Jan Hendrik Van Der Westhuizen, a Michelin Star 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 documentary about JAN, opened a second private dining room honouring his grandmother, Maria and created an organic wine named JAN.
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?
Clove.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? J
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 F ebruary.