Discover Alessandro Khojane the man behind Gemelli: Joburg’s culinary jewel, perfect for dining, drinks, and Instagram moments

Visionary restaurateur Alessandro Khojane, also known as ‘Alex’ or ‘The Sotho Italian’ is the man behind popular restaurants Gemelli, Phirinyane Bar by Gemelli, Pantry by Gemelli and Manaka Coffee. Picture: Supplied

Visionary restaurateur Alessandro Khojane, also known as ‘Alex’ or ‘The Sotho Italian’ is the man behind popular restaurants Gemelli, Phirinyane Bar by Gemelli, Pantry by Gemelli and Manaka Coffee. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 23, 2024


Johannesburg is bursting with restaurants that have become go-to hang-out spots for individuals looking for a good meal or cocktails and even that perfect backdrop for that Instagram picture.

One such gem is Gemelli in Bryanston which has gained popularity in Joburg North for being a venue that ticks all the boxes. The establishment is approaching a decade of being open, having first opened its doors on October 24, 2015, as a family restaurant and has since grown into so much more.

Visionary restaurateur Alessandro Khojane, also known as "Alex" or “The Sotho Italian” is the man behind the popular restaurant located at Posthouse Link Centre, where you can also find his other restaurants; Phirinyane Bar by Gemelli, Pantry by Gemelli - which also houses Manaka Coffee.

Gemelli in Italian means twins and the inspiration behind the name stems from “prima la famiglia dei Gemelli” which means twins family first. Khojane does not have a twin but he and his brother look very much alike that they have been referred to as twins.

Born, in Bloemfontein in the Free State, Khojane grew up in Roma, Italy as his father was a Lesotho diplomat.

In Italy, Khojane developed a deep love for people and food, which later inspired the launch of Gemelli in 2015 and led to his successful career in the culinary industry.

The expansion of Gemelli started because Khojane wanted to give his customers what they needed and at the time it was just a waiting area that could host the diners who would flock to his restaurant.

When Gemelli opened its doors its market was caucasian people but in 2017 things took a shift, as the waiting area started to gain a little life of its own.

As customers would have their starters and welcome drinks, while they awaited their table, many found themselves never wanting to leave the waiting area for their table - which led to the birth of Phirinyane Bar by Gemelli.

The bar also brought in a new clientele, the black community, the ones who didn’t know about the fine dining establishment, that now had a bar in its vicinity that provided the vibe they were looking for.

Khojane’s old barman and mixologist, Mmisology would play music on his phone hooked up to an aux cord.

The music he played set the tone of the vibe of the bar.

As the crowds kept coming in, Khojane expanded his area, leading into the centre’s parking lot.

The entrance to the Phirinyane Bar. Picture: Supplied

Before 2020 his patrons were enjoying their drinks under umbrellas, but sitting outside can be tricky, especially in winter which led to the building of Phirinyane Bar.

“It became a problem,” admits Khojane.

“It became too much of a party, the restaurant side started suffering, and the food started suffering. My older customers (35 and up) were not enjoying it anymore as it became a party and it affected Gemelli.”

In 2023, Gemelli underwent a major revamp that had the inclusion of a stairway that defined the entrance of the establishment and separated it from the Phirinyane Bar.

Inside the Phirinyane Bar. Picture: Supplied

“For me, I was redoing the restaurant so that there could be a clear difference between restaurant and bar.

“Many of my regulars, who are 35 and up couldn't come and I wanted them back along with my regular corporate clients. People used to love being at Gemelli until the bar happened, which is my money spender - that’s where the money gets made and you need to take care of that, so I worked around it.”

The revamp of Gemelli was the talk of social media pictures and videos of the stairs, the dirty mirrors and the white couches that could be seen on numerous posts on TikTok and Instagram.

“Social media went ape!”

Gemelli's famous waiting area that has become a popular places for patrons to take pictures: Picture: Oluthando Keteyi/IOL

“There are parts of the restaurants that we didn't think would be photo oppos, we knew the couch. We didn't know people were going to start taking pictures on the stairs, by the dirty mirror.

“There’s only so much I can plan; my plan there’s stairs were not a photo oppo - they were an entrance to the restaurant. Now we have traffic - people waiting at the bottom of the stairs as others take their pictures.”

In 2023, Khojane opened the Pantry by Gemelli which is at the bottom of Gemelli - which serves an all-day breakfast and brunch and has become popular for private functions. A space for grown women who are tired of being at the bar.

Women are at the centre of Khojane’s restaurants. “I build around women because men don’t appreciate food. You can give a man a burger and chips and he will be satisfied.

“Women can cook, they get dressed up, women love getting together for lunches and dinners. Men get together by mistake, women appreciate going out.”

This is where Pantry came in as a place for the older women clientele, 35 and up to have brunch, away from the formalities of Gemelli and for Khojane to have breakfast any time of the day, even after 11.

When it came to the design of the Pantry, Khojane told Bianca Boas from the Blackline Group that the space must be very feminine, he's in love with the colour green and should have lots of light.

Khojane understands restaurants; he has gone from waiting tables to managing restaurants and now he owns them. He attributes his wins over the years to having a great team that does the work.

Being called a great leader makes Khojane awkward as he simply treats people how he would have liked to be treated as a staff member in a restaurant when he started working inside them at the age of 19.

The stairway entrance has become a popular picture spot and often has a little traffic as diners wanting to come inside, have to wait for the photography to come to an end. Picture: Oluthando Keteyi/IOL

Throughout the years Khojane has empowered his staff and helped them make their own lives better. He remembers how when he started Gemelli at the age of 33, there was only one car in the parking lot and it belonged to him and now there are 13 other cars that belong to his staff.

“Their success is my success. We’ve done so well that these guys can afford cars, from taking taxis. These guys have been doing the same jobs even before me and couldn't afford to buy cars and now they can.”

Khojane believes in nurturing potential, especially with those who want to put in the work needed.

Khojane also owns a consulting business that focuses on helping restaurateurs enter the industry by developing their menus, training kitchen teams, hiring floor staff, building and design of the restaurant, admin and advice on managing contracts.

“It’s hard because there’s people that listen and it works and there are people who don’t listen and then they learn the hard way and come back and we do the same thing over again.”

“It’s easy to lead your team, it’s hard consulting on another team, cause they need a leader. What I’m finding when I consult in restaurants is that people need me to be their leader in their team and I’m like I’ve got my team, I’m here to help you run your business.”

One of Khojane’s secret ingredients to his success is his strong relationships with his customers not just the Gemelli ones but even before when he was managing other people’s restaurants.

His relationships with some of his long-term customers have led to the fruition of his dreams of owning a restaurant; one of his first investors was a customer and he a long-time customer turned friend of his happened to be on the board of the shopping centre he wanted Gemelli to be at.

In 2025 Gemelli turns 10 and it has been an interesting ride, filled with unforgettable moments; like how in 2018, the extraction in the kitchen went off and smoke was coming into the restaurant and they took all the chairs and tables outside, put car lights on and customers willingly moved outside and it became a party.

If you are looking for Italian food with the distinct preferences of the South African palate, then Gemelli is a must try and if you are looking for breakfast at 2 pm then Pantry is the answer and you can get a cup of Manaka Coffee while you are there.

IOL Lifestyle