February 16, 2022

The food critic chefs love to hate


Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that food critic and author Chris von Ulmenstein causes a stir, writes Rebecca Bourhill.

Chris von Ulmenstein’s restaurant reviews have seen her being sued, banned from restaurants and develop a reputation as one of South Africa’s most hard-nosed restaurant critics.

For many years Chris was on the other end of the hospitality industry, running the ‘Whale Cottage’ guest houses across the Western Cape. During this time she started her blog and newsletter called ‘WhaleTales’, where she would post restaurant reviews and share news on the tourism industry. She then left the guesthouse business and decided to start writing her trilogy of books called SwitchBitch, which tells her journey of transformation in various areas of her life. 

When COVID-19 and lockdown hit, she started a new venture doing social media work as well as being a communications consultant for various top restaurants in South Africa. She says that it is a very fitting job for her and, quite frankly, the perfect job to start working again.

‘I do not have a filter’

But it is her restaurant reviews that have earned her many fans as well as haters. She has spent a lot of her time eating at top restaurants around the world and says she knows a good restaurant from a mile off and is not shy to say when a place is not up to standard, no matter how famous the chef or restaurant is. 

Chris is quoted as saying: “I am a very direct and honest person. There are no two ways about it. I am a German and a Sagittarius and that combination can be lethal for many people…

“I don’t know any other way than to be honest and upfront, and I do not have a filter for what I say. I am the same with my writing.” 

Chris certainly does have a reputation for rubbing up chefs and restaurateurs the wrong way. She  was banned from a few of the top South African restaurants for her harsh and in some people’s eyes inappropriate comments. 

‘It’s a compliment

“At first the rejection was hard to take, but later she saw it as a compliment. It just goes to show how much power I have that they would be afraid of me,” she said. “Some people are just incredibly sensitive.” 

One of her major points of concern in the modern restaurant industry is that many chefs aim to have too many restaurants instead of focusing on one project. 

One chef that Chris looks up to is Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen. She has dined at Restaurant Jan in Nice, France, many times.

“What makes Jan successful is his creative streak and his unique South African menu that is served on the outskirts of France. His food is real, he grew up on a farm so he knows the ins and outs of traditional South African food.”

An experience to remember

But what makes a good restaurant in her eyes? “A great restaurant has to deliver on decor, excellent service, zero typing errors in both the menu and the wine list as well as offer great food at a reasonable price point. I give chefs lee-way on the ingredient combinations presented. 

“They should have a good wine list with wines from a range of terroirs and must make it an experience to remember. For a restaurant to tick all the boxes they should remember you and your name from one visit to the next, and should say thank you proactively each time one has eaten there.” 

She goes on to say that there is no specific dish that she can point out as her favourite but rather enjoying the whole experience of having a meal at Jan, in Nice, and Central in Lima.

Are you a chef, restaurateur or foodie causing a stir in the local industry? We’d love to speak to you. Mail us at editor@sachefmag.co.za