating but where it came from.
I leave Coobs, moved. Not only by the food, but by the person behind it.
The lunch at Coobs was sponsored following our request to interview Chef James Diack. Images are credited where applicable unless they are our own.