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Hidden gem

Found: South Africa's first "underground" restaurant.

by: Kerry Gibbs: Food24 | 15 Jul 2009

What began as an almost anarchic foodie idea has grown in popularity over the last couple of decades.

The concept was started by foodies who love to entertain and express this love in hidden, home based restaurants.

Diners have to work hard to find them and, sometimes, even harder to crack the nod for entrance.

This is for those who are bored of mainstream, overcrowded restaurants and are interested in an alternative, more intimate dining scene. An underground restaurant should be on your list... if you can find one.

Luckily for you, Food24 has found South Africa’s first underground restaurant (that we know of), the delightful Red Tomato @ Home. Based in Pretoria and started by the food loving Renette Vosloo, this little gem has gained much acclaim amongst the residents of Waterkloof. We chatted to the restaurateur about the business, its history and of course, the food.

Q: What is the basic concept of your restaurant Red Tomato?
A: Home Bistro

Q: When did you first hear of the concept of “underground dining”?
A: To be honest, NEVER! I just always wanted a home bistro and remembered a similar “restaurant” in the ‘80’s in Pretoria, called Chez Henriette, when Chef Henriette Ackerman opened her house to private diners. The concept kept nagging at me for years. I tried it in my house in Middelburg, Mpumalanga in the '90s, with a friend. We did themed dinners plus-minus every 4 weeks, invited townsfolk and cooked our hearts out. It proved to be an excellent learning curve!

I think the idea of a “house restaurant” is very European and it's quite natural for a chef, or family even, to make a simple living like that.

Q: How long has Red Tomato been in operation?
A: The “Red Tomato” started out as “The Red Tomato, Jan Harmsgat se Bistro” in Cullinan in 2004, but after a terrible set-back concerning business rights, we were forced to close down. I went out alone and re-opened in 2007 in a much smaller venue also in Pretoria, but after a year it proved not to be the right spot, so I moved it into my home. It seemed so natural and here we are almost two years on!

Q: How did you begin to advertise your restaurant, did you start with a group of friends and family, and then move on from there?
A: I had a data base of almost 300 previous guests, built up since the Cullinan days and sent out regular sms’s.

Q: Did you have any worries at first about opening your home to strangers?
A: The only worry was the question of business rights. But once I ascertained the fact that a person is allowed to run a small home-based business, (within certain rules) it was fine. The “strangers”, I found, very quickly become friends, almost always within the first few steps inside. Really! The sort of person pursuing this kind of thing truly is quite open and amiable.

Q: Have you had any training? What is your cooking background?
A: I planned and cooked a gourmet dinner for my mother’s birthday when I was 11 years old, cooked a perfect duck with oranges, because I couldn’t resist trying it out when I found the recipe and photo in a cookery book my mother had bought (in 1976) called “Kook met Vertroue”.

It was always a passion of both mine and my husband’s to own a restaurant. We got the chance in 1990, when we bought the restaurant facility at the Country Club in Middelburg. We obtained the services of a young chef fresh from the hotel school and I really learnt a lot from him. As for cooking, I loved to teach myself the French Classics from excellent French cook books. I know most of them.

Q: What dishes do you offer; do you have a basic menu or cook what you feel like on the day?
A: I have a basic menu with regards to structure ie, 6 starters, 6 main meals, 3-4 desserts and I try to have a balance between fish, red meat, poultry and game. There are a few favourites which remain as fixtures on the menu, like my snails in phyllo pastry, duck, lamb kidneys and pepper steak (Rib eye). Most days I make changes to the menu, according to special finds (shitake mushrooms/porcini; fresh fish; marrow bones...things like that.) I also try to match the menu with the season, so in winter one of the six options will definitely be a kind of stew like oxtail. Cassoulet, Osso Bucco etc.

Q: What is your approach when it comes to cooking food?
A: I like a la minute cooking; least possible pre-cooking. From order to plating should be 20 minutes max. I love to sear instead of grilling or frying (my deep fryer has been stacked in the garage for 2 years). I don’t buy bulk and the same goes for cooking.

Q: What are your favourite ingredients to use?
A: Butter, Ina Paarman’s Rosemary & Olive Sea salt, sherry, white wine, garlic, cream, dark chocolate.

Q: How many guests can you cater for at one time?
A: 30-40 for a closed party and 24 a la Carte.

Q: Do think this concept will become popular in South Africa, and why?
A: Well, for the first time in the 20 years that I have cooked “commercially” this is the first time that I am working at a positive; and not basically just to pay the landlord and a ridiculously large team of staff. Furthermore, I can really cook for my guests myself! People LOVE the “bring your own wine” policy. I don’t have to worry about stock control, selection etc. I sell food and that’s all.

Q: Do you have any regular customers?
A: Yes, absolutely, but not weekly or even monthly; people tend to see Red Tomato as a place to celebrate special occasions. On any given evening, there would be at least one birthday or anniversary of some sort in the house.

Know of any hidden gems, or do you have your own underground restaurant? Let us know.

- None


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