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
“IF IT’S NOT PERFECT, THERE’S NO POINT IN SENDING IT OUT. THAT PERSON WILL NEVER COME BACK” – SOUS CHEF TYLER CLAYTON
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.
TWO MONTHS INTO SERVICE,
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.