In January 2014, Benjamin Trisk and his partners had only been in possession of the Exclusive Books business for a month. While on holiday in Plettenberg Bay, Benjamin called Silvio Rech, the extraordinary architect and visionary who has created some of the world’s great houses and many lodges throughout Africa. Silvio was not interested in doing commercial design work. It was stultifying and, frankly, he found it boring.
He was not easily persuaded. Once back from holiday, Trisk visited his studio that he and his equally talented wife, the architect Lesley Carstens share in Westcliff. Silvio does not drink Vodka, Benjamin does. By the time their initial courtship was complete, Silvio happily drank Vodka along with Benjamin and he and his wife were persuaded that they might work on retail design concepts for the Exclusive Books Group.
It has been a collision of styles. Trisk wants design so that he can sell stuff. Silvio and Lesley want design that puts form ahead of function. But both agree that the cookie-cutter approach to chain-store design is outmoded. Trisk wants stores that make books sexy but that carry the essential cultural heart of Exclusive Books from development to development, always seeking to break the shackles and restraints of the chain store mentality. Silvio and Lesley are the ideal partners.
All the elements that are now spread through each rejuvenated store in the Exclusive Books Group are inspired by the remarkable vision of these two architects. Trisk is the buffer. He knows what will work and what won’t, but he also understands enough to know that brave heart might always win.
Exclusive Books Hyde Park is an extraordinary space. Every tile, every piece of parquet has been put in place for a reason. The coffee bar is tiled with white Johnson tiles that have been first allowed to dry on the surfaces of the bar and then are broken with a hammer. The cracks are filled in with gold leaf. The inspiration for this treatment comes from an Argentinian restaurant in Paris, Anahi. There, the entire restaurant is tiled in white with gold leaf inserted into cracks. The Moroccan tiles on the floor and on the walls match nothing. You will find cracked tiles and imperfect pieces sitting alongside a beautifully grouted whole tile. The reason for the cracked tiles, which are visible above the fire exit in the bar, is that Trisk wanted less regularity, something that spoke more of imperfection and bohemian style. The way in which the tiles flow from perfect squares to a whole series of irregular, unaligned patterns speaks to the Japanese Philosophy of “Wabi-Sabi” – it is about the imperfection of things.
Books flow into the restaurant. The customer does not know quite where the bookshop ends and where the marvellous new restaurant begins. There is purpose behind this: the logo for The Social Kitchen & Bar contains the wording “for the love of conversation”. Dinners should be convivial experiences where conversation flows around the food and around the thousands of ideas that hurl themselves at guests from every cover, from every spine. The size of the space is daunting in itself, but what is totally overwhelming is the 40m span of glass on the Northern front of the restaurant that looks out over Johannesburg’s glorious urban forest.
The entire purpose behind the Social Kitchen & Bar is to extend to food the same approach Exclusive takes to books: namely, that anyone should be able to find something accessible, that all are treated equally and that there is the same care and attention to detail to the customer and the experience, whatever the budget.
Of paramount importance is the quality of what is produced. This is the intent: all should find the menu accessible, all should feel the same level of comfort; and some, for the very first time, may imagine themselves in a louche, benign salon where the conversation sparkles alongside the food. We present to you imagination and we give you conversation.
The kitchen is a highly technical space, but the food is not technical or overly complex. When Short Rib comes to your table, you will recognise it as Short Rib, but it will taste of perfection – of how you dreamed Short Rib might taste in some perfect world. Every plate, every dish is refined: it reflects the labour and the vision of a great chef.
Food is one of the great comforts of our lives in much the same way that reading and the feel and touch of books permits the mind to traverse continents. We are all entitled to dream. This is where dreams are encouraged.
Russell Armstrong is the Executive Chef, with a pedigree as long as your arm. Russell has worked in not one, not two, but three 3-star Michelin restaurants. He has learned his trade at the Connaught in London under the great Michel Bourdin, at Le Gavroche in London, working alongside the Roux brothers and at Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, France (close to Lyon). These are stellar restaurants and you need to be a stellar cook to walk across the threshhold of their kitchens.
When Trisk was looking for a chef, he told Liam Tomlin (The Chef’s Warehouse and himself a formidable cook), of his search for a chef who could share his vision and cook for the gods. Liam Tomlin’s comment was that Armstrong was the best chef he had ever worked with – and Liam knows a thing or two about the business. His restaurant Banc was the No. 1 restaurant in Australia. This was the introduction; Trisk invited Armstrong to South Africa and he walked the car park (now transformed) as it was then, alongside Trisk. He was sold on the vision and the view. He understood perfectly that what Trisk wanted was to offer food that spoke to friendship, shared dishes that could be enjoyed by all. Armstrong visited South Africa first in June. Trisk was already confident of his abilities, not only because of Tomlin’s high praise, but also because the formidable Executive Chef of the Tasting Room in Franschhoek, Margo Janse had praised Armstrong’s food to the skies. David Higgs, the formidable Head Chef at the Saxon 500 has also been fulsome in his praise of Armstrong. Armstrong has designed the menu to allow the food to speak to us. Simple, delicious. His philosophy is simple too:
Cooking is not a matter of just doing work, it’s a conscience, a passion and an understanding.
Trisk has paid attention to detail: the slicer that carves salami or prosciutto is not the one that slices bresaola or carpaccio. He hopes that the passion that has driven our brand thus far will be the same engine that engages with all at the bar or tables.
Trisk has travelled widely in pursuit of this vision. The restaurant is not a restaurant and the bookshop is not a bookshop. They are one fluid whole space, the space for conversation, for care, for friendship. With the opening of the new Exclusive Books Hyde Park Corner and its glorious Social Kitchen and Bar, South Africa has a unique and special place. One that many will call home.