Rust en Vrede: winner of 2012 Service Excellence Award

Good service is hard to find, and even harder to pin down on paper. What is it exactly? A combination of subtlety, consideration and skill? Diners need to feel pampered and looked after, yet comfortable. Waiters need to be professional, but warm. And each diner has their own expectations, and it’s up to the restaurant to match – and exceed – those, while keeping true to its own sensibilities.

Rust en Vrede, winner of the Service Excellence Award at the 2012 Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards, and number 5 in SA’s Top 10 restaurants, has got it right. But, as chef John Shuttleworth, his wife and maître d’ of the restaurant, Andrea Shuttleworth, and sommelier Joakim Hansi Blackadder will tell you, it’s all about balance – and a delicate one at that.

Create an experience

“My main goal when guests come for dinner is to create an overall dining experience,” says John. “I want guests to have the best this country has to offer, as well a few treats and luxuries from further afield.”

In order to achieve this, everyone involved needs to understand the product, says Andrea. “You have to know and take pride in the experience you want to create, in order for your customer to believe in it.”

Believe is an interesting choice of word. It implies conviction, confidence and passion, which are, naturally, trademarks of excellence in any field.

The experience at Rust en Vrede begins the moment the glass doors open and you step inside. Comfortable upholstered chairs and old farm-style brick walls strike a balance with the elegant table settings.

“Our crockery is handmade by the brilliant David Walters in Franschhoek and the stemware is handcrafted Riedel from Austria, with specially shaped glasses for different wine varietals. This makes the wine service interesting and interactive,” explains Andrea.

Sommelier Joakim Hansi Blackadder is at the helm of the wine cellar. He was at The Roundhouse at the time of their service award win in 2011, and found himself at Rust en Vrede when their name was called for the same award in 2012. A coincidence?

“It is not a coincidence, but (unfortunately for the ego) it is more related to my own attraction to restaurants that appreciate a more developed service!” Joakim wryly observes. He says weekly meetings offer a platform for all the creative people involved to voice their ideas, in an effort to streamline what they already do.

Everything about the environment – tableware, décor and staff – should give the guest a sense of absolute comfort. But, as Andrea says, it’s more than just sitting in a comfortable chair. “It’s atmosphere, i.e. music, lighting and temperature; and feeling comfortable with the staff, enough to discuss wines with the sommelier or ask questions about the food. The list goes on!” she says.


But this calm contentment for a guest can only be achieved through consistency. “Rust en Vrede is constantly refreshing and retraining on all kinds of service elements to avoid becoming complacent. No details are too small or insignificant.”

This is evident in considerate touches like a folded napkin held by the waiter to prevent any escaping sparkles in the water, an offer to take your coat, or your chair being pushed in as you sit down.

Those unaccustomed to this level of attention may find it a bit overwhelming, but it’s in line with what Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards judge Abigail Donnelly said of their service, “Extremely knowledgeable and genuine service takes the centre stage, where performance shines. Approachable staff offer you everything before you even realise that you need it.”

Andrea agrees, “Our goal is trying to anticipate what our guests may need next and avoid them having to ask for anything. But every customer is different and has different expectations. You need to read your customer as best you can.”

Training is therefore important. There are no specific criteria as such: Rust en Vrede employs both permanent and part-time waiters, some of whom are students.

“But personality, confidence and approachability are definitely things we look for when recruiting – not necessarily experience. We do quite intensive training one-on-one with myself and Joakim, as well as their other senior colleagues, like Jo, who has been with the restaurant since forever!”

Is there room for flair and novelty alongside constancy? Chef John thinks so. Every mouthful of his food presents questions, textures and sensations. The combinations of elements – freshwater marron with fragrant coconut curry and succotash of corn and peppers, and springbok loin with slightly bitter berries and chocolate and earthy beetroot – are unusual and thoroughly engaging.

Filling big shoes

Was it daunting for John to step into David Higgs’s shoes (he left the year after Rust en Vrede won all three of the big Eat Out restaurant awards: Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year and Service Excellence in 2010)?

“It was always going to be a big challenge, but it was a great challenge at that,” admits John. “I was extremely proud and humbled to have been offered the opportunity! I suppose a big concern was the effect it would have on regulars, but they took the changes very well.”

John now believes the team has found its stride. “I have a great team both in the kitchen and front of house and we just continue to try improve on all the elements that we offer.”

It would be easy to simply choose one aspect, like the service – or indeed the food or wine – as a defining characteristic of Rust en Vrede and the reason for its success. But John, Andrea and Joakim all agree that what makes the restaurant great is the fiercely proud and dedicated team that works to bring it all together.

By Linda Scarborough

Watch a video about the 2012 Restaurant of the Year, The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts, and read more about 2012 Chef of the Year, Margot Janse. See the full Top 10 Restaurants in SA.

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