James Diack owner/head chef of Coobs

August 13, 2013 (Last Updated: June 12, 2023)
Chef James Diack

Embracing the ‘farm to fork’ and ‘nose to tail’ philosophies, Coobs is an exciting addition to Parkhurst’s foodie-filled Fourth Avenue

For years now, Fourth Avenue in Joburg’s Parkhurst has been somewhat segregated. If your restaurant was on the ‘Jolly Roger side’, people knew exactly where you were; if you were further down the road however, you were almost forgotten

The first thing you notice at Coobs is how young the staff is. Chef Patron James Diack, Head Chef Rausharn Griffin are both under the age of 35 – form the team that brings the Coobs team together. The bonus with this is the new energy and fresh ideas that come with it. But it’s James’s philosophy for provenance, seasonality and sustainability that really makes this restaurant one to keep on your radar. He sources the majority of his produce – wild boar, chickens, mielies, pumpkins, cucumbers, string beans, edible flowers and more − from the family farm in the Magaliesberg, Brightside. “We’re the most accidental pig farmers out; my mom bought a pig at an auction for R100 and our farm grew from there,” he confesses.

Working up the culinary ladder, the amount of wastage that James saw every day in the industry “completely gutted” him, which is why, at Coobs, they recycle everything. Their veg offcuts are sent straight to the farm for the pigs and the dregs from the coffee machine go into making a richer compost; they even have ‘happy water’ for the tables, which has been purified and re-mineralised. The focus here is on comfort food at its best; the menu follows the seasons and the specials change almost daily, dictated by the ingredients from the farm.

“We play by God’s rules with regards to the ingredients we’re able to use and, if we don’t think we’re able to do a certain dish, well, then we just don’t do it.” James studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) in Stellenbosch and has been lucky to work for some of South Africa’s most celebrated chefs. The bulk of his management training came from time at a fine-dining catering company and he worked at local Italian eatery, Pomodoro, before the opportunity of owning his own restaurant presented itself.

While the premises were under construction, the industrial chic interior was coming to life and the name of the restaurant being settled on (Coobs is James’s nickname), they slowly increased produce on the farm. “We grew up on that farm; I was a city boy in the week and a farm child on the weekend, wrecking everything in my dirt-biking path.” Thanks to his parents, James was blessed to travel extensively and one of his favourite culinary experiences was a food pilgrimage through Spain. “The first wild boar we cooked for the trial menu at Coobs was terrible, but I thought back to my time in Spain and remembered that the best Iberico ham we tasted came from pigs that roamed around and feasted on acorns. So, we tried it with our pigs and the results have been astounding.” James, who is a big believer in the nose to tail theory, uses as many different cuts of meat as possible and reads everything from the latest food trends to recipe books from the 80s, to improve on his dishes.

“Thomas Keller from The French Laundry, in particular, keeps reiterating that we should respect our ingredients, and he’s absolutely right,” says James, making sure he only uses a few figs from the farm so that the pigs can have them when they fall on the ground. “I don’t think many other chefs can say that they have their own six-hectare garden intertwined with fruit and veg that they can choose from at will. We’re extremely lucky.” And with those fresh-from-the-farm ingredients, James and his team whip up autumn warmers such as leek and roast chicken tortellini in a rustic veg broth. “This is a take on an Italian dish and the microgreens give it a real depth of flavour. It’s light – more like a palate cleanser than a starter – but packed with flavour, and is a great way to start a meal.” For mains, the slow-roasted organic acorn pork loin with quince and potato mash, grilled apples and brandy butter sauce is a classic choice.

“Pork loin is not as fatty as pork belly and the pork flavour is superb with the quince” – an ingredient James thinks doesn’t get utilised nearly enough. “The apples give the dish a little sweetness, while the brandy cream brings the richness that the dish needs.” But it’s the farm-grown rhubarb crumble with homemade vanilla pod ice cream and a honeycomb sprinkle that’s the real triumph, as the honeycomb adds just the right amount of sweetness to perfectly round off the dish. Delicious.

James has other exciting options on his menu: wild boar cannelloni and a cheese plate with cheese flavours that aren’t served in the traditional way – his blue cheese mousse is a prime example. He has also utilised the farm produce to create homemade chutneys and preserves – the perfect accompaniment for dishes on cooler days.

Looking ahead, James would love to brew his own beer to serve with charcuterie at (and straight off) the farm, but for the moment he’s extremely happy. “I’m living my dream, and every day, through the dishes I create, I put my dream out there…” he concludes.

Coobs, corner 4th Avenue and 14th Street, Parkhurst. Call 011-447-0710.

Be sure to check out any of the top Parkhurst restaurants.

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