Fire. South Africans are obsessed with it. It's a cooking staple as common as flour or rice. You're not having a proper meal in this country until you've lit up a few logs and singed meat on their screeching hot embers.
In South Africa, a "braai", the local version of a barbecue, is a cultural phenomenon as popular as rugby, or making jokes about Australians. The locals here take their braais very seriously: good wood, big hunks of meat, cooked properly over fire.
So it makes sense that Johannesburg's hottest – excuse the pun – new restaurant would be making use of fire. At Marble, everything is cooked over hot coals, the traditional South African way; only, with a slight difference.
"We're taking something rustic and real and putting it into a sophisticated environment," says David Higgs, executive chef and co-owner of Marble, and one of a growing band of high-end cooks pushing the Johannesburg dining scene forward. "It's a lovely juxtaposition. The things you can do with fire are incredible."
Higgs' philosophy would be familiar to anyone who's eaten at Sydney restaurant Firedoor: take high-end ingredients, including meat and seafood, and cook them delicately over hot coals, using wood whose smoke will match well with the ingredient. The result is a next-level braai, a fine-dining restaurant serving excellent food that all has a hint of smoke, and fire.
And this, in Johannesburg. You might know the city by its reputation as Cape Town's ugly, unhinged cousin. Jo'burg's crime statistics make for somewhat bleak reading. In fact many visitors to South Africa skip straight through the city's O.R. Tambo Airport and continue on their way south.
But something good is happening in Johannesburg, something worth calling in to check out, and it's reflected in the cuisine that's becoming so popular across the city.
"There's great energy in Jo'burg," says Higgs, taking a moment away from the fire at Marble to perch on a barstool and chat. "There's a lot of great food down in Cape Town, good restaurants, but Jo'burg is the capital of Africa, this is where it all happens. It's got a very multicultural feel, and with that multicultural feel comes a great energy. I'm from Cape Town, but I love being up here, it's such a positive vibe."
Others, too, have noticed that energy. While in Cape Town chefs such as Luke Dale-Roberts, owner of the Test Kitchen, are garnering international acclaim, in Johannesburg the likes of Higgs, chef Marthinus Ferreira at fine-diner DW11-13, Marnus Scholly at Clico Boutique Hotel, and even Russell Armstrong, an Australian who has made the move from Brisbane to man the pans at EB Social Kitchen, are quietly pushing the Johannesburg scene to new heights. Even Dale-Roberts has joined in, recently taking over at the Saxon Hotel.
All of these chefs have realised that there's a growing middle and upper class in the city affectionately known as "Jozi", a set of diners who have an appetite for the sort of good food that's been dished up in the Cape region for years.
And what does that food look like? It's meaty, no doubt. South Africans love their protein, and no amount of fine-dining elegance is going to change that. They want big slabs of steak, or ocean fish, or game meat such as kudu, springbok or ostrich. Johannesburg cuisine also benefits from a range of cultural influences, from the Dutch and French of South Africa's early settlers, to the spice of Cape Malay, to Indian, Portuguese, West African and more.
"There's a real awakening of the food culture here," says Higgs, scanning the full dining room at Marble. The menu at Higgs' restaurant features dishes such as pork belly with miso eggplant; barbecued prawns with lime basmati rice; rib-eye with smoked onion and bone marrow. Every plate reflects Johannesburg's diverse population, as well as its obsession with fire.
And it's not just the Jozi restaurants that have gone gourmet. As the city's interest in good food grows, so too do the purveyors of that produce, which is why there are now several great markets across Johannesburg selling high-quality fresh food.
There's Bamboo Farmers Market in the suburb of Melville, Jozi Real Food Market in Randburg, and Neighbourgoods Market – an offshoot of a Cape Town institution – in Braamfontein. All of these are as much social meeting points as they are places to buy food. And all will provide the perfect fresh ingredients for the classic South African meal – plus, of course, some wood to cook it on.
Qantas has direct flights six days a week from Sydney to Johannesburg. Call 13 13 13 or go to qantas.com
The Clico Boutique Hotel has modern, spacious rooms in the heart of Rosebank, just a block from Marble Restaurant, from $202 per night. See clicohotel.com
David Higgs' Marble Restaurant is open daily from 12pm until 10pm; a meal for two will cost about ZAR1300. See marble.restaurant
Ben Groundwater's accommodation in Johannesburg was provided by Clico Boutique Hotel