Scene Stealer: Saint restau­rant in Jo­han­nes­burg

You might have to wait for a ta­ble at Saint in Sand­ton, but you’ll be re­warded with the restau­rant’s sig­na­ture over-the-top piz­zas that emerge from ovens nick­named Darth and Vader. It’s Ital­ian – with a City of Gold twist


SAINT, David Higgs and Gary Kyr­i­a­cou’s new Sand­ton restau­rant, is Ital­ian food’s Al­ice in Won­der­land mo­ment: a bro­ken-down puz­zle of tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ents, re­assem­bled with quirky, cu­ri­ous twists, served un­der a dig­i­tal “fresco” pro­jected on the vaulted ceil­ings and along­side a three-di­men­sional mu­ral of a de­con­structed Re­nais­sance colos­sus. It’s pure Sand­ton, and it’s rather ge­nius – the flash-ca­sual younger brother of its up­mar­ket big-sis­ter restau­rant, Mar­ble. Where Mar­ble is calm, quiet, and in­ti­mate, Saint is in your face, no­tice­ably more fast­paced, tak­ing its cue from the


sur­round­ing fi­nan­cial district. To­gether the bar and restau­rant stretch over 1 000 m2 and seat up to 230 guests. David and

Gary call it pazzo Ital­iano. “Crazy” Ital­ian. And there’s al­ready a three-week wait­ing list for a ta­ble.

“We had the con­cept for Saint be­fore we built Mar­ble,” Gary ex­plains. On a re­search trip to New York, Gary and David went to eat at an oth­er­wise or­di­nary-look­ing space that served pizza and Cham­pagne to ex­traor­di­nary cus­tomers, in­clud­ing mod­els and fash­ion de­sign­ers. “It wasn’t about the mod­els so much,” David laughs, “but more that the young and vibey peo­ple of New York were com­ing in to eat pizza and drink Cham­pagne.” Gary loved the “ca­sual but still so­phis­ti­cated” ap­proach.

“It was pizza, el­e­vated to an­other level. Peo­ple got dressed up for it.”

Three months af­ter Mar­ble opened

(in 2016), the land­lords at the MARC precinct in Sand­ton called Gary and asked if he was in­ter­ested in open­ing an­other restau­rant. At first he said no – his and David’s plates were rather full, so to speak. But the prop­erty wouldn’t be ready for an­other two years, so they had time to think about it. “We kept it on the back burner and then we signed the lease and it just evolved from there.”

Gary and David knew they were go­ing to call their restau­rant Saint as early as De­cem­ber 2017. They teased fans with a so­cial me­dia an­nounce­ment fea­tur­ing an arm­less statue and a saint emoji, but didn’t share the name with any­one else un­til mid-2018.

TWO MONTHS BE­FORE OPEN­ING they sent their sous chef Tyler Clay­ton and head chef Matthew van Niek­erk on a whirl­wind trip to Mi­lan so they could learn the fine art of mak­ing pizza dough. “We hadn’t de­cided on the menu be­fore they went,” says David, “but we knew what we wanted to serve: we wanted a grill [like at Mar­ble], piz­zas and pas­tas. It had to be easy eat­ing for lunch, and quick stuff so we could turn ta­bles.

It’s such a big space and we need to be able to pay the rent.”

Tyler and Matthew got about a week’s no­tice that they would be head­ing off to Italy, where they would have the op­por­tu­nity to work un­der the tute­lage of Gen­naro Rapido at the Mi­lan branch of leg­endary Neapoli­tan pizza restau­rant Gino Sor­billo. They started with learn­ing about dough. “I’d worked with bread be­fore,” says Tyler, “but pizza was com­pletely dif­fer­ent. With bread you want to de­velop the gluten; with pizza you don’t want to de­velop it at all.”

Hy­dra­tion was also key. The pizza dough was much wet­ter than they were used to. “When we got back home we tried dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions: 75 per­cent hy­dra­tion was too wet – that was what we were work­ing with in Mi­lan – but 65 per­cent was too stiff, so we set­tled on 70 per­cent,” Tyler ex­plains.

While Tyler was work­ing on dough, Matt would be watch­ing the bak­ing area, or they would swap, work­ing two shifts ev­ery day from 10 am to 4 pm, and then again from 5 pm to 11 pm, for nearly a week.

“We went there with an idea of what pizza was, and they just com­pletely flipped it,” says Tyler. “They never have more than four top­pings. And no pineap­ple or avo,” adds Matthew. An­other as­pect that stood out was the craft be­hind it. “The youngest guys in the kitchen were 26 or 27 years old, and they’d been mak­ing piz­zas for at least nine years,” Tyler says.

ON THEIR RE­TURN TO JO­HAN­NES­BURG, Tyler and Matthew had two chal­lenges. The first was to teach their kitchen team how to roll pizza by hand. “None of the guys in our pizza sec­tion had ever done pulling of the pizza dough, be­cause they had al­ways worked with dough that had gone through a ma­chine. They also had to learn how to get the distri­bu­tion of

dough just right, so the in­te­rior is level but there’s still enough out­side to get that nice puffed-up crust,” says Tyler.

The se­cond chal­lenge was in­au­gu­rat­ing Saint’s new gold mo­saic­clad pizza ovens. “We didn’t re­alise we would have to cure them first,” Matthew and Tyler ex­plain. “You can’t just fire them up com­pletely,” Tyler says. “You have to warm the brick and mor­tar, grad­u­ally build it up, like a cricket bat.” The cur­ing process took about a week and was com­pleted just days be­fore the restau­rant was due to open. Then, they had to start test­ing the ovens. “We still had con­struc­tion go­ing on, wait­ers in train­ing. Chef [David] just told us to make piz­zas, and that they would be eaten,” Tyler says. Their de­but ef­forts were fed to ev­ery­one in the restau­rant, and sent around the MARC build­ing, in­clud­ing to all the neigh­bour­ing cof­fee shops. The chefs also be­gan to learn more about the ovens them­selves. “Ev­ery oven is dif­fer­ent. Even grills are dif­fer­ent. You have to learn how your oven works,” Tyler says. The ovens now have nick­names – Gary calls them “Darth” and “Vader”, be­cause of their hel­met-like shape.

As if sci­ence fic­tion’s most iconic bad guy had a Re­nais­sance-disco makeover.


Saint now has two spe­cially trained dough pullers (“they’re never al­lowed to be off on the same day”), and Matthew and Tyler say they only have to send back the odd pizza. “Ini­tially, let’s say of 100 piz­zas only 70 were good enough to send out. Now, only a hand­ful get sent back,” Tyler says. “If it’s not per­fect, there’s no point in send­ing it out.

That per­son will never come back.”

But this is also pazzo Ital­ian, re­mem­ber. The Saint menu does fea­ture clas­sics – a margherita with fresh moz­zarella – but its sig­na­ture piz­zas are non-tra­di­tional, over the top. “We have one with steak on it, one with lamb. One called the “big na­cho”, with jerk chicken, sour cream, and gua­camole. I think if we served Gen­naro the big na­cho, he’d walk out and jump off the bal­cony,” Tyler laughs.

“It’s ab­so­lutely not about au­then­tic­ity,” David ex­plains, later, typ­i­cally blunt, dis­cussing the mis­match be­tween tra­di­tional Ital­ian meth­ods and non-tra­di­tional dishes. “It’s about con­sis­tency.” And, as al­ways, for David it’s also about qual­ity, from the flour to the toma­toes (both im­ported) to the steak, seafood, and cheeses (lo­cally sourced). The “twists” come through both in the in­gre­di­ents and in their prepa­ra­tion. “We use el­e­ments of other cuisines – crispy onions, or food off a fire in a pasta. Our car­bonara comes with cauliflower purée quenelled on the side.”

In­te­rior de­signer Irene Kyr­i­a­cou was again left to in­ter­pret the chefs’ twists and tastes into a phys­i­cal space that pro­vided com­fort and spec­ta­cle, com­plet­ing the Saint ex­pe­ri­ence – what Irene de­scribes as “a the­atre of the kitchen and a the­atre of in­te­ri­ors”. There are nods to Italy in the stained-glass win­dows in the wine cel­lar and the ter­ra­cotta and ce­ramic tiles along the walls, the lat­ter a homage to the colours of Italy’s build­ings and roofs. “Saint is in such a se­ri­ous district, so the restau­rant space is de­lib­er­ately more play­ful,” Irene ex­plains.

Now that Saint is up and run­ning, Gary and David say they want to take time to con­sol­i­date be­fore plan­ning what comes next. “It’s been a mas­sive year for us,” says David, who also pub­lished his first cook­book, Mile 8 and shot the se­cond sea­son of TV se­ries My Kitchen Rules. Their two restau­rants now em­ploy more than 300 peo­ple – which is more than some small ho­tels. Gary says that he and David do have fu­ture plans, but they won’t say what they are. “Maybe we’ll build a re­sort,” he says. It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell if he’s be­ing se­ri­ous or not.

Above: The or­ange, bur­rata and sal­s­ic­cia salad fea­tures bur­rata from Cape Town’s Puglia cheese. Be­low: Saint mas­ter­minds Gary Kyr­i­a­cou (left) and David Higgs. Op­po­site: A dig­i­tal fresco is pro­jected overdin­ers, while more tra­di­tion­ally crafted pizza bases are pre­pared in the open kitchen.

Clock­wise from above left: Fire-pre­pared dishes like this beef fil­let, served with bean stew, are a group sig­na­ture; sous chef Tyler Clay­ton learned the art of pizza-mak­ing at Gino Sor­billo in Mi­lan; Saint's or­ange and Cam­pari cakeserved with Cam­pari ice cream is al­ready a firm favourite. Irene says it’s never al­lowed to come off the menu.

Clock­wise from above left: Saint's clas­sic margherita uses Ital­ian flour, Ital­ian toma­toes, and moz­zarella from Puglia Cheese in Cape Town; a hand­wo­ven ta­pes­try by Sarita Im­mel­man fea­tures a cen­taur, an African an­gel,and a baby cu­pid; ri­cotta gnoc­chi with Ital­ian sausage.

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