Clenergy is situated down the road from the natural hair salon where I get my treatments done. Shortly before it was set to open, I saw a contractor putting up a sign that read “anti-ageing eatery”. I made a “here we go with the gimmicks” face, got into my Uber and forgot about it— until curiosity got the better of me.
When I eventually get to Clenergy to meet with the owner, Abdulla Miya, it is a Sunday morning and the space is packed with a lazy Sunday brunch crowd.
The Clenergy aesthetic blends industrial and Scadanavian design concepts in a way that works for the high ceilings, white walls and polished concrete floors that house the black chairs and tables.
To give me an idea of what the food tastes like, Miya asked the head chef, Andre Brown, to prepare the tapas version of six dishes from the menu. Their 200g steak with vegetables and a bite size beef burger are the first two to come out of the kitchen.
Before I get to ask him, Miya explains how Clenergy is a restaurant that is governed by the desire to serve their consumers food that they believe is “basically guilt free” by making sure it has no refined sugar, no wheat and very few carbs.
Clenergy is his first attempt at being a restaurateur. Before this he spent 25 years in advertising working at Ogilvy & Mather before taking up the position of managing director for advertising agency Net#work BBDO.
Outside of advertising, Clenergy is not Miya’s first rodeo with selling consumers the opportunity to look their best. From 2013 until very recently, Miya was the chief executive officer for Celltone Skin Care: a product that promises who uses them soft hands and smoother skin that will have them looking younger.
The “anti-ageing” tagline comes from Miya’s belief that “sugar is an enemy against a long and healthy life.”
Developing a menu seemed pretty straightforward once the “no sugar, no wheat, and low carb” principle was in place. Miya explains that it is for this reason that he and his wife were able to finalise the menu without the input of a nutritionist.
The eatary’s final menu is made up of dishes that most people are familiar with. “People have a perception that healthy eating means eating bland and alternative food,” says Miya while placing a piece of steak on his plate. “We’re about making healthy eating a mainstream habit by offering our customers the foods they already know and love.”
The menu includes porridge, sandwiches, burgers, wraps, steaks, pizzas, salads, pasta, fish, coffee, tea, and a whole range of desserts. The twist is that this restaurateurs have made mindful ingredient choices that see them making their own bread, buns, pasta (using butternut) and sauces, to ensure that they are not using anything that has sugar hidden in it.
The only sugar on Clenergy’s menu is the fructose in the fruit and the xylitol in their desserts. If patrons want some sugar with their teas and coffees, Clenergy offers them sweetener sachets from Freesweet: the sugar replacement company that was endorsed by Diabetes SA in 2019.
The result of their ingredient choice makes for a buffet that is underwhelming in some instances.
With regards to affordability, prices on the menu range from R25 (for a toasted cheese and tomato sarmie) to R210 (for a grilled kingklip that comes with a side of air fried sweet potato chips or spinach and butternut). The dessert menu ranges from R10 for a chocolate chip cookie (that I can hide in my closed fist) to R68 for a chocolate brownie cheesecake slice.
Clenergy ticks all the dining boxes because there’s very little that you can’t get. There are indoor and al fresco dining options, a coffee bar, a dessert corner, as well as a Dischem-like shelf of health. And apart from refining a delivery service that will operate in the vicinity of Greenside, Clenergy currently offers meal plans that their website says can either cater to increasing performance, result in weight loss, or better the health of people with chronic illnesses like diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure.
There’s a point during the interview where I feel overwhelmed — by the food on the table and the information that Miya is serving. On the surface, Clenergy’s fight against refined sugar seems to be in line with talks to increase sugar tax because products with sugar are fueling the high rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
“We want people to associate healthy food with flavour, indulgence and decadence: that’s why our food is designed to taste unhealthy,” he says while I chew two mouthfuls of their cauliflower steak. The creamy spinach and sauteed butternut cubes that taste like Sundays at home almost convince me that Clenergy does not feed into the deprivation, restrictive eating and food policing ideas.
But then their branding and messaging seems to be promoting Clenergy using diet culture tactics. Their online menu has proverbs that dance to the diet culture song and remind me why blindly subscribing to their version of healthy eating is not for me. “Eat yourself pretty… Now you can have your cake and eat it. . . A moment on the lips does not have to make it down to the hips,” they read.
According to her website, anti-diet dietician and intuitive eating counsellor, Christy Harrison says diet culture is a set of beliefs that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue”. Harrison also warns against a form of diet culture that is classified by talks of “clean eating, detoxes, cleanses, the overuse of elimination diets, carb restriction, gluten phobia, and ancestral diets”.
When I bring this up with Miya, he says, “We want to empower people to live a healthy lifestyle without compromising on one of life’s greatest pleasures: food.”
At its core, there’s nothing wrong with Clenergy. The food is ethically sourced, palatable and familiar, the portions are generous and items on the menu are reasonably priced. The only sore point is how they sell the message. That being said, convictions against diet culture aren’t enough to invalidate its hype and the fact that more people, young and old alike, resonate with this conventional and long standing idea of wellness.