Chef Alexandre Torrao and his AT8Plate capture the essence of the McCain Foodservices Solutions’ “Dishruption Challenge” intrinsically. At the heart of the word “disrupt” is an attitude that favours the bold, innovation and charting your own way against the grain.
The COVID-19 pandemic with its harsh economic effects on the restaurant industry presented an evolutionary opportunity for chef Alex. His biggest challenge was staying above water with venue rental. When opening a traditional restaurant was no longer an option, he followed the Airbnb business model and turned his home into a secret popup restaurant offering an exclusive and personalised dining experience.
Dining happens biweekly every Thursday and Friday night. There is no set menu. That is customised according to what kind of occasion the guests are looking for. The cuisine, however, plays on the experiential and unique with exciting tastes and flavours that borrow from an eclectic range of influences.
Alex is of Portuguese and Dutch descent, but he spent half of his life in Asia, having grown up in Macau, Hong Kong. It is here that he found his affinity to the number eight, which in Asian beliefs is considered to bring good luck, prosperity and longevity. The number 88 philosophically runs through Alex’s business brand. His famous Johannesburg food truck company is called Eighty8s. At AT8Plate, he serves eight courses for a seating of eight.
He is well travelled and picked up a lot of inspiration along the way. “We grew up with influences of rural Portuguese and Dutch at home. But we also indulged in South African food – from Greek, Portuguese and Xhosa cultures – which all influenced my style of cooking. I moved to Macau in 1997 and the place influenced my taste and knowledge of food even more. I also spent a lot of time in Australia, having studied and worked in kitchens there. The love for food and the respect for produce in Australia influenced a lot of what I do. I love and enjoy the creativity in food. A lot of my food is disruptive, funky and cool. And, if we fail, we keep learning. That is what keeps us motivated and excited.”
When the chef established AT8Plate, the idea was to disrupt the industry by showing people that anyone can open up a restaurant with a limited budget. The inspiration was to start thinking outside of the box and to forge a way forward amid the pandemic. Most importantly, it was for Alex to own his business, have his own rules and follow his own beat. His house is a creative, warm and calm space.
“My entire house is designed to resemble a farm and a beach house. We incorporate different styles of cooking in one place – from Asian and fire to the traditional French style of cooking. The moment the guests arrive, they are completely pampered. There’s a wine bar in the house so the guests can choose what they feel like,” Alex explains.
The financial model of AT8Plate is also different and disruptive. When the guests book, they have to pay immediately and commit to their booking. This cancels out the disappointment and money loss that comes with people booking a table and not showing up. The business strategy carries zero risk.
The purpose of the McCain Foodservice Solutions “Dishruption Challenge” was to give independent restaurateurs some much-needed relief from the COVID-induced struggles. The McCain Foodservice team travelled across the country for two weeks to put the contenders’ dishes to the test. In the end, it got down to 10 of the best. The AT8Plate winning dish is the deconstructed salmon pie.
“We wanted to utilise as many products from the McCain range as possible and adapt the product line to fine-dining and what we do. We did a combination of broccoli and pea, carrot and beetroot pureés that created a fusion of flavours with the smoked salmon. It’s a dish that we have prepared at one of our dinners and people loved it,” Alex says.
With the prize, Alex plans to reinvest in his home-based restaurant and continue to disrupt the industry with innovative ideas, while inspiring other food entrepreneurs.