• Restaurateur, chef and My Kitchen Rules judge David Higgs is a well-known figure in the foodie scene – it comes as no surprise, really! We visited him in his kitchen to catch up on his booming career, precious food memories and more.

    Have you always enjoyed cooking? Where did that passion come from?

    It was through fishing and my dad’s backyard hydroponics (we lived in a desert) that he introduced me to food and cooking without even realising it. The fires on the beach, the frequent braais and the cooking of what we had caught all taught me so much.

    What is your earliest food memory?

    My dad and I were camping at Jakkalsputz, just south of Hentiesbaai. After he helped me clean a fish, we made a fire on the beach and cooked it over the hot coals – with Aromat, believe it or not. And while I don’t remember this, apparently the mayor of Walvis Bay came over to congratulate me and, despite his title, I was by no means willing to share my catch with him.

    It was, and still is, one of the most special days of my life.

    Photo: Marc Shoul

    Tell us about your exciting career in the food industry.

    My career started in 1990 in Cape Town, and since then has seen me run my cooking school, The Higgs School of Good Cooking, and start my own catering company, Extreem Kwizeen. I have also, on a number of occasions, cooked for former President Nelson Mandela. In 2007, together with Jean Engelbrecht, I established a fine-dining restaurant in the old cellar on the historical wine estate, Rust en Vrede, outside Stellenbosch. After four years, I made the move to Johannesburg to join the Radisson Blu Gautrain and later the Saxon Hotel where I established the award-winning fine-dining restaurant, Five Hundred.

    In 2016, I opened Marble alongside my business partner Gary Kyriacou. Here, I get to display my love of more than just meat, but rather all types of ingredients cooked on coals – including fish, poultry, vegetables and breads. Marble is now the leading live-fire restaurant experience in Joburg.

    READ MORE: Marble’s long-awaited journey to Cape Town

    In 2018, we opened our second restaurant, Saint, which has quickly become the go-to pizza and Champagne destination for Sandton’s trendy, up-and-coming business crowd. Zioux opened in November 2021 and is redefining luxury with a break-free space within Joburg’s urban jungle. In March 2022, we opened The Pantry. The Pantry is a revolutionary approach to the South African forecourt convenience store – a hybrid model of a supermarket, deli, take-away and retail store.

    In 2018, I released my first book Mile 8: A Book About Cooking. With over 90 dishes and 150 recipes influenced by the journey of my career, Mile 8 is a culinary adventure bringing together the unique and interesting flavours of Southern Africa.

    Photo: Marc Shoul

    You have done so many amazing things in your career. What stands out as a highlight to you?

    There have been a few. Obviously winning Young Chef of South Africa in 2003 from Chaine de Rottisseurs will always stay with me, as well as being a member of the South African National Culinary Team and representing South Africa at both the Culinary World Cup in Switzerland and the Culinary Olympics in Germany (1997 to 2004).

    Coming from a background of industrial catering, catering and teaching, I only got into fine-dining in 2006/2007 – not that long ago. And, it was about pushing myself and proving to myself that I could do it, and do it well.

    My time at Rust en Vrede, and doing so well there, was a culmination of my career and will be an incredible and memorable part of my journey.

    Lastly, and most recently, taking the step to join my business partner, Gary Kyriacou, at Marble, Saint, Zioux and The Pantry. I’m working on a completely different level – a huge number of people and large volumes of food. Being able to make something your own is really special.

    Photo: Marc Shoul

    Tell us about all of the exciting restaurant ventures that you’ve started and the inspiration behind them.

    The Marble Group has always focussed on delivering experiences to our guests. We have an equal and important focus on food, décor, the bar offering, service and ambiance. Although each of our restaurants differ, each support and complement each other. For each of our establishments, we’ve made an intentional decision to tap into Johannesburg’s energy, as well as remain sensitive to people’s need to get value for what they spend. Nowadays, people are spending their money very carefully, they want the experience, and our restaurants offer an experience.

    Are there any specific cuisines, ingredients or food philosophies that inspire your recipe development?

    My inspirations have changed over the years. I was trained in a French style, and in the 2000s I was inspired by Asian ingredients. I love the freshness and lightness of Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese food. Indian food and the use of spices has always been a love of mine. Currently South American, Mexican and Peruvian flavours are the things I’m looking for.

    Photo: Marc Shoul

    Tell us about your time on My Kitchen Rules and what you love most about it.

    I think one of my favourite things about the show is that I get to work with my friend J’Something. We’ve just completed filming our fourth season together and we really do have a lot of fun together. That teaching element is what I really enjoy – from the feedback on MKR, to the online stuff I do – I’ve even owned a cooking school. I love sharing knowledge.

    Moving over to your home kitchen and dining area, what do you love most about the space?

    I love it because it feels like home. It’s not too clinical or clean or over-thought… It’s a natural space to work in and that’s what I enjoy.

    Are there any tips you could give our readers when it comes to storage/easy cooking?

    Don’t get someone else to design your kitchen. You know what you like to cook, and what you need on hand while you’re cooking. It’s such a personal thing. One piece of advice I would give is to always leave enough tabletop space – don’t have too much clutter. Leave space for plates and laying things out – especially if you like to entertain a lot.

    If there is anything you could change in this space, what would it be?

    I have a beautiful French oven in storage which I can’t use because I’d have to cut into my marble countertops to fit it in – which breaks my heart. So, I’ll have to wait until I redo my kitchen. But I’d love to get that oven in one day.

    Photo: Marc Shoul

    Who is David Higgs outside of the kitchen?

    Balance is important, especially for a Chef when you work long hours on your feet and are often under immense pressure. Time out for me often involves my mountain bike – I live for mountain biking and for a number of reasons: exercise, getting outdoors and meeting people. It clears my mind and is a beautiful way to see a country. I’ve cycled across South Africa and in a number of European countries and there’s nothing quite like discovering places on a bike.

    What is next for you?

    There are a couple of exciting things coming on. Definitely keep a lookout on social media. We’ve just launched The Pantry and have some big plans for that, and one or two other exciting projects.

    Personally, I’m just focussed on looking after myself and making sure I get enough time out – keep riding, keep fit and keep my head strong. As you get older you realise you are not as young as you used to be and you need to look after yourself.

    READ MORE: 5 Minutes with David Higgs

    Your favourite thing to cook/bake?

    I love baking, although I hate weighing stuff out and sticking to a recipe. If I’m making scones or banana bread, I’ll change the recipe every time.

    What ingredient can’t you live without?

    Lemons and limes. They are so versatile and just add life to everything, not only the juice but also the zest.

    If you could host anyone for a meal at home, who would it be?

    My Father – I never had a chance to cook for him. He ignited my passion for cooking, and I would have loved to have had the opportunity to cook for him and have a long conversation about things that I have questions about.

    Your most nostalgic meal?

    Although I have had many incredible meals in Italy, I ate a dish at the Spice Temple in Australia that has always stuck with me. It was a dish of steamed aubergine and spicy pork mince – lots of coriander and garlic that you mix through. I was on my way to the airport to fly back to South Africa and only had a little gap, so I sat in the bar and had one or two dishes. I ordered the aubergine dish three times. It might have been one too many, but it was delicious – the simplicity of it – incredible flavours never to be forgotten.

    Any advice for people looking at pursuing a career in food?

    Be patient, persevere and don’t think you can get to the top straight away. Young chefs battle to prove themselves and they need to stick it out. One needs to be fairly aggressive in their career: fight for positions and don’t worry about upsetting a few people along the way – that’s how it is. This is an incredibly competitive industry, and you have to have a go-getter’s attitude.

    ALSO SEE: Here’s to the winners of the 2022 Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards!

    Here’s to the winners of the 2022 Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards!

    Originally published in our Summer 2022 Food&Home issue.

    Feature image: Marc Shoul