After opening in 2003, the Saxon quickly established itself as Africa’s most exclusive address. It regularly won awards for its rooms, service and sommeliers, but its food – in spite of being very good – wasn’t geared for winning competitions. This all changed in 2012, when David Higgs was brought on board as Executive Chef.
“We wanted our food and our restaurants to be as talked-about as our wines and sommeliers,” explains operations manager Sybrandt Windell, “And we knew David was the man for the job.”
Higgs immediately saw what needed to change. “If you include banquets and special events, the hotel was serving as many as 19 different menus from one single kitchen. It’s hard to produce exceptional food in conditions like that,” he says.
Higgs earmarked what was at the time the owner’s suite as the ideal location for a fine dining restaurant – and the owner did not object to making the changes. What used to be the bathroom was transformed into a kitchen, and the bedroom was turned into an intimate dining area. And so the signature restaurant Five Hundred was born.
“We would never have won all those awards if we’d stuck with a central kitchen,” agrees Windell, “Five Hundred is only open five nights a week and it caters for a maximum of 35 guests in an evening. It’s got a two-month waiting list. It’s not your average hotel restaurant.”
The Saxon’s recent culinary triumphs have certainly made Public Relations Manager Candice Turner’s job a lot easier. “The culinary journey at our hotel is a large part ofour marketing and PR campaigns, and we have seen a great influx of ‘foodie’ travellers from all areas of the globe, all seeking out the opportunity to not only experience the finer points of our hospitality, but to embark on a truly unique culinary journey with David and his team. Guests from as far afield as Japan have travelled here to dine at Five Hundred and to meet David.”
The immense popularity of Five Hundred does bring its own challenges, the most obvious being the long waiting list for reservations. Hotel guests are encouraged to make their restaurant bookings at the same time as their room reservations, although one or two tables are usually kept aside for ‘emergencies’. “We try to make sure that all of our hotel guests get a chance to dine at Five Hundred, without
putting too much pressure on them, of course. Our menu is very experiential and avant-garde, and we do appreciate that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” Higgs says.
Restaurants like Five Hundred are fantastic for creating hype and enhancing a hotel’s reputation, but every hotel also needs a larger, more mainstream restaurant. To this end Higgs motivated hotel management to rename the main restaurant Qunu (after Mandela’s birthplace) and to make its décor and ambience more casual. Its kitchen was equipped to produce excellent grilled meats – ever-popular in Johannesburg.
Higgs also made a concerted effort to bring ‘restaurant thinking’ to the entire F&B operation. “In traditional hotels menus are printed in advance and if something’s not selling it can take six months to change the menu.” The Saxon’s menus are now printed in house, and they can be changed on the day if something’s not selling or some produce isn’t available.
Higgs is a firm believer that the success of any restaurant can be put down to a large, loyal base of regular clients. Embracing the residents of Johannesburg has reaped rewards; Higgs estimates that about two-thirds of the patrons in both Five Hundred and Qunu are not guests at the hotel.
Interestingly, Higgs also emphasises the importance of knowing when not to make changes. “The Saxon has always employed exceptional sommeliers who know their wines as well as they know their regular guests, so I left the beverage offering virtually unchanged.” The conference and banqueting options were already renowned for their flexibility — “Anything is possible at the Saxon,” observes Windell. Now, the addition of world-class cuisine to the hotel repertoire has seen more and more companies move their year-end functions to the Saxon.
Johannesburg is the capital of South Africa, but for a long time it has lagged behind Cape Town when it comes to fine dining. Higgs, a passionate newcomer to the city, is committed to changing this. The Saxon has set itself a clear goal of making the San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list, and only a fool would bet against them achieving this.