Prestige’s Vivien Natasen interviews internationally-renowned Louis XIII endorsed Chef Wandile Mabaso, founder and owner of Les Creatifs, discussing their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and how they pivoted to remain sustainable.
[00:00:00.570] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
Welcome, everyone. We are with Chef Wandile Mabaso today. It’s an interesting conversation to be had. We’ll firstly discuss a little bit of his story, the concept behind this restaurant, which we are pleasantly surprised with. It’s the first time I’ve been here and we’re going to talk a little bit about where restaurants are going to go in a post covid world. It is the month of August already. So I think a lot of this year’s gone by. And it’ll be an interesting view to get insights from Chef Wandile on his thoughts on what that post-COVID world would be. Welcome Wandile.
[00:00:39.540] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
[00:00:41.820] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
Tell us a little bit about your story.
[00:00:44.490] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Well, it’s a bit of a long story. Stretches probably about 12 years. And so I studied here in Johannesburg for culinary school and also a hotel degree. I managed to train in Europe and Italy for my internship and then also in Florida, Miami and Palm Beach, and then eventually moving to New York City and actually living there for five years where the actual plan was to stay and have experience for about six months. So that period of five years, that’s where I got my training in classical French cuisine and eventually moving up the ranks to be an executive sous chef for the Maison Kayser group, which is a French restaurant group. And then eventually, after five years, I got an opportunity to move to Paris. And that’s where I moved to in 2015. And I just came back from Paris from working for Alain Ducasse in his top restaurants, Le Meurice, and also Plaza Athénée. And I’ve been back since twenty seventeen and now I’ve opened up this restaurant and we are going strong.
[00:01:57.360] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
You mentioned this restaurant. Can you give us a little bit more information about what’s the concept, what feeds it’s thinking, what’s your strategy around it and so on?
[00:02:08.550] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Well, coming up with the concept for this restaurant was quite a bold move because I think I had imagined my first restaurant probably for the last five to 10 years, and just thinking what it would look like, what the concept would be, obviously not understanding what the future would look like, you know. And as the future progressed, I became more artistic with my approach to cuisine and restaurants per se. So the idea was to create an environment where it’s a collaboration of artists, creatives, craftsmen, I mean, some of the best that the country has seen and see what could come out from that space. And that’s exactly what we did with Les Creatifs. So we ended up getting Donald Nxumalo, who did our interior design from an office to what it is now. And we worked with Andile Dyalvane , who’s a ceramic artist as well. We decided to make our own place instead of going for the conventional way of actually buying place. And even our menus are done on canvas from well-known artists as well. And we came up with the idea of literally turning it into a semi art gallery where you can see we have art everywhere and these are local good artists, not commercial. But I feel like they are better than a lot of commercial artists we have and we change the art every month. And obviously everything that we’ve produced here is for sale online through our platforms as well. So we also contribute to the artist by selling their art here. Between August last year ’til today we’ve probably sold close to a million worth of art and we only take 10 percent, so we support local artists.
[00:03:58.080] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
I think that’s an applaudable concept. A lot of what I’ve seen so far from meeting you with the Louis XIII partnership, incidentally, to our audience, Chef Wandile is one of the preferred chefs to work with Louis XIII for the exclusive dinners, and it’s where we were inspired by his story. And obviously the support that Louis XIII gives you. And I see that you’ve been passing that on. It’s a bit of sheer paying it forward to the community that you come from and this country. Going back to cuisine, what I noticed from some of the events we have been at with you is that you’ve obviously got the French inspired, but there’s a lot of South African or African elements brought into your food. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
[00:04:43.440] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Yeah. So, I mean, as we all know, I always say that the chef industry, the cooking industry, it’s first a craft. And then once you get to a point where you can master the craft, it becomes an art. And I think that’s the point or the level that we’ve reached now, so we’ve actually been pushed to be more artistic rather than playing it safe and really putting out a menu that’s tried and tested and going with it, we take risks. We try new things and we try to find ourselves as well through the cuisine that we put out. So therefore, looking at all the places that I’ve lived in and worked in, I picked up a lot of things from everywhere, from Mexicans, from Cuban chefs, from Jamaican chefs, Haitian, Thai, Japanese and obviously French. And me being South African and being born in the township, you know all of the influences, having some family from the KZN and there’s an Indian influence. There’s the Dutch influence. There’s the Cape Malay influence. So it’s all about taking all of those and trying to find yourself through everything that’s in there. So a lot of the approach is very artistic. And I try to use elements of my heritage as well, because I can say that I’m French-trained, but I’m South African and I cannot be cooking French food all the time. And somehow I have to develop our cuisine and try and refine it and I think that’s the journey that we’re in now.
[00:06:12.390] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
OK, that’s very, very well done. Let’s talk about what happened since March this year. Lockdown was a bombshell, obviously, to an extent we were expecting it because of what was happening elsewhere in the world. But from what we are gauging is South Africans didn’t contemplate the seriousness of the virus and what its impact would be. How has it been for you? Obviously, it was a complete lockdown at the start and an evolution since then. And everyone’s trying to find their feet. Give us your thoughts on that.
[00:06:43.690] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Yeah, well, first of all, it’s something that nobody saw coming so none of us could plan for it. Even if we did, we didn’t think it was going to be this bad. But with that being said, you know, the restaurant industry went through a very hard time. The moment it actually happened from my side, I knew that we were going to be facing a challenge that’s going to take quite a while. But it was important to see what happens, you know, see what transpires and also see what’s happening overseas, because a lot of my peers that are owning restaurants in Europe and in America were already telling me what was happening. So we kind of expected it. But the main focus for us was to try and see how everything keeps changing. And from March, I probably just stayed at home for about two or three weeks. And from there I started seeing the direction where everything was going. And that’s when we started making decisions. Completely tested in terms of leadership, ownership, you know, and integrity, because you could have easily just let go of staff. We could have easily let go of a lot of people and literally look out for ourselves and save the business. But however, we had changed our website about five times, so the idea was to try to adapt to every change that is happening, whether it be two weeks, in a week or one month, literally adapt and try to find a niche or some sort of opportunity within the current changes that are happening. And we decided to actually come out of a lockdown very soon when they allowed restaurants to do deliveries. A lot of restaurants didn’t even entertain that. But we did. We came back and we started providing new experiences, trying new things which worked for that particular time. And as we went on, it allowed us to survive and actually get to the point that we are in now where we are doing better than I think a lot of establishments, which some are still not even open.
[00:08:46.720] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
Yeah, I think the inability to serve alcohol was a key decision maker for many restaurants trying to open, but if the dependence on alcohol was greater and the inability to sell it, that might have affected them being able to sustain even opening. But from what we can see from the initial discussions is your dependency is not there on the alcohol part. It’s about the food. And yes, I’m sure the alcohol plays a part, but at some point when that turns on, it’ll modify the experience again. Talk a little bit about the delivery service and how your thinking evolved around that, because we see a lot of restaurants have tried it, some successfully and some not. So maybe what are your differentiators on that?
[00:09:30.640] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Yeah, so it’s quite challenging for us to move into a delivery service where the margins are pretty low and the quality of food is less than what we normally do. And it gets to a point where you can only control the quality to a certain extent, you know, as soon as it leaves the restaurant what the guest or the client does with it, whether they travel with it for another hour, whether to keep it in the fridge and rather eat it later at night, we don’t have control of that. And we found that to be a problem because our selling point, I think, is the quality of the food, the quality of the ingredients and the freshness. So therefore, what we’ve done is we’ve now opted to send our chefs with the food. So even if it’s for two people at a home, you know, anniversary, which have had a lot of anniversary, birthdays or special occasion or just people wanting to have that experience, we would send one of our chefs there who would then literally finish the meal at your home instead of you being in the restaurant. You know, less risks for COVID as well and we would provide you the same experience you’d have in the restaurant and we found that to be quite popular. We’ve had requests for more and more private chefs. We actually started placing private chefs in homes permanently, which we found to be a new business at the moment. So we’re finding literally opportunities everywhere we turn. We just have to look for them and see where you can find them. So our delivery service and also doing virtual dinners, which we’ve done for Louis XIII as well at a smaller scale, we’ve done it at a bigger scale where we had about 60 guests and we dispatched food at the same time, about 15 drivers to different homes. Our longest destination being Cape Town, believe it or not, Constantia where we had to courier the food the day before, cooked on ice, in vacuum bags and have a chef finish it there and literally deliver at the same time as the clients in Joburg would receive it. And after that, I would set up a Zoom in the kitchen, as you see behind me, and I’d give them the experience as if they were sitting here and take them through the food, show them the restaurant and just take them through the journey. And we found that to be very effective as well.
[00:11:48.380] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
In fact, that’s amazing, to manage 60 using logistics like that would be quite difficult, I’m sure. Where to from here Wandile?
[00:12:01.560] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Wow, so we naturally were very optimistic, I think for us, we are past the COVID situation. I mean, it’s happened and it’s still happening actually, and it can only get worse. You know, it’s bad already. It can only get worse from here. And hopefully in about two months time, it starts getting better. But I think we’ve adapted and we are past that shock of COVID. And what we are trying to do now is rebuild and literally stay ahead of everyone else. And so that’s the motto for the way forward. I mean, stay ahead of everyone else. Keep your head on the ground, find the opportunities. And most of all, I think we are going to grow our team, our brand into, more restaurants, more restaurants within hotels and other tourism industries, which I think would be another opportunity coming off the post-COVID.
[00:12:58.650] – Vivien Natasen – Prestige
That’s correct. Yes. So thank you very much for your time. We are obviously looking forward to doing much more with you. Thank you for hosting us. And it’s already been amazing to learn of your story and how you’ve managed to adapt to this world. It is a strange world. And you’re right. It’s a case of being agile and adapting to circumstances as opposed to having a clear vision that you can know because you can’t control that right now. Thanks again, Wandile.
[00:13:24.700] – Chef Wandile Mabaso
Thank you so much for this.