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New lease of life for a neighbourhood legend

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 October 2010No Comment

THE late Ian Gillies was the personification of his almost-eponymous restaurant, Giles in Craighall Park; and the popular eatery was his alter ego.

He wafted around the multilevel precinct, with its classic cartoons lacquered into table tops and hanging on walls, as if blissfully tending the Elysian Fields. Always delighted to see everyone, Ian was gentle, quiet and unassuming.

Giles was the last of a few restaurants he had owned. The reason it was the last is that five years ago, while locking up late on a Monday night, Ian was viciously attacked and killed. A young kitchen helper who had previously been fired, but given a second chance, decided a cellphone and the night’s takings were worth more than Ian’s life. So, using a kitchen knife, he hacked his magnanimous employer to death.

The last word you would use to describe Ian Gillies would be robust. Hippy-frail, is much closer to the mark. There wasn’t much of a struggle.

One night, just before Ian was so horrifyingly murdered, I had dinner at Giles and he asked me when I was going to listen to his band. “You are always going to come, but you never do,” he gently admonished me. I feebly apologised for my dilatory behaviour and said that before the month was out I would listen to his group.

I did.

Two weeks later I tearfully sat in church and listened as The Alice Band, minus their founder, played at Ian’s funeral. It was so depressing.

In an irony lost on no one, the first person to eulogise Ian was his adopted son, Ben. The same age and colour as the killer. Many people silently refocused their anger off racial lines and back on to the individual in jail.

Then Ian’s longtime major domo, Wellington Nkomo, spoke. The tall Henry Cele lookalike stood in the pulpit and with heartbreaking simplicity, his regal baritone filling every corner of the church, said: “I never worked for Ian. I worked with him.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But to many, the slaying of Ian Gillies was the death knell for Giles.

Their view was that it would just be a matter of months before the restaurant closed. However, they reckoned without Ben and Nkomo.

Ben’s background is unusual. In a modern-day parallel with the story of Moses, when he was just days old, Ben’s mother wrapped him in scraps of cloth and newspaper and left him alongside a main road. Presumably hoping that he would be found.

He was. By Peggy Ntsimane, who worked for Jenny and Ian Gillies. They were dumfounded at the discovery of the little mite. It soon became apparent that, unlike the story of Moses, the mother was not going to be located. So eventually, in a complex arrangement, the Gillies adopted Ben, while Ntsimane, who found him, became his foster mother.

In what doubtless felt like travelling between Venus and Mars, Ben regularly alternated between his foster mother’s rural residence and the Gillies’ home in Craighall Park. He says going to either home was exciting, although quite confusing for everyone.

 

“I think my black mates were the most confused – they wanted to know why my parents weren’t black.”

After attending Kearsney College and completing a BCom in industrial psychology at Stellenbosch University, Ben joined Amalgamated Beverage Industries, which he enjoyed, but felt compelled to leave when Giles was so tragically left rudderless.

For just over a year, Giles limped from one month to the next. Then, boldly, Ben and his family decided to revamp the restaurant, overhaul the menu and change the management structure.

“Initially,” he says, “there was a lot of negativity. Ian had been the only white working at Giles as his whole team was black, mainly Zimbabweans. So, when we began changing the restaurant there was a lot of muted anger from regulars as if, bizarrely, ‘we’ had killed Ian.”

As an example, Ben mentions how, when people complained, they would say things such as, “Ian wouldn’t have let that happen.”

“Sadly,” he says, “it almost became black versus white.” Also, many regulars didn’t “approve” of the transformation that was happening to “their” restaurant.

“But we persevered, did our best and gradually won people over or just got new customers.”

Although it wasn’t initially the goal, Ben and Nkomo soon realised they were morphing from the fine dining restaurant Ian had always aspired to, into a local or gastro-pub.

“When the changes were completed,” Ben says, “disconcertingly, at first not a lot happened. But fortunately, after about six months, more people came walking through the door and kept returning, which was very satisfying.”

During the period they were doing alterations Ben received advice from everyone. “It was amazing how, with the best intentions in the world, they all seemed to know exactly what we should be doing,” he laughs. “Lawyers, doctors, salesmen – name a profession – without exception, all were experts at setting up a better restaurant.”

For people trying to park near Giles on a Friday night it is evident that what Ben and his staff did worked. Most nights of the week the pub is busy, but on weekends, especially if there are big sporting events on TV, the place positively heaves.

I ask Ben what Ian would have thought of the new Giles.

“I think in many ways it would be difficult for him. Ian wanted Giles to be all about food and wine…. Like he had a very small bar – we have a huge bar. But I think he would have been proud we are so busy and Giles is still in the family.”

And what about Johannesburgers’ notoriously fickle patronage of “in” places?

“I don’t think we are ‘in’, as you put it, because we are now more a neighbourhood pub – a ‘local’.”

New smoking laws have made life complicated for restaurants – Giles being no exception. They have to allocate smoking areas and have had to request that people refrain from smoking in other areas.

“We only ask them once or twice,” Ben says. “We also explain it is the law. But we have blocked off areas, we have put up signs and we have fulfilled all legal requirements. After that, if because someone is smoking in the wrong area the authorities want to fine us, we will just have to see them in court.”

When I mention I’m impressed with the laissez-faire “tab” system the staff run for customers, he laughs and says, “It’s only because they know you. Not everyone gets a tab. If a waiter runs one with someone we don’t know, then the onus is on the waiter to get it paid. If the person bilks, the waiter pays. If it is someone we know, then we assume if they forget to pay, they’ll be back.”

Ben has had the odd unpleasant run-in with customers he feels were behaving unreasonably.

“I do believe the customer is king,” he says, “but they are not always right.” The toughest situation he recently had to deal with occurred when a lady steadfastly refused to pay her bill. “She queried a charge for a bottle of wine,” he says. “The fact she was still in the process of drinking without a glass, directly from that very item, was initially lost on her. She kept saying, ‘It’s not my bill – take it away from me’. Anyway, I politely stood my ground and fortunately,” Ben laughs, “after a few tense, but diplomatic moments, she paid.”

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