MyCityByNight: Is there any significance to the Madame Zingara name?
Richard Griffin: The name seemed fitting for a bunch of crazy bohemian type hippies. The name Zingara comes from the Italian word for gypsy and Madame…well that’s me as the confirmed queen!
The Madame Zingara tale started a long, long time ago. In the distant town of Sepia, lived a gypsy maid who was a cook to the Countess of Parma. Her magical culinary skills and her beauty were known throughout Italy but fame alone was not enough for her; she longed for a life of privilege and ease. Every night she would create garments of distinction and practice the airs and graces of the Countess and her posh guests. Eventually, she was satisfied with her transformation; she fled to a place she had only seen in her dreams. The Cape of Good Hope was the perfect place to weave her tapestry of tales. And the glamorous Contessa Zingara was born.
Was the restaurant industry always something that you could see yourself doing as a job?
When I was 13 I managed to find myself a job as a dishwasher. I used to watch the chefs prepare the most delectable meals and completely fell in love with the idea of creating something that will bring joy to other people’s hearts. But more than that, after spending years in the restaurant industry, I developed this deep desire to create something unique; to create a place that guests could walk in to and feel at home – and walk out with the greatest and fondest of memories. I wanted to create a place that boasts an excellent service culture while keeping it fun for staff; allowing them to be themselves. I think that’s where we are now, and it’s been the most rewarding part about this journey.
Do you believe that social media and digital publishing (like MyCityByNight) have a concrete influence on where people decide to chow and what they consume?
Most certainly. The digital world is the new word of mouth – call it the word of the virtual world. Nowadays I can’t recall life without the internet. Between twitter, facebook, blogs, food websites etc, people have instant access to information; and more so to what other people have to say. For instance you no longer have to wait, or rather rely, on a columnist’s opinion from your local newspaper – there is a whole community of people ready to share their views. As a result, if you read a bad comment online about a restaurant you are most likely not going to even think about visiting it. And the same goes for really positive comments. Because of this we always make sure that we treat our guests like they are part of the family; from the moment they walk through the door our staff are ready to make sure that their needs are taken care of while our chefs ensure that your taste buds and stomach are satisfied.
Madame Zingara is just one of the gems in your powerful Zingara group. You probably have immense love for all of them, but is there a particular restaurant that you enjoy eating at more than the others?
Oh, that’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! I love each of our stores for their own uniqueness; the gentle Cafe Paradiso, where everything on the menu is made on site, has such rich traditions and family values that always humble me. And then there’s Sidewalk Cafe which is the perfect place to hang out, any time of the day, while taking in the lovely city views. Cafe Mozart, tucked away in the heart of the Church Street antique market, evokes a deep sense of history; here you can relax and enjoy the hustle and bustle as you watch the city go by. And then there’s Bombay Bicycle Club, which is a true reflection of Madame Zingara’s eclectic past; it has this warm and vibrant ambience which is completely hard to resist. And outside of my group, anything 44 Stanley in Johannesburg and I love visiting India. Their culinary circuit blows my mind every single trip.
This particular evening of opulence and excitement, now celebrating 10 years of existence, shares its name with a certain famous English football club’s home ground- Old Trafford, Manchester, The Theatre of Dreams. Is there any chance that you’re a Manchester United supporter?
No! Barcelona all the way! (a cringe from Ricky as he thinks back to the Champions League)
The last time the Madame Zingara Theatre of Dreams was in Cape Town it was a sell-out. How was the massive tent received in other parts of South Africa?
We were completely blown away by the response we received in Jo’burg. We had to extend the run twice because of the demand. The box office phone was ringing non-stop with people still trying to place their bookings. As for the Durban show, we were sold out two weeks after opening our doors. People love the Theatre Of Dreams because it’s something completely different; it’s not just a show but a whole experience that satisfies all the senses. And now we are preparing for the Cape Town show in celebration our 10 year anniversary which starts on 1 September. Audiences can expect the most epic Theatre of Dreams yet; it’s a completely new show that will be anchored by old favourites with new acts coming out every month. So if you’ve seen it once it does not mean you have seen it all.
What is the most difficult thing about being involved in the restaurant industry?
Consistency. Maintaining that fine balance between good food and great service, which is something we pride ourselves on at Madame Zingara. The competition is tough out there; any place can serve a plate of food but guests are looking for a totally encompassing experience; a place where they feel welcome and part of a family. We have been quite successful at building and maintaining the types of strong bonds with our customers.
How important is it to take things like the environment and using local business into account when offering impeccable service and experiences to customers? (That one was for all the tree-huggers & economists out there).
We certainly do support local businesses and always remain conscious of how our actions affect the environment. For instance, everything that is served on the Cafe Paradiso menu is made on site; which means that nothing processed ever enters our premises. Most of the ingredients used at our other restaurants are sourced from local suppliers. But having said that, we also recognise that looking after your environment is not just about decreasing your carbon footprint; it is also about sustaining the community in which you operate. This is why we created the “I LOVE MY HOOD” project; to encourage people to take pride and responsibility in the communities in which they live and work in. This project has seen us take an active role in creating foundations that encourages others to be instrumental in caring for the environment. This is definitely part and parcel of the service that we offer our guests; and in turn the community.
After the fire gutted the very first Madame Zingara (which I loved almost as much as my own mother), I sobbed into my pillow for weeks. How long did it take before you decided to bring the Spiegel tent to the Motherland?
We were all gutted too! But as it happened I was in Ireland visiting family earlier on that year, and stumbled upon the Spiegeltent at the Cork Festival and fell in love with it right there and then. I had already started negotiations to bring the tent to South Africa when the fire happened. So when it finally arrived, The Theatre of Dreams automatically became the new home for the Madame Zingara family. We have not looked back since.
Your career has already been filled with a number of highlights- if there was one thing that makes you all warm inside when you think of it, what would that be?
I think it’s the sense of a close knit family that’s been created by the crazy Madame Zingara people. We have come a long way together; most of our staff members have been with us for years. Some have left to explore other dreams but often returned to the company bringing with them amazing gifts and talents they collected along the way.
What are some of your favourite websites? (I mean you don’t have to say MCBN or anything)
Ummmm…I’m loving ffffound.com; its inspiration for all things creative and nostalgic; moodsofnorway.com and the new html17 for its brilliance in design. And there’s my daily YouTube addiction where I find new awesome acts from around the globe.
Dogs or Cats?
I’d say dogs, but after losing my old faithful Jackson 4 years ago, I tried to adopt another one but the loss was too devastating that I could not bring myself to doing it again. Now I have a family of 286 kids and they keep me way beyond busy.
Would you serve a cocktail in your restaurant group that was called a MyCityByNight…with the mocktail version being referred to as a Virgin Bynight?
Oh that sounds like a lot of fun! We will use a combination of the freshest ingredients – freshly squeezed seasonal fruits served in an extra large long stemmed martini glass with lemon flavoured sugar on the rim. And just add a good dose of some “happy juice” and you’ll have your very own MyCityByNight cocktail.
Now for our infamous would you rather question:
Would you rather have Cher make an appearance at your next birthday party insisting that she is actually your long lost younger biological sister, in between singing popular hits from the early 1920’s (when she was already 50).
Instead be abducted by aliens and force-fed bland broccoli and “mystery slop” for a year or until you simply died, like that guy almost did in that movie about eating too much fast food.
I’d take Cher for a spin! Not my first choice but seems easier than being abducted by an alien.
Thanks so much for chatting to us Richard, we’ll definitely catch you in The Theatre of Dreams soon!
Thank you. We look forward to seeing you at Century City.