Written by Kevin Page

Conceptualising a new restaurant is both a personal and a collaborative process but certainly not a committee decision. Someone has to be the decision maker and that someone, particularly if the restaurant is corporately owned, has to believe in the concept and be brave, or have unconditional colleague support.

The Grill Jichana was born of a requirement at the newly re-branded Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani Hotel complex in Durban to introduce a more holistic and varied food and beverage offering. The combined hotel complex, which is now under one management for the first time in the company history, needed to raise the bar and become more inclusive in holding particularly the business traveller on complex. After all, why spend precious marketing money enticing a guest to stay with you only to find that an off-complex restaurant benefits from the guest’s dinner spend.

The missing restaurant component in the complex restaurant mix was a good grill offering, short menu, best ingredients, in a convivial typical grill atmosphere where the undertaking is less than 20 minutes from order to service.

The space for the restaurant was identified on the ground floor of the Elangeni Tower – probably number four in a list of restaurants that had occupied the space over the years, some company owned and some outsourced. The space was good for an open grill and could seat eighty covers in comfort. The shop fitting could be modified and morphed into a grill house feel but, typical of the era, the restaurant featured an inside space with no exterior outlook. This was easily redesigned with large windows to the street outside and an off-street entrance and portico.

The concept of a successful restaurant however is never in the décor alone as many have experienced the hard way. We needed to build the restaurant around a subtle theme and since we have the overriding concept of Africa meets Asia at the newly combined hotel complex, we sought to pin the new grill concept around an offering at the Baraza restaurant in our Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania hotel property. This restaurant serves grilled chicken with a Zanzibar spice mix basting that is to die for. They regularly sell more than 150 portions daily, mainly to walk-in patrons. Our bastings for the grill items are derived from the mix of African and Asian spices of Zanzibar and East Africa.

Now the new baby needed a name and we looked no further than the streets of Dar Es Salaam and the Swahili slang for – “enjoyment of food, eating good or living well” – JICHANA.

The search with a Patent Attorney showed no conflicts with the defensive name and so we were good to go with the name. The menu is key and it is very focused, salad starters only, grilled prime beef cuts, lamb, chicken and fish dishes with a maximum of three offerings each. A couple of constructed vegetarian dishes, a few desserts, local cheese and Ethiopian coffee to finish the meal. It was important not to introduce cooking methods other than grilling and deep frying the chips and battered onion rings, always cognisant of the promise to deliver the food within 20 minutes of order.

The restaurant is open evenings only and service begins with a complimentary medium cream South African Sherry style wine, and hot mosbolletjie bread rolls with a spicy relish. A good cellar is offered which is reasonably priced and tables are restricted to a maximum of six people to enhance service and guard against restaurant resetting during service, which only serves to disturb patrons, particularly the all important business guest using the restaurant for a meeting meal.

To date – two months of operation shows a positive trend, with covers exceeding 80 most evenings and a good 80:20, in-house to external patron ratio. Spend per cover is in line with commercial restaurants of the type and reviews have been good. In order to keep the restaurant commercially focussed and to prevent dilution of the concept, the organisation reporting of the restaurant has been structured in such a way that, while it is supported by the hotel Food and Beverage team, the Restaurant Manager reports directly to the Hotel General Manager.

The menu of Jichana, “eating good” in Swahili slang, embraces the flavours and aromas of the original East Coast of Africa’s spice route-cassia, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, turmeric and pepper. These robustly flavoursome spices complement the grilling of meat, fish and chicken creating Jichana! The steaks on the menu are carefully selected and hand cut by Jichana’s butcher before being aged through a specific maturation process. The cuts are seasoned with an aromatic house spice, infused with crushed mustard seed, rock sea salt and lemon black pepper before being flame-grilled over volcanic rock with herbed honey BBQ basting. All beef is premium grade, sourced from Karan Beef and the free range farm chicken and duck used is raised in the Dargle Valley in KwaZulu-Natal’s midlands.

*Article from The Culinary Artist, Issue 2

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