Crazy World Of Mugs & Beans
Johannesburg restaurateur Ben Filmater spoke to Hilary Biller while whipping up his party trick, New Orleans gumbo
You recently sold the South African and African rights to Mugg & Bean, a concept you started in 1996. Where did it begin?
Working in food is something I have wanted to do my whole life.
I’ve been in the restaurant business in Johannesburg since 1979 [Filmater owned the restaurants Linger Longer, Scratch Daniels, Fat Franks and Leipoldts] – there were many in the early days. Mugg & Bean is really a product of all those influences and getting to a point where we had a mechanism of. It was based on a Chicago style of restaurant my wife Judi and I liked, that was really the seed. We sat in this coffee shop in 1992 and thought this may fly in South Africa. At the time, we were going broke and things were tough. One forgets that the economies were as bad as they are at the moment.
You must have so many food memories over the years. Are there some that stand out?
I have many good memories. My fondest is a simple meal of grilled veal cutlet with onion sauce, mashed potato and pearl onions I enjoyed at a diner in San Francisco. I think that’s what food is about: the more simple it is the better. I get very impatient with people who overwork food.
Another of my finest meals was in France 15 years ago – slices of fresh ham, fresh asparagus, a piece of bread and a glass of wine. Delicious.
Relinquishing your interests in Mugg and Bean locally, what will you be doing?
I love travelling. I have not seen as much of Europe as I would like and there are certainly parts of the East I would like to visit. Now that I will have more time, I intend to do more cooking and researching it. I have a fabulous kitchen at home.
I would also like to write a book, even if I don’t publish it, just for my own satisfaction. It will contain a little bit of my history and the family history. I’ve managed to salvage my mother’s and my grandmother’s recipe books and have some unbelievable photographs and great stories to share.
Why is there a level of mediocrity in the South Africa restaurant industry?
South Africa suffers tremendously from a lack of a tourist industry. The Cape, of course, has the advantage of tourists and the environment fares better. Tourism creates a knock-on effect.
We have a lot of hard lessons that are going to have to be learnt here, such as how to become more efficient. Part of the process is training people.
What gave you the edge in the early restaurant days in Braamfontein?
We did a lot of things that were cutting edge. My brother and I, when we were partners, started serving things like guacamole at Fat Franks back in the late 1980s. People did not know what it was back then.
Are giant muffins and bottomless cups of coffee the secret of Mugg & Bean’s success?
We did a lot of innovative things, all of them more by default though. I bought big muffin pans from a show in Chicago back to South Africa. In the beginning, we were the only ones with the large pans and giant muffins became our signature.