* This article originally appeared here on EatOut.co.za
From her kitchen at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, chef Candice Philip has humbly, yet confidently, been carving out her culinary journey. Sitting in the quiet surrounds of the Johannesburg upscale hotel, I was waiting to meet her. I would spend some time with Candice in the afternoon, and later dine at Grei, which she has been at the helm of since its opening in April 2018.
In November Candice was the recipient of the Eat Out Mercedes Benz Rising Star award. Proudly sponsored by Nederburg, it recognises someone who has a notably emerging presence in the industry. I’d watched her receive the award on the evening, and now three weeks later I would be dining in her kitchen. In our two hours together we began with a tour of her garden – where she seems much more at home than being in the limelight of late – and then an interview in Grei.
In a world where the culinary chiefs often have rather expressive personalities, Candice brings a breath of fresh air with her calming demeanour. Make no mistake though, this doesn’t belittle any of the determination needed to run the show. Although she admits to being shy, there is no doubt that she’s the commander of her kitchen.
Grei is an elegant and unintimidating space set on the second story of the Saxon. Subtle grey shades complement the sophisticated surrounds of the hotel, without detracting from its beauty. From here luscious garden views give way to sunset, in the intimate setting of the 32-seater eatery. The dining experience is a refined journey through creative taste profiles, matched with faultless service. Devoid of any excessive theatrics, the food is given the chance to breathe and speak for itself… and speak it does.
Tell us a little about your journey?
In school, the initial plan was to become an interior designer. At some point I met our neighbour, who was none other than chef Manfred Reinhart, who was looking for an apprentice. I’d never thought of cheffing so he offered me a trial to join him at the kitchen. It was a chance to see what it was all about before starting interior design. The month finished and he sent me off to decide what I wanted to do. I really enjoyed it and decided to give it a go, starting the 4-year apprenticeship through Gallagher Estate and a HTA Culinary School. After a short break I started at the Saxon as a junior, worked my way up, and now I have my own restaurant.
What were some of the highlights on the journey?
The competitions have definitely been a stretch – and never something I thought I’d do. It was actually chef Rudi Liebenberg the pushed me to enter. I’ve now done many of them, and was also invited to the SA National Culinary Team and landed up being part of the 2008 Olympic team. I represented Africa & Middle East at the Global Chef’s Challenge. Working with both chef David and Luke has also been quite an experience.
What was it like working for David Higgs?
It was great! As he was coming from Cape Town, we didn’t really know much about him, and he came in making some important changes including opening the restaurant Five Hundred. This was the first time we had been introduced to Eat Out and such a fine dining context, and coming second in the first year of operation was a whirlwind and eye-opener.
What’s it like working for Luke Dale-Roberts?
Five Hundred then changed to Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon, and not being based in Joburg, we didn’t work with him as much as we did with Chef David. When he was here it was a totally different style and viewpoint on cuisine that what we’d been exposed to before, so a different and new learning curve.
Tell us about the build-up to the launch of Grei?
After closing LDR X we were based in the on-site Villas while we worked out the menus – and the design of the new space. We were actually very calm the whole way through – although you always feel a little anxiety as to how people will receive the restaurant in what was previously a well-known space. Open evening was quite something. My nerves were fine until 5pm… we were changing the décor, style of service, and many of the front of house team, so even though we were ready in the kitchen, the end product depending on everything working together. It was a little hairy, but we got through it, and it was plain sailing from the second day. The year has flown by – I honestly can’t believe that we’ve been open for 8 months already. It’s been so well received and I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better reception.
Only 8 months in and you’ve been nominated for several prestigious awards…
We were only five months old when we got the nomination for the World’s Leading Fine Dining Hotel Restaurant2018 by the World Travel Awards. It seems so strange that people overseas would know about our tiny little restaurant and would nominate us. Most recently, the Rising Chef Award at the Eat Out Awards – it was so unexpected as I’m sure you noticed!
I went to Eat Out to support everyone else – I wasn’t expecting anything really. They called my name, and I was fine walking up… but I’m not one for doing speeches and dealing with crowds, so I got up there and was told I needed to say something. It was very overwhelming. You get up there and look at over 700 people staring at you and you’re like ‘how did this just happen?’ I think I managed a ‘Thank you’.
Your garden plays a big role in your cooking…
In 2012 we brought in Sought After Seedlings, who we sit with each season to work out what to plant – including some rather unique herbs. We’ve got sculpit, malva, rose geranium, lovage (similar to celery), spekboom and more. We wanted to go for a different take on cuisine. I love trying things that are unusual.
What advice would you give to up and coming female chefs?
There is space and room for you in the industry. Don’t enter the industry worried about gender – at the end of the day you are showcasing what you can do, your vision, and if you can put that on the plate and people recognise it that’s all that you really need. As long as you’re doing what you’re doing, and don’t feel like you’re the lesser sex.
What’s the legacy you want to leave for other rising stars that follow you?
Don’t be afraid to be different – to showcase what you really believe in and want people to see. There are so many people who are doing what people expect. Be that person who has a crazy wild vision about what you wanting to do and just do it – and it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
Your favourite spot for a coffee? Bean There at 44 Stanley
Where do you go to let off steam? Harties & Magaliesburg
Favourite place for pizza in Joburg? Coalition
Burgers? BGR in Rosebank
Tapas? Saigon Suzy