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Top chef aims to succeed where Gordon Ramsay failed

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
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A chef at heart
  • Culinary sensation Reuben Riffel is one of South Africa's best-loved chefs
  • His new venture is at Cape Town hotel where Gordon Ramsay's restaurant recently closed
  • Riffel: "I'm not a celebrity, first of all I'm a chef"
  • Says he wants his culinary creations to appear natural and not over-contrived

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Reuben Riffel, one of South Africa's best-loved chefs.

(CNN) -- Whether he's dipping into sensational flavors or blending an array of ingredients, South African chef Reuben Riffel is creating mouthwatering tastes that appeal to the pickiest of palates.

The award-winning chef is one of Africa's few culinary stars, praised for his passion for food and his tantalizing textures.

A champion of fresh local produce, Riffel has become a household name in South Africa. He runs three restaurants and has endorsed a number of products, including a glassware line and a range of herbs and spices.

His latest venture has seen him setting up a restaurant at the luxury One & Only Hotel in Cape Town, where British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay failed after his restaurant at the same site shut after only 15 months.

Riffel acknowledges the challenge but is confident that a focus on South African cuisine, combined with the help of his associates, will make the restaurant a success.

"I think it will succeed," he says. "First of all, it's all about the people and I think I've got the right people."

When Riffel is not creating edible sensations for the scores of people visiting his restaurants, he can often be seen showcasing his culinary skills on local TV shows.

Becoming a household name
Thinking globally, acting locally

And recently, he's begun spreading his country's flavors globally, promoting South African cuisine to TV audiences across the world.

All this success has propelled the talented chef into celebrity status.

Yet, Riffel says he's not interested in being labeled a celebrity. Instead, he wants his reputation to be based simply on his food.

"I'm not a celebrity, first of all I'm a chef, that's my profession," he says.

"I built my reputation as a chef -- I started from nothing, I worked really hard to sort of get to where I am and to be labeled then as a celebrity chef, I almost feel like it's because now I'm on TV and I don't want to see it like that," Riffel adds.

The dishes carried out of his kitchen are innovative and exciting but have an unpretentious feel about them, reflecting Riffel's love for simple, but tasty food.

I'm not a celebrity, first of all I'm a chef, that's my profession.
--Reuben Riffel

He says he's not among the chefs who consider themselves as artists. Instead, he says, he wants his culinary creations to appear natural and not over-contrived.

"It's nice to look at something on a plate and it's pretty and everything, but I think it looks even better and it makes you more want to sort of dig in when it looks naturally beautiful,'" Riffel says.

The softly spoken chef grew up in the Franschhoek Valley, outside of Cape Town. His first restaurant experience came after high school when he took a job as a waiter at a local eatery where his mother used to help out at.

As Riffel tells it, he was "the worst waiter you can imagine," so he soon found himself working in the kitchen.

Under the guidance of more experienced chefs, Riffel's culinary skills started to improve, and his unique flair and natural talent quickly emerged.

"It was a good restaurant, people enjoyed it and we always had loads of compliments," Riffel says.

"It was a challenge but I really enjoyed that and I think that's where I learned most -- not the recipes, it's more your approach to what to do. I think it's more that than knowing a lot of good recipes."

Riffel has since become one of South Africa's culinary sensations, gathering rave reviews for his tasteful creations.

He's one of the country's best-loved chefs and an instantly recognizable face. His growing success has brought along more responsibilities that have pushed him beyond his comfort zone -- the kitchen -- and into the realm of business.

Riffel says he wants to be successful but he can't afford to be a greedy businessman as he wants the people he's working with to benefit as much as he does.

"Otherwise, if I walk in every day and I look at my staff and I see guys who are really not happy to be there, then I actually don't want that, that's not how I want to do it," Riffel says.

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.