Hugo Uys | Entrepreneur & Chef
Johannesburg native Hugo Uys has planned galas and events for clients including Marc Jacobs, George Soros, Susan Sarandon and the United Nations. He was the co-host of the 10th Anniversary Celebration of the ending of Apartheid in New York City, and represented the South African Tourism bureau in the New York City Food and Wine Festival.
I Am Driven By | The opportunity to try something new, master it and change the way it’s done.
My Highlights | I seem to have crafted a career that may seem haphazard to some, but it’s that exact willingness to try, to discover that has made me the culinary astronaut I so proclaim to be today.
After a brief stint at University and its inherent rigor and structure, I took the option to self-sustain my growing apt for design and mold-free creativity, by creating my own line of made to measure gowns—and having the opportunity to sponsor and dress both Miss World and Miss Universe in South Africa.
I took this knowledge of fashion to the U.S., but carved out a new market for it: high-end pet accessories. Being a first-mover in the industry in the mid-90s, I distributed my line internationally, selling at Federated, Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue. I also collaborated with designers such as Donna Karen, and teamed with Nadia Swarovsky to co-create the world’s most expensive dog coat.
It was throughout this path that I realized that my true sense of enjoyment came from the interactions I had with my clients: in restaurants and around the dinner table at home.
When the opportunity arose for me to purchase a then 30-year-old West Village establishment, I took it. I brought Paris Commune from its original 35 seat setting on Bleeker Street, to a 120 seat restaurant in its final iteration on Bank Street. All the while, also owned and ran a New American Bar in the West Village: Shag.
My most recent discoveries have led me to consulting for the hospitality industry—sharing my knowledge of the restaurant business through my own experiences in the field. I currently work at restructuring and opening restaurants—through raising capital and performing financial due diligence.
And of course, I continue to cook.
The Difference Between Good And Great | The difference stems from the ability to really own our work. I feel that people invested in the success of their projects usually find success.
A Key Talent | I don’t like to follow the book. I cook by taste, without worrying about what necessarily has to go into a dish. This has made it easier for me to bring South African taste profiles to people over here—it’s about melding what tastes inherently South African with what’s inherently local.
The Meaning Of Life | To acknowledge the finality of it and enjoy the present.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | Ask yourself, why are you doing this?
Advice On Building Wealth | Careers come from passions, not the other way around.
On Inspiring Others | Everyone is capable of great work; the key is to establish attainable goals and reward success.
I Am Inspired By | Claus Meyer is a great role model of mine. He’s a self-made individual who has a strong ideology: of being self-sustainable and biodynamic. Basically being aware and using what’s in your direct environment. He is never afraid of trying something different.
An interview with Hugo Uys South African chef and entrepreneur
Thanks to Will Carter and Todd Lohrey of Pine Plains Fine Wines & Spirits and the Wines of South Africa, 375 of us experienced a genuine South African Braai with all of its trimmings last Saturday. The wines were lovely and rich in diversity. My favorites were one or two of the Pinotage, a South African varietal, which I find pleasant and affordable at $13.99 per bottle. It seemed to go well with the rich ostrich meat, saffron rice, marinated chicken sosatie (skewered kebabs) andboerewors sausage—and the fabulous Tipsy Cake, made from dates, walnuts and brandy. As he commanded the cooking and serving from behind his grill, I was able to interview Chef Hugo Uys. He came to Manhattan some 17 years ago; there he is known as much in the fashion world as he is in culinary circles as a restaurateur. Part-owner of the now-defunct Paris Commune, a quintessential old West Village restaurant, he was also co-founder and co-owner of Ekoo, a canine-fashion company notable for creating a widely publicized $10,000 dog coat encrusted with Swarovski crystals. Chef Uys’s good looks and charm take nothing away from his talent at the grill. So you are a chef who loves to cook and has owned restaurants but never cooked for them. Please explain. I just cannot imagine spending my days and nights enclosed in a kitchen turning out meal after meal. No. I love to cook but prefer doing private parties for private clients and large events. Catering is very intense, exciting—never the routine. I also do quite a bit of consulting. How much time did it take to put this event together? We have been preparing this for months. Food and drink for over 300 people takes real organization. Many telephone conversations and emails to select the dishes, plan the food, order the ingredients, equipment, personnel etc. One does not improvise such an event. When did you arrive here? I have been cooking here for three days—over at the church kitchen [the First United Presbyterian Church, on Route 199 in Pine Plains]. I think God has forgiven me all of my sins, having spent so much time at church. What is distinctive about South African cuisine? South Africa was a major stop on the “spice route.” We have good natural beef and other meats, and our ocean has many varieties of fresh fish. We cook quite a bit with fruit and fruit juices in marinades, but it is the special blend of spices—curry, cumin, cardamom, coriander and turmeric—that gives our food its distinctive flavor. What do you like best about cooking? Sharing my passion for good food and great wine. Have a glass of my favorite wine—Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir. [I accepted a glass and agreed it was quite lovely—but since it was about three times the price of the Pinotage, I think I would have preferred the three bottles of the other to one of these.] The best things happen between people when they share food and wine together. If you are home alone and no one is looking, what do you make for yourself for dinner? Sliced avocados and scrambled eggs. If you could relive one meal of your life, which would it be? I had dinner with one of South Africa’s top comedians—Casper de Vries—and we went to my favorite restaurant, Jean-Georges. The food was exquisite, I think the best in New York, certainly the most creative. The foie gras with roasted pineapple was incredible. As were all of the dishes on the tasting menu. But Casper was so funny. He kept cracking jokes, and I kept laughing. It may have been irreverent, but the combination of the fabulous food and that funny conversation—it was an extraordinary experience that I would love to repeat.