Savouring excellence: Karen Dudley reflects on the 2023 Eat Out judging season

Delve into the unique perspective of an Eat Out judge, where the act of evaluating SA’s finest restaurants becomes a disciplined practice. Karen Dudley shares the art of fostering memorable dining experiences and the profound impact of restaurants on community-building and South Africa’s dining culture.


I take a very earnest approach when I am a judge for the Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards. I become part athlete, part monk. How to maintain the right level of objectivity and openness? How to champion beautiful work, to trust in one’s own experience and understanding? How to stay hungry-curious too?

As a judge I receive a substantial list of some of South Africa’s finest restaurants to visit. This takes a degree of planning: making reservations and planning my work and family life around my absence. At the table, I usually scribble notes in my little book. I take pictures (too many elements to remember!) and I will usually nick a menu (with permission) when I leave. I return to my desk and fill in the rigorous online rating tool quite fastidiously, rating the menu, taste, presentation, ambience, wine and pairings, service, value, and whether the restaurant’s offering has matched its promise. This takes a while.

During the judging season I try to follow a bit of a regime: intermittent fasting (great preparation before a meal). I take a liver tonic pill, vitamin B and, by my chief judge’s recommendation, a good probiotic. I try to do my regular walks on the mountain and in the forest every day that I can.

I get excited to visit each restaurant. At best, I will be inspired and thrilled by a dining experience. I might even get to experience the touch of the chef on the plates they are offering. I might experience a new technique, a new ingredient, a new flavour, build or contrast, a new texture! At worst, I’ll get a renewed understanding of what we expect as diners, what standards need to be built or grown in terms of technique and overall offering. I bring openness and a generous spirit to each visit. And I bring a dining partner. This year I have dined with my esteemed fellow judges (Abigail, Herman, Joseph, Mokgadi and Marisa) and with my favourite partner, my sweetheart, David.

Here are some of the more subtle things I am looking to see when I judge a restaurant:

Command and confidence
This usually comes with maturity and experience, but not always. This is where you can see that something intentional has transcended technique to create trust.

A good chef might have great ideas. But these need to be tested and tried, and demand the work and the belief of the entire team. A great chef can communicate their intentions and watch with humility and gentleness, and the team interpret and execute the shared idea.

Soulfulness, character, intimacy, surprise!
Sometimes, I find, there can be perfect execution and deliberate presentation but that dish can miss the “something” that makes it connect with you. This something is often the deep deliciousness that makes your spirit say, “Yes!” It is the “something” that can touch you with joy (even a giggle as you recognise cleverness) or the something that moves you profoundly.

Attentiveness and care in service
When my napkin has been picked up for the umpteenth time and when you are just given an extra minute of rest or when you are welcomed in the hydrangeas by waiting servers. I love it when a server or a sommelier knows their stuff and can communicate with clearness and confidence. The serving team do create the overall feeling that the experience is couched in.

Memorable elements
Identifying the lingering memory of the dining experience is quite important, I think, because one of my biggest concerns, in the bigger picture of dining in South Africa, is how restaurants gather communities around them. Will diners return? Will they offer a degree of fealty to an establishment? Will tourists tell their friends to visit? Will locals bring their friends again and again? This is how we can grow the dining economy and, I suppose, the real reason for the awards, to grow acknowledgement and a drive to excellence in our unique dining culture in South Africa.

I am filled with deep gratitude for every moment and learning.

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