• Theatre of Dreams’ Richard Griffin shows you how culinary magic happens in the circus tent he’s just brought to Johannesburg from Cape Town.

    By Hilary Prendini Toffoli

    Chopping beetroot in the kitchen behind his highly successful dinner theatre tent, the Theatre of Dreams, Richard Griffin has the impish air of one of those cute gypsy waifs who run off with your purse at Rome’s central station. Yet he’s a fully fledged professional restaurateur with a degree from the Cordon Bleu Institute in London who, at the age of 33, has almost two decades of cooking experience in kitchens from Cairo to Sydney, and more restaurant suss in his five-foot-frame than many of his older colleagues.

    The book he could write about his cheffing experiences would make Kitchen Confidential’s outrageous revelations look like a kindergarten picnic. “I was my parents’ nightmare,” he says with a cheeky glint in his eye. “I was 13 when I worked in my first restaurant, Groot Constantia’s Jonkershuis, which belonged to my friend’s parents, and I was 17 when I went overseas. That’s how it all started…” But those years in the kitchens of Mount Grace, Le Vendôme, Fellini’s, Garlicks restaurant department – and a whole bunch of forgettable knock shops – certainly weren’t wasted.

    He came out of it all with the conviction that great food is only part of the package. “A restaurant is about emotion. People want to feel cared for, entertained and visually stimulated. So you surround them with warm colours and textures, gentle candlelight and all sorts of intriguing and beautiful things to amuse them when the conversation flags.” The formula works.

    Before his Loop Street restaurant Madame Zingara burnt down last September, it was one of Cape Town’s most consistently popular eating-out venues – an Arabian Nights set-up with belly dancers and magicians that were as exotic as the menu. It was a runaway success from day one. Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams, which opened seven months later, was the same story.

    Only this time it also included circus acts, and it was Richard’s grandest stage to date – a majestic red-velvet-and-stainedglass circus tent with a wooden floor, made in Belgium 80 years ago and erected on the foreshore. Now this unique travelling tent with its dining-and-performance cast of about 80 has relocated to Gauteng for a 14-week stay kicking off on August 24. After Gauteng it returns to Cape Town for the season then goes to London, Edinburgh and Dublin. There are 17 of these travelling dinnertheatre tents, all the property of the Klessens family in Belgium, who’ve earmarked 58 world sites.

    Madame Zingara sees a global tour in her crystal ball. Richard’s culinary philosophy is simple. “We do goodness rather than gourmet,” he says, wiping his hands on his damask-print apron. It’s what I’d call comfort food with a gourmet tweak, judging by what was on offer at the Theatre of Dreams the night I was there. The four choices for the main course – it’s a set menu – were so appealing it was difficult to decide which to opt for.

    Madame Zingara’s famous chocolate-chilli fillet steak – “dark unsweetened Belgian cocoa infused with 28 ingredients” – with black mushrooms, rocket and crispy vermicelli. Norwegian salmon in a sesame seed crust on a sweet potato mash, with soy reduction and lemon aïoli. A layered fourcheese- and-vegetable polenta tian. Springbok shanks in red wine, served on potato mash with gremolata (a sort of salsa verde with lemon peel).

    Spoilt for choice. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” is how Richard puts it. “We certainly aren’t going to try to do El Bulli for 374 people. We get people here ranging in ages and tastes, and we have to give them food they recognise. Meat is still important for a large proportion of them, although the South African palate is becoming more vegetarian and diet-conscious every day.” So the starters and soups are always vegetarian, like the aubergine involtini, with its delicious cheesy, nutty, tomatoey filling. Ostrich too is a famously lean, healthy meat. “It’s a fantastic little bird – easy, ages nicely, and you don’t have the toughness issue. I find ostrich very consistent. “And of course the beetroot preserve with a hint of chilli gives the ostrich a nice kick. The beetroot is the important part here. This is one of Janet Telian’s old recipes from Savoy Cabbage.

    She’s now sitting in the Karoo with nothing to do but preserve beetroot. But we have to make our own, and it’s as simple as pie. “The dessert is Spanish. You see them having it in cafés all over Spain. It’s a yummy thick chocolate that we’ve given an East African flavour with cardamom and cinnamon. For the churros, which the Spanish make in huge vats of boiling oil, we’ve substituted chocolate-tipped wafers that you dip. The most divine little mouthfuls of chocolate in the world.”

    By Sean Calitz