The future of food looks bright
A Joburg family is changing the way we think about restaurants, eating — and farming too
On the surface it’s all picture-perfect. We arrive on a late summer Sunday, the air still moist from the rain that fell the day before. Brightside, a farm on the outskirts of Joburg, seems like something out of a pastoral idyll.
Owner Janet Diack welcomes us open-armed. Whippet-slim, bronzed and eyes bright with zeal, she says: "This is a dream come true."
We start our visit as she leads us down winding garden paths, like a pied piper with good intentions. We meander past a wildly enthusiastic assortment of animals. Wiggle-bottomed piglets frolic in glorious mud along with chestnut-munching boars. There are several adolescent pigs dozing in the shade of a van; an ostrich follows us half-heartedly through the poultry yard, where chickens of all ages, ducks and turkeys are having the day off, dozing in the sun or taking a stroll. No enclosures in sight.
But as Janet starts to chat on this picturesque amble, it immediately becomes clear that the family’s journey to where they are today has been one of hard graft.
She and her husband Eric bought the property 26 years ago and have worked to create a sustainable, organic farm. It’s a labour of love which, despite all appearances to the contrary, was neither quick nor easy.
Brightside is not simply a project to turn what was a traditional old Transvaal plot of land into an organic showpiece for the 21st century; it exists to provide the best-quality seasonal farm-to-table produce — meat, fruit and vegetables — for the Diacks’ son James, chef patron of four Johannesburg restaurants.
James is passionate about "nose to tail" cooking and eating. "It’s about sustainability," he says. Thus this clever model: everything that is produced on the farm is sent to the restaurants he owns.
Janet is vegetarian, but realistic about slaughtering the animals, and the humane ways this can be done. "Organic" and "nil-intervention" are terms she uses often.
"As we know, organic farming doesn’t make use of synthetic pesticides or fertilisers," she says. "In other words, we work along with nature. It’s taken a long time, but we’ve created a natural environment in which all living things on the farm thrive. Think about it: not all insects are bugs, focused on destroying plant life."
She tells heart-breaking stories: buying in pigs from a breeding farm where desperate animals spent their lives indoors — no sun, feet on concrete, and enclosed in farrowing crates.
"Sows," she says, "are wonderful mothers and one can only imagine the distress caused by farrowing crates that deliberately separate mother and baby, her teats only available through holes in the partition."
"When they were brought to Brightside their incredulous response to mud puddles, grass to graze on and streaming sunlight was heart-wrenching," Janet adds.
Despite the global trend towards organic farming, as well as buzzwords like sustainability, one cannot but wonder when supermarkets and restaurants boast free-range, traceable or even organic produce, whether the provenance is indeed so.
The background to genetically engineered chickens, for instance, is rather tasteless: apart from their antibiotic-induced lives, they’re also genetically engineered to have very few feathers, which makes them easier to pluck.
At Brightside, organic is as organic does. It is therefore a given that the Diack family is passionate about what is now called sustainable – or nose-to-tail – eating. International Michelin-starred chefs are proponents of this ethos, but really this goes back to what should always have been rational. This is not a newly realised way of eating. What got in the way was that everything packaged simply became too convenient.
Growing a business
James trained as a chef at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch. He served internships under now-deceased Bruce Robertson as well as Richard Carstens, both award-winning chefs. James says what those two men taught him is now in his DNA — plus talent, of course, and the ability to work hard.
According to James, solid research went into ascertaining what might be the ideal business model for a restaurant based on the Brightside principles. Coobs in Parkhurst was James’s first venture and continues to thrive, as does his second, The National in Parktown North.
James recently opened il Contadino, a few doors from The National. The menu as well as the corner location, with lots of pavement seating, has turned out to be spot-on. It’s a celebration of everything Brightside stands for — and it’s packed virtually all the time.
Being astute in business is, of course, equally important. The restaurant, The Federal, for instance, didn’t suit Melville inhabitants’ tastes and it was quickly closed. The recently opened and reworked model that has replaced it, La Stalla, is now a restaurant with a stylishly rustic interior and an already-hot pizza oven. "We saw how successful the food and environment at il Contadino in Parktown North has been, and so made La Stalla a mini version of that," James explains.
Back to the meander through Brightside: Janet leads us through a riotous list of edible plants. She plucks and offers us a taste of Asian greens including mizuna, tatsoi and pak choi. Then we check out other plantings including a show-stopper mini plantation of Jerusalem artichokes, their yellow flowers dazzling in the sun.
We are led to a table under enormous trees and vines, where Janet tells us as we’re served picture-perfect salads: "At Brightside no pesticides and fungicides are used, just natural remedies." Hence bugs and creatures like bunnies, birds and porcupines often leave behind their calling cards in the form of nibble holes. These have no impact on the flavour and goodness of the vegetables.
Here everything tastes as it should. There’s no storing for winter. So, for instance, you’ll never find those pale, tasteless imitation tomatoes you find year-round in shops. Fruit-wise the farm produces lemons for about eight months of the year — and a further shopping list of delights that includes pears, apples, peaches, grapes, figs, plums, berries, pomegranates and oranges. "And the inevitable glut [of these] is all bottled into jams, jellies, chutneys and so on," says Janet.
The nose-to-tail supply from Brightside to Coobs started with the first salad Janet ate there. "These leaves are bloody terrible," Janet told her son at the time. James invited his mother to do better; the rest is history. Janet now not only runs the farm, but is involved with the restaurants too. Produce is collected weekly, picked and freshly plucked, prepared and delivered to James’s restaurants.
Janet introduces us to Boytjie Maboiya, who arrived when the Diacks bought the farm and has never left. He’s their farm manager. "We cry together when something is born, or dies," she says.
It’s totally apparent that Janet’s passion for the project is uncompromising. "Without being precious, nose-to-tail, organic farming is the only thing that makes sense to me.
"If an animal has to give its life for human consumption, dignify this sacrifice by making the whole carcass count. We give creatures great lives — and at the same time we’re saving our little bit of the planet."