With a multitude of the city’s most loved eateries under his name, James Diack has been a central driving force in Joburg’s food scene for years.
Coobs, the National, the Federal, Douglas and Hale, La Stalla, il Contadino‑ One family. One farm. One phenomenal story about finding your roots, sticking to your passions and being a force for positive change in the community.
Chef James Diack
A Jozi boy, born and bred. He grew up between Northcliff and the family farm out in Magaliesburg. Food was a central part of life from an early age. He first learnt from watching his mum, Jannet, an incredible cook and legendary woman in her own right. He recounts Sundays on the farm where the challenge was to prepare a meal for 6 using only that which was grown on the grounds.
Training & Background
After school James headed off to Stellenbosch and was set on studying winemaking. But after a year spent enjoying the wine and waves of the Western Cape a bit too much, James made a shift and enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts instead. He spent the next few years working alongside some of the most noteworthy chefs in the country including, Bruce Robertson, Nicolas van der Walt and his mentor turn close friend ‑ Richard Carstens where he entered as a pastry chef and soon transitioned to sous chef with the Manolo group. Through his studies and his experience in fine dining, James recalls being taught to make even the most mediocre of ingredients into something worthwhile. In the end, skill seemed to outshine the ingredients, which wasn’t how he grew up loving and appreciating food. So he started longing for something different...
Rediscovering the missing ingredient
In 2009 while working in the city James, miraculously, landed a reservation at Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Mugaritz ‑ An incredible fine dining restaurant in the North of Spain that only takes a handful of reservations many months in advance. James and his mum, who had very recently recovered from a serious car accident, committed to an intensive eating and drinking adventure through the Med as a build‑up to this once in a lifetime reservation.
Roaring with laughter, he recounts the haphazard way they journeyed up through Spain and stumbled past some of the best bars and eateries he’d ever been to. From glorious Spanish wines at half price to finding the family tapas bar where the Blanco brothers learnt to cook. James recalls how that trip solidified his appreciation of European style dining ‑ menus are limited, there’s no requesting to swap out ingredients or off the menu options. All dishes are prepared with only the freshest seasonal produce. If it’s not in season, its not on offer. Their trip ended off in the rural French countryside with rustic peasant‑style food and cases and cases of quality wine.
As he enthusiastic retells anecdotes from their adventures is becomes undoubtedly clear what a fundamental impact that trip had on his life and would continue to have on his restaurants and ethos around food for many years to come.
Application in his restaurants
James opens his first restaurant Coobs, Parkhurst in 2012. The style still leans towards fine dining but with a focus on fresh, seasonal produce and having fewer but exceptionally skilled staff. As the business grew, each new restaurant sources more and more of its ingredients from the Brightside family farm. 2015: The National in Parktown North. ‑ This bistro/smokehouse was a hit with patrons showcasing the best of Brightside produce. 2016: The Federal in Melville. ‑ An more polished American style diner. 2017: il Contandino in Parktown North. ‑ Finally, the Mediterranean escapades of previous years is brought to life in a little corner venue in the heart of Parktown North. The menu is limited, rustic and offers honest rural food. Dishes are served in enamel plates with dishtowels for serviettes. All produce is 100% sustainably sourced. 2018: The Federal becomes la Stalla, “The Stables” ‑ an affordable pizzeria that continues on their rustic and sustainable approach to Jozi dining. 2018 : The National becomes Douglas & Hale. ‑ named after James’s two grandfathers. The restaurant is focused on offering a wine bar location similar to what he experienced while traveling. Again, if it’s not sustainably sourced, it’s not available.
Resilience during Covid 19
In 2020 Covid 19 hits SA and the country is forced into a nationwide lockdown where alcohol sales and in‑restaurant dining becomes restricted.
‑ Douglas & Hale permanently closes it’s doors.
‑ Coobs moves to Parktown North.
‑ La Stalla ask relocates to Parktown North becoming a small scale deli. Shelves are filled to the brim with fresh produce, bread, pates and cold meats prepared on the farm. The restaurant may no longer be around but the spirit and passion for quality and sustainable produce live on. Tony, the previous manager now runs the deli with the same vibrant spirit and friendly attitude. Times are tough but the team keep their chins up serving the best hot dogs in town. 100% Brightside pork, of course.
James stops taking a salary and spends the next few months doing anything and everything for his staff and businesses. From baking muffins for locals out on their 2 hours of exercise a day, to hand delivering pizzas off the back of his scooter. He partners up with other local businesses to create “date night boxes” selling ingredients and recipes for some of his best meals to be prepared at home.
Tips for staying afloat?
There are so many businesses that were forced to shut down or are holding on by a final thread as restrictions finally lift again. So what what is that helped the Brightside group weather the storm?
Humility. The willingness to change direction and alter plans for the sake of the staff and the longterm survival of the farm. James recalls how in addition to letting customers down, he has a large group of staff and an entire farm of animals that need feeding and depend on the wellbeing of the business to survive. There were no other options. No time to sit back and say “poor me”. And this approach worked, for the most part.
With the arrival of vaccines the hope is that the worst of the pandemic and related restrictions are behind us. But the threats to business aren’t over yet, unless consumers start to bring their side by supporting those that have taken a knock.
James’s biggest request is for customers to be more conscious. Take note of the few restaurants who did what they could to sustain livelihoods and the community environment for as long as they could, show support.
Think twice before your complain about pricing. Remember that there will be new businesses that decided to wait out the storm. Re‑emerging after the worst is over means they will have lower historic costs to cover. Show appreciation to those who kept things ticking along in the background when times were tough.
Be responsible in your consumption. There are many cheap and easy offerings around the city. But high quality, sustainable produce is harder to find. Value those that go out on a limb to offer it.
How you can show support
The buzzing block between 4th and 7th Avenue in Parktown North has everything you need.
Incredible coffee and weekly food supplies at the @lastallajhb
Lazy lunches in the sunshine cover sidewalks of @ilcontadinojhb
Wine and dine in cozy @coobsparktownnorth ‑ one of Joburg’s longest standing and most loved fine dining establishments.
Keep an eye out for the multiple charity events hosted by the group. The next one is happening at @ilcontadionojhb to raise money for the dog shelter at the Brightside Farm on the 14th of March 2021! ✨