Are you ready for the biggest culinary event of the year? The Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards are back, and the anticipation is palpable. This year’s panel of judges are, again, renowned experts in their respective fields, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table.

The team consists of acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs and industry professionals who will travel the country to rate and evaluate the best restaurants. Their mission is to seek out and celebrate the most exceptional culinary experiences and innovative dining concepts in the country.

As always, the judging process promises to be rigorous, impartial, and fair, ensuring that restaurants are evaluated on their own merits. The judges will pay close attention to every aspect of the dining experience, from the quality of the food and the drinks to the service and ambience.

The stakes are high, and the competition is fierce, but one thing is certain: this year’s Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards are set to be the most exciting and highly anticipated event in the South African culinary calendar.

Meet the 2023 judging panel

ABIGAIL DONNELLY

Abigail is a culinary visionary whose expertise and creativity have made her a household name in the industry. Her artistic flair and innovative approach have redefined the way we think about food.

Abi’s journey began with her own coffee shop, where her talent and unique style quickly caught the attention of the editor of Fairlady magazine. From there, she rose to become the magazine’s food editor, showcasing her culinary prowess and setting the standard for what food media would become.

In 2006, Abigail joined Eat Out as Editor and Chief Judge, cementing her reputation as a discerning tastemaker with an impeccable palate. Her food writing has been recognised with multiple Galliova Awards, further solidifying her position as one of the foremost authorities on all things gastronomic.

Her mentorship has inspired countless aspiring chefs and stylists to follow their dreams and push the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of food. Whether through her styling and writing, her judging, or her mentorship, Abigail’s impact on the South African culinary world is nothing short of extraordinary.

Abigail says, “I am so excited to work alongside and be inspired by the 2023 judging panel, and I look forward to discovering new restaurants around South Africa as well as eating at the established ones that are elevating the standards around the country. I also hope to give diners a good understanding of how restaurants strive for excellence.”

 

JOSEPH DHAFANA 

Meet Joseph Tongai Dhafana, the remarkable sommelier, wine judge and founder of Mosi Wines and Spirits. Originally from Zimbabwe, Joseph’s journey is nothing short of inspiring. He grew up in the communal area of Chirumhanzu and in 2009, made the bold decision to move to South Africa in search of better opportunities.

Starting from scratch, Joseph worked tirelessly to pursue his passion for wine. He took on odd jobs, working as a gardener, dishwasher, barman, and waiter. Through his unwavering dedication and hard work, he became one of South Africa’s most celebrated sommeliers.

Joseph holds a Wine Judging Certificate from the University of Cape Town and was a member of Team South Africa, which competed in the 2015 blind wine tasting championships in France. He went on to captain Team Zimbabwe in the World Cup in France in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The team’s inspiring journey was documented in the award-winning documentary, Blind Ambition.

In 2019, Joseph was recognised for his accomplishments when he received the Eat Out Wine Service Award during his time as head sommelier at La Colombe, one of the country’s most esteemed restaurants.

Today, Joseph’s wine and spirits brand has grown significantly since he made his maiden vintage seven years ago. His success story serves as a testament to the power of hard work, dedication, and unwavering perseverance in the pursuit of one’s dreams.

“This role is both humbling and incredible,” says Joseph. “I have longed to participate, not for fun, but because it’s demanding and challenging. I enjoy dining in various establishments and brainstorming with experienced judges, which is similar to my expertise in judging wine. Analytical thinking, without personal preference, is crucial. I enjoy exploring a dish’s concept, taste, and technique. And I am committed to delivering a fair judgment without fear or favour.”

MARISA MUNRO

Marisa Munro grew up on a farm in Limpopo. As a child, her love for food was sparked by paging through cookbooks. Since then, her adventurous palate has taken her around the world in search of new and exciting flavours.

Cooking is a form of therapy for Marisa, where she gets lost in the pages of recipe books. And here’s the interesting part – she can actually taste a dish just by reading the recipe!

At Woolies, she works alongside a diverse team of creative, dynamic chefs and product developers. With 20 years of experience in product development under her belt, she’s attended food, flavour and trends seminars all over the globe.

But her latest adventure is one she’s particularly excited about.

“Being an Eat Out judge for 2023 is an enormous honour. I can’t wait to explore the local restaurant scene. Being a judge means I get to witness the heart and soul of a chef and experience their unique combination of skills, imagination, and nature’s bounty.”

MOKGADI ITSWENG

Mokgadi Itsweng is an accomplished chef, food activist and author. With more than 17 years of experience in the food industry, she has been a prominent voice in food media, sharing her knowledge and passion for healthy, sustainable eating.

Mokgadi is a champion of ancient grains and indigenous ingredients, using only the finest, freshest in her cooking. She is also a passionate advocate for the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and her debut cookbook, Veggielicious, is a celebration of her love for seasonal produce.

Beyond her work in the kitchen, Mokgadi is also a dedicated food activist, working to promote sustainable and ethical practices in the food industry. She is a strong advocate for supporting small, local farmers and for reducing food waste. Through her cooking, writing, and advocacy work, she is helping to promote a more conscious and responsible approach to food.

“I love food and dining at restaurants is one way I get to travel with my palate and experience different chefs’ food journeys,” Mokgadi says. “Being a judge means I get to explore our beautiful country with its diverse culture and taste what South Africans are eating. I get to represent the ordinary South African who loves food and is always looking for a memorable experience that offers both satisfaction and excellent value. I love to see what the chefs have been up to, creatively, and whether there is a consciousness around ingredients, plant-based food, sourcing, sustainability, and indigenous food.”

HERMAN LENSING

Growing up in the town of Upington in the Northern Cape, Herman had big dreams of becoming a chef. He realised that dream at the prestigious Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) in Stellenbosch, where he honed his skills and emerged as a culinary powerhouse.

At just 22 years old, Herman landed the role of food editor at SARIE magazine, where he quickly made a name for himself with his innovative recipes and bold flavour combinations. But Herman didn’t stop there – he went on to become the editor of SARIE KOS, and has since published several standalone cookbook magazines under his own name.

Herman’s star power doesn’t stop at the page, though. He’s a well-known TV personality, with hit series like Inspirasiekos met SARIE and Dit proe soos huis capturing the hearts and palates of viewers across the country. He’s also a co-host on Minki van der Westhuizen’s talk show on VIA, and has produced some of South Africa’s most popular food reality shows.

Herman has won the sought-after Galliova Award for South Africa’s top food writer not once, but three times – in 2010, 2017, and 2022. And if you’re a fan of Herman’s work, you’ll be delighted to know that his next cookbook is due to hit shelves at the end of 2023.

With his boundless talent and infectious passion for food, Herman Lensing is a force to be reckoned with in the South African culinary world.

Herman says: “I love to eat, it’s what makes me smile. I love South Africa and there is no place in the world that offers such a diverse food landscape. We have some of the world’s best chefs and restaurants. Being part of this year’s Eat Out judging panel is a huge honour and a job that I take seriously. I am looking forward to eating food that tells a story of sustainability, proud use of South African ingredients and that makes me smile with every bite. I can’t wait to taste the many dishes that restaurants produce across South Africa.”

KAREN DUDLEY

Karen Dudley is a chef, author and food entrepreneur, widely known for her exceptional culinary creations and innovative approach to food – especially vegetables. A born-and-bred Capetonian, Karen developed an early love for food and cooking. With years of experience at the intersection of how people connect with food, she has insight and perception of what makes food spaces work. In 1999, Karen opened The Kitchen in Woodstock, Cape Town, a catering company that quickly gained a reputation for its delicious, home-style cooking. The Kitchen soon expanded to include a café, which became a popular hangout spot for locals and tourists alike, including the Michelle Obama. Karen’s passion for using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and her commitment to the industry’s upliftment have been key factors in her success.

Karen has appeared on CNN and TEDx, and has been featured in The New York Times and The Guardian. She has also been a guest judge on multiple reality cooking shows in South Africa and is a familiar face on national TV channels.

Keep an eye on Eat Out’s social media channels over the coming weeks as we get to know each judge a little better.