Jan Hen­drik van der Westhuizen | CHEF

When I met Jan Hen­drik van der Westhuizen for the first time in 2016, he had just cat­a­pulted onto the world stage af­ter clinch­ing the ac­co­lade of a Miche­lin star for his first self-ti­tled restau­rant JAN. A lot has hap­pened since then; filmed a tele­vi­sion

Upscale Living Magazine - - Contents - | By Heléne Ra­mack­ers

De­spite his fame – they say you have ‘made it big’ when you are known only by your first name – he has re­mained hum­ble and hard­work­ing, in sharp con­trast to let­ting his celebrity get to his head. What I re­mem­ber from my in­ter­view with Jan Hen­drik are his movie-star good looks, per­fectly chis­elled fea­tures, pierc­ing green eyes, pas­sion­ate way of speak­ing about his loves and his in­fec­tious laugh. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble not to swoon over him.

Jan, you are older, wiser and even more hand­some than the last time I saw you. How is that pos­si­ble?

Def­i­nitely older and I think a slight bit wiser….lots has hap­pened and I love what I do every day! My say­ing of do­ing some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary every day has been my life motto since I can re­mem­ber and it’s pos­si­bly this that is keep­ing the smile on my face.

You opened JAN in 2013. Five years have passed and you are still go­ing strong. What is the recipe (no pun in­tended) for your suc­cess?

Don’t stop pay­ing at­ten­tion to the small­est de­tails. Make mis­takes and learn from them. In­vest in your­self, your en­ergy and the peo­ple around you.

How does a self-con­fessed in­tro­vert man­age to achieve all this in such a short time?

I have a short at­ten­tion span. I like to touch some­thing and make a dif­fer­ence. Raak­vat! (Cut­ting edge). That is of the ut­most im­por­tance!!

What are your favourite smells from your child­hood?

Burnt toast on the coal stove.

Your love af­fair with food is leg­endary – start­ing off in the kitchens of your mother and grand­mother, study­ing home eco­nomics at school and try­ing to ap­pease your fa­ther by play­ing rugby and then you scored a try on the wrong side of the posts. How did you hide your culi­nary ge­nius from him?

I kept telling him it is a phase that I am go­ing through… I said that it is im­por­tant that I know the ba­sics of cook­ing so in case I would go to the army one day, I would be able to sur­vive. He liked that idea, but never re­alised I dec­o­rated wed­ding cakes in the back kitchen. That’s what I call sur­vival skills!

On the farm in Mpumalanga where you grew up, at the age of 12, you dressed up the milk­ing staff in white and played re­lax­ing mu­sic to the cows for them to pro­duce more milk? You even spoke to the cows. What was the re­sult of this holis­tic ap­proach in your young life?

I don’t know, but I wanted calm­ness and beauty and I thought if the cows were happy their milk would be bet­ter. If I think of some­thing I do it. If I look back to it to­day it re­ally makes sense to me. A good chef knows his prod­uct. A great chef knows where his prod­uct comes from.

Your par­ents must be in­cred­i­bly proud of you and they have even vis­ited your restau­rant. Granted, the food at JAN is some­what dif­fer­ent to what your fa­ther is fa­mous for – his ‘braaibrood­jies’ (bread toasted on a fire). What were his im­pres­sions of din­ing at JAN?

He loved it so much! My mother had to but­ter his bread and do ev­ery­thing for him as he didn’t know what to do with all the cut­lery and crys­tal. Af­ter a few co­gnacs and cokes he started shar­ing his plates with the neigh­bour­ing ta­ble, say­ing … this is my son’s food!

On 12 Oc­to­ber 2017, your 90-year old grand­mother Maria boarded a plane for her first over­seas trip ever to be the guest of hon­our at the open­ing of her name­sake in Nice. That must have been a phe­nom­e­nal ex­pe­ri­ence for the both of you.

She wants to come back! She was the per­fect fit for the French Riviera; she dressed up in style and re­ally couldn’t be­lieve what “over­seas” was like. She is al­ready plan­ning a trip for 2019 at the age of 92.

You are an in­cred­i­ble pho­tog­ra­pher and painter. Is there any­thing you can’t do?

I can­not iron.

Your cu­ri­ous na­ture makes you want to know and learn about lots of dif­fer­ent things - like a sponge you ab­sorb so much. Do you have mo­ments when you are re­ally bored?

I never sit still. Which means I am al­ways on the move. I get bored in meet­ings that are longer than 20 min­utes. To­tally bored. I start to scrib­ble.

The Miche­lin star! What an in­cred­i­ble ac­com­plish­ment. The first star ever awarded to a South African. Af­ter only two years of open­ing JAN. Con­grat­u­la­tions! You prob­a­bly strive to do bet­ter each and every day and im­prove on the ex­pe­ri­ence pa­trons have at JAN. What can they ex­pect when din­ing at JAN?

We set stan­dards higher every day. We im­prove our­selves, our tal­ents and guests re­turn for orig­i­nal flavours, un­for­get­table ser­vice and a set­ting that takes them to a place far far away.

Is there a dif­fer­ent gas­tro­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence at MARIA?

For the mo­ment, it is a pri­vate din­ing room that of­fers the same menu for groups of 8 to 16 in a beau­ti­ful space. I have other plans up my sleeve, but for now it is amaz­ing to wel­come groups as JAN is too small for this.

Tell us about the strin­gent process it took to create your own blend of cu­vèe?

A few fan­tas­tic hang­overs and an ex­pe­ri­ence that I have al­ways dreamt of. Mak­ing a wine is like mak­ing a sauce. You add a lit­tle bit of this, a lit­tle bit of that and you keep on tast­ing, un­til it’s per­fect.

It is ev­i­dent in your work and your trade, even in your life, that you are an ab­so­lute per­fec­tion­ist. Has that been to your detri­ment?

I have mo­ments that I let go on some things, but in gen­eral I like it when things are in place, work­ing, clean and neat. This makes me strug­gle to sleep some­times but noth­ing a cup of camomile can’t do for the old brain.

How im­por­tant is it to have a sense of hu­mour in your line of work?

Every day we work with prod­ucts that were happy when they were pro­duced and grown, taken care of and most im­por­tantly they were loved. We should too. It just makes sense. The harsh con­di­tions in kitchens can get things go­ing the other way some­times, but my kitchen is 90 per­cent a happy, calm and place filled with a good sense of hu­mour.

I sup­pose pa­tience is also a virtue?

Tell me about it!

You are very hands-on at JAN – sourc­ing flow­ers for the restau­rant, serv­ing food, be­ing at the front to greet pa­trons. Do you be­lieve it adds to the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence?

Ab­so­lutely. I do this when­ever I can. Guests feel the pres­ence and they feel spe­cial.

You have had some fa­mous guests, some de­light­ful (Ju­lia Stiles) ones. That must have been quite an hon­our for you.

We never shared who our fa­mous guests are as they keep com­ing back. But there have been some in­cred­i­ble peo­ple that I never imag­ined I would meet in my life.

Have there been not-so-de­light­ful guests and what has that ex­pe­ri­ence taught you?

Not much, but of course we all have those ones. I like to move on with things. Try to get the guest in a bet­ter space or mind-set and if that doesn’t work, we move on and fo­cus on what we know we do well. Some guests re­ally don’t un­der­stand the ef­fort we put into each ex­pe­ri­ence and I can spot them from a mile.

Any peo­ple - fa­mous or not - that you would still like to cook for?

Oprah Win­frey and The Queen. I want to give them a tjop­pie (lamb chop), pap (por­ridge) and sous (sauce).

Are there cer­tain tastes the French palate can’t han­dle?

They are not crazy about spices, cin­na­mon, chilies and com­bi­na­tions like mint and choco­late.

You are proudly South African, in­cor­po­rat­ing some South African dishes with a twist on the menu at JAN. What are the favourites amongst din­ers and your favourites to make?

Bobotie and bil­tong.

What are your favourite smells now?


Apart from your beau­ti­ful set of knives that seem to travel ev­ery­where with you, what other es­sen­tial el­e­ments do you re­quire in your kitchen?

Hand blender, good chop­ping board and beau­ti­ful plates.

French is not the eas­i­est of lan­guages to mas­ter. I as­sume there has been an im­prove­ment?

I still take lessons and would say I am now al­most 60 per­cent there. But yes, it is a con­stant learn­ing school and some­times a big frus­tra­tion!

You filmed a doc­u­men­tary en­ti­tled JAN in the dead of win­ter and in only one week. Only you are able to do that. What were the high­lights for you?

Work­ing with such an in­cred­i­ble team. They to­tally got me from the first mo­ment.

Apri­cale. What a pic­turesque place! How did you dis­cover that hid­den gem?

While work­ing on the yachts in Monaco, the boat owner told me about it. His mother was an artist in the vil­lage. I loved it from the first mo­ment I set foot there.

You have se­cured a last­ing friend­ship with the beau­ti­ful Jeanette van Ma­nen and Pier­gior­gio. What, apart from their won­der­ful

com­pany and de­li­cious food, draws you back to Apri­cale time and again?

Be­ing able to have noth­ing around me that screams at­ten­tion. It is all sim­ple, plain but SO in­cred­i­bly de­li­cious and beau­ti­ful.

You live in Nice, not far from your restau­rant. What have you done to create a homely en­vi­ron­ment for your­self?

I lit­er­ally live a two minute walk from JAN. I have es­tab­lished quite a rou­tine – stop­ping at the boulan­gerie every morn­ing, cut­ting my hair at the same hair­dresser for years, I have the same fruit and veg­etable sup­plier, I go to the same place to do my laun­dry and visit the same wine bar. They are all on one block. I am a crea­ture of habit.

You spend a fair time trav­el­ling. Apart from the ob­vi­ous – South Africa – which other places have left last­ing im­pres­sions?

Ja­pan. It is one of the most in­cred­i­ble coun­tries I have ever been to … the cul­ture, peo­ple and food is out of this world!!!

I love the quote from your grand­mother – “Reach for the moon and you may land on a star”. You al­ready have the star – will you be aim­ing for the moon next?

Not sure, but per­haps an­other star?

What re­ally ex­cites you right now?

I am shoot­ing a doc­u­men­tary on my life for a French tele­vi­sion chan­nel. It shows me cook­ing in South Africa and go­ing back to my roots. It fea­tures peo­ple who are im­por­tant to me and also show­cases my beau­ti­ful home coun­try.

Plans for the rest of 2018?

I am to­tally ex­cited to be pub­lish­ing my own Jour­nal. It is a bi-an­nual edi­tion of peo­ple, places and recipes that in­spire me. It’s like a cof­fee ta­ble book/magazine but more time­less, over­sized and filled with one of my big­gest pas­sions - food and pho­tog­ra­phy. It will be on shelf in South Africa at the be­gin­ning of April. The Jour­nal can be pre-or­dered at the end of Fe­bru­ary.

IN­STA­GRAM: @jan­hen­drik Face­book: @jan­hen­drik­food www.jan­hen­drik.com

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