indomitable Chris von ulmenstein
Chris von Ulmenstein is a name you hear quite often in South Africa’s restaurant community, whether you’re a die-hard foodie or a well-known chef whose menu is always on the chopping block, this name might have sent shivers down your spine or a good laugh and a great dining experience.
Known for having a sharp tongue and an impeccable palate to match, she’s made a name for herself as the most brutally honest and entertaining food critic in the country, jabbing her fork into the next best tasting menu, she pays attention to detail and never minces her word.
Her WhaleTales blog has made her notorious for finding the best and worst SA’s culinary community has to offer, feared by many and loved by most.
Isaac Lediga chats with the indomitable Chris von Ulmenstein
Going on to become a Market Research Consultant and then doing PR in Cape Town for some of SA’s biggest food brands, in 1996 Chris decided to become her own boss and open the first of 4 Guesthouses in Cape Town, The Whale Cottage- the first being in Hermanus and in the span of 11 years opening 3 more locations in Camps Bay, Franschhoek and Plettenberg Bay respectively.
When she was forced to close down and sell all her properties in 2015 in the height of the AirBnB era, she took time off to travel, dance, fall in love and find her way back home with much more to offer.
Her love for writing blossomed and with this, the creation of the WhaleTales Newsletter, reviewing all the top restaurants in the country and gaining momentum as the “Devil-Wears-Prada” of the restaurant industry, focusing mainly on restaurants, wines and tourism.
The blog was selected as a top 10 finalist in the “Most Controversial” Blog category of the 2010 South African Blog Awards.
Pushing the boundaries of her writing career further, she wrote & published SwitchBitch trilogy, which chronicled her travels and her personal transformation of spirituality, physical health and self-discovery.
Chris still updates her blog every day , taking on more responsibility since lockdown , doing social media work and being a Communications Consultant for top Cape Town based Restaurants – Anatoli, Utopia, Zest, Harvest Culture Eaterie and new kings boutique hotel.
I spoke with her about her personal experiences and to find out what makes her tick, and got to see a very a different side of Chris von Ulmenstein.
Chris: I’m in my 7th career now – the transition started at the height of Airbnb, which posed a threat to guest houses, and by 2015 I was running four guest houses.
I saw the writing on the wall, the revenue was dropping. It was a very hard thing for me to sell, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
I did reasonably well on selling, and as much as I hate the word “retirement” that was where I was headed.
I had some money in the bank, I spent my time travelling, cleaning up Camps Bay (which I still do) spent a lot of time walking – I walked 2 Caminos. One was from France to Spain and the second one was from Portugal to Spain.
For a long time life was just about walking, I was still writing the blog from there, writing a blog post every weekday, it wasn’t much of a transition for me to switch to blogging, it was just a continuation, keeping myself informed about what was going on in the restaurant industry.
Fast forward to 2020 during the pandemic I was given the first restaurant to do social media for, which was Utopia.
11 months later I’m still doing social media for them.
While doing that I started doing the same for Anatoli, and a few months ago, Chef Pavel Dimitrov, co-owner of Utopia, invited me to join his new team in opening Zest restaurant in Sea Point, adding new kings boutique hotel, and finally Harvest Culture Eaterie in Tiger Falls to my portfolio.
Isaac: By 2017 you wrote and published your first SwitchBitch book which was the first of the SwitchBitch Trilogy. What inspired you to produce a full body of work relating to your life and your transformation.
Chris: The fact that I sold my properties.
It was hard work just running one guest house- I had four, all in different areas Camps Bay, Hermanus, Franschhoek and Plettenberg Bay.
I had to travel a lot and I was overworked, never exercised. I was eating out of frustration; my diet was a mess.
I had to blog at night and do a full day’s guest house work and not having to do that anymore was a major relief.
I was at a book launch for Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen, and I met a wonderful guy there, he said “I spoke to you about 14 years ago and you gave me some valuable advice, I still remember to this day.”
He said he just wanted to tell me and thank me for it and from there we talked a lot on a day to day basis which resulted in a very unusual interesting relationship blossoming – I fell head over heels in love with this man after not being in a relationship for 20 years, and almost automatically without thinking about it I was losing weight, I lost 45 KG that year.
At the same time I picked up dancing which made even more of a difference to my physical health. I had people that I hadn’t seen in a long time complimenting me on the progress and telling me I should write a book.
I gave in and flew to Italy, found a small guest house, and isolated myself for 3 weeks and wrote a chapter every day. It was 21 days and I worked out the framework of the book to be 21 chapters. I stayed disciplined and completed it.
The first book was about my physical transformation, the second one was about my spiritual transformation after walking the Camino from France to Spain – the man I was seeing at the time felt that I needed to walk the Camino, because I would discover myself and become more in touch with my spirituality.
It brought a me lot of peace.
In 2019 I walked the Portuguese Camino, travelled to Havana in Cuba because I loved dancing and learned salsa. Thereafter I then travelled to Buenos Aires to learn Tango and was there for a month.
From all those travels, the 3rd book came about, themed around letting go of control, self-love, travelling solo and being happy on my own.
In between I stopped over in Lima, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Portugal, The UK and The US visiting the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Isaac: From all your years of experience in the industry, you’ve had the chance to be on both sides of the industry, as a consumer and a business owner. What would you say has changed over the years?
Chris: I would say in the past 10 to 15 years, something that was actually appalling was that all the top chefs were mainly focused on opening as many restaurants as they could, instead of focusing on one and making it the very best, they always had to have the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.
Some chefs even have more than that, and now they’re paying the price.
Most of them have had to close due to the pandemic.
Some of the most notable restaurants are closing down – The Test Kitchen, The Short Market Club.
A lot of these people have had to admit it’s not viable without tourists.
It’s not that they did not succeed; they succeeded at the time that it was at its peak, but I saw huge egos and a lot of arrogance.
Not to mention a lot of top chefs in the country were banning me from their restaurants.
At first the rejection was hard to take, but then I realized it was a huge compliment to me. It just goes to show I have that much power that they would be afraid of me. So all in all I felt that through those years they were living in a bubble and it had to burst at some point.
Isaac: Your work is famous for being very controversial. Do you mean to be controversial or are you just someone who is very honest and doesn’t sugar-coat what they say?
Chris: I’m a very direct and honest person.
There’s no two ways about it, and I’m also German and a Sagittarius so that combination can be very lethal for a lot of people *chuckles*.
I grew up in a household where we say what we mean and we mean what we say. We are very direct and don’t hold back.
I don’t know any other way and I don’t have a filter. I’m the same with my writing. I did realize overtime that a critical review or a controversial review attracts far more readers than the reviews where I am being polite.
At the end of the day it’s all about me being in service of my readers and restaurant lovers because they trust my judgement.
If I say it’s bad, people won’t go, if I say its good people will run to those restaurants.
It just so happens that some people are incredibly sensitive.
Isaac: It’s also probably one of the reasons you do so well in a male dominated industry such as this.
A lot of these chefs are intimidated by a woman who speaks her mind and doesn’t hold back, like most men.
I won’t be bullied by a chef or a business owner. That is just how I am. For a while I had to think about how this affected me and how I felt about it and then I realized that Cape Town is really small and insular in the world’s restaurant industry, and with all my travels, I fell in love with the concept of having this World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
I made my way to New York and visited my ex-husband who booked me 3 top New York restaurants on the list.
I continued the Journey to London and then Paris, Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Portugal and Chile that earned me the title of the most travelled and most experienced restaurant reviewer based in South Africa.
Isaac: Out of all the places you’ve visited and reviewed, which restaurants stood out for you?
Chris: That’s a tough question *laughs*
I would say, probably because it was the most recent experience, it was a place called Central in Lima, Peru.
Just firstly off of the fact that I got a reservation with a 24 hour notice, for a place that you book months in advance.
I was in Lima for 3 days and it was my 3rd day, and the chef/owner was in the kitchen and walking on the floor.
He even came to sit down and chat with me for about 20 minutes.
I’m just a little reviewer from Cape Town, he’s a top Peruvian celebrity Chef and he didn’t have to do any of that, but he did.
That level of care and attention made me feel so special.
And right before that my absolute favourite was dining at JAN Restaurant in Nice, France.
Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizenis AMAZING, he does our country such honour.
They have the most amazing take on South African food catered for in a place like France.
I wouldn’t be caught dead eating mieliepap but he made something so sexy and delicious out of it, it blows my mind every time. His whole menu is a celebration of Classic Iconic South African Cuisine, which isn’t your typical “fancy pants” intricate fusion BS – it’s real, he grew up on a farm, so he knows about authenticity and just serving real food.
There is Mosbolletjiebrood on the menu – I mean how a French person even begin to say that word!
But he’s so proud and that’s what makes him so amazing. He’s got a beautiful creative streak; the décor of the restaurant is gorgeous, it’s a South African Haven in the middle of France.
Everything he does, he does so well, from his marketing to his work ethic. I’ve been there 5 times in my life and it’s the most I’ve ever visited and it’s the most I’ve ever visited any restaurant in the world.
So those are my top two most memorable restaurants.
Isaac: What advice would you give young aspiring writers who aspire to make a mark like you, especially young women entering into a male dominated space?
Chris: From all my journeys, travelling and falling in love and experiencing loss, I’ve learned so much about the power of saying no.
There were so many things I did in the name of being of service to other people.
I did things that I knew were not right because I wanted to preserve a relationship, at my expense. The way I grew up you always had to consider somebody else first, but I’ve learnt now about self-love.
That was my biggest lesson was PUTTING YOURSELF FIRST. Prioritize yourself with no guilt! Another thing I would say is that “no experience is wasted”.
Every day and every mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve, it’s always a stepping stone. All the jobs that I worked, all the things that I’ve seen were an important step in making me who I am today. I got smarter and wiser because of that.
Her dedication to her life’s purpose and her commitment to stand by her word has elevated the quality of her work over the years.
When she speaks people pay attention.
Her straight forward and frank approach to her work is what gives it it’s punch, but her integrity and unwavering spirit is what has seen her endure.
Through lawsuits, bans and petitions to end her career, she refused to flinch at the backlash from those who might say they hate her but in reality, just fear her.
She’s reaping the rewards of trusting herself and following her intuition regardless of whirlwind around her.
This is a woman who has a clear understanding of her power and the value of what she has to offer!