We’ve all played the hypothetical daydreaming game before where you get to choose who you would like to spend an hour of your time with, if you could spend it with anyone in the world. In some weird and wonderfully amazing way, the universe unexpectedly granted me that hour and a lovely, relaxed chat in a beautiful setting with one of the most inspirational people I’ve met to date on what started out to be a normal Tuesday. I caught up with Michelin-starred chef and boy-down-the-road, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, to talk about the launch of his stunning new project, Jan the Journal.
I found Jan, deep in thought, tucked into a corner of the cool conservatory-inspired Planet Bar of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. He’s casually balancing his laptop on his crossed legs, and looks ridiculously relaxed and composed for someone who’s in the middle of a media storm around the launch of his new stunningly curated, Jan the Journal. He’s flown in from France for a few days and have back-to-back media commitments, ranging from interviews to public appearances and radio talks.
He greeted me with a warm smile and his easy, confident manner immediately set the tone for the interview I’d much rather prefer to call a chat about life, opportunities and chasing dreams.
From your most recent publication, Jan the Journal, it’s clear that food and the almost hallow act of preparing meals formed much of your childhood years. Did you consciously choose to be a chef, or did the calling choose you?
I think I chose to be a chef. As in life, I think we have choices in everything we do. And that was really a choice that I made. I would’ve been a fireman or a priest or a chef (it was between those options). My mother and grandmother helped me with the decision to become a chef, but it was absolutely a choice. And as a child we have choices, but we don’t really realise that. My obsession with having a restaurant was very evident when I was young. I remember we had this old bus on the farm – it was just an empty shell and I used to set it up and make it nice inside, like a little restaurant. I would pay people to come and eat there. So, I was not always a good business man (lots of laughter). I give too much. And I love to give too much. But I love to share things and that is why Jan the Journal is such a special project. And it’s the same with the restaurant; we really share a part of us; a part of ourselves.
Strong female figures are inextricably woven into your culinary story and journey. How did your mom and grandmother influence your cooking style?
Most chefs look too far for inspiration. They go on Pinterest and they follow international chefs and before they know, they’re just doing what everyone else is doing. As where I can really, really recommend looking at what is close to you. Look at something you grew up with. We serve koeksisters, you know, and we’re proud of it. You don’t have to change a koeksister to make it something else. It can just be a very good koeksister. But how my mom and grandmother have really influenced me, is by teaching me to grow where you are planted.
“It’s just that mindset of “I’m going to do this.” I’m going to do this project and I’m going to complete it and I’m going to do it amazingly.”
You have been described as a multi-talented man with an incredibly diverse career, including your interests in photography and the visual arts. Have you ever been tempted to take off your jacket to pursue a different career path?
I’m part of the “slash-generation” and people go around asking, what’s that? And this is exactly what we do today. I want to tell youngsters out there today, it’s fine. It’s fine to have a day job and then to do something after hours which you are so passionate about, and make it a mission to make that your career in the end. It’s fine to be an artist, a potter, a photographer and a blogger and a doctor. It’s fine. I mean there was also this way of thinking, do one thing, stick to it, do it well, and then that’s it for the rest of your life. You know? But no, you can do four things well and as long as you do it well, you can do it. Then of course, to do all those things, you need to have good people around you. It’s about surrounding yourself with strong, like-minded individuals that’s really out there to change the world.
I mean this is what we’ve done with Jan the Journal – it’s not only just me. I’ve got an editor and she’s the most creative person I’ve met. I have a copywriter, I’ve got other photographers. It’s not difficult. It’s just that mindset of “I’m going to do this.” I’m going to do this project and I’m going to complete it and I’m going to do it amazingly. And if you can’t do something in that project, (like I can’t do accounting), then you get someone to help you and join you and collaborate with you.
Do you know how I struggled a few years ago with this whole thing? In France, it’s even worse, because you do one thing and it stays not only with you for the rest of your life, but in your generation and family; your father’s done it, so you need to do it. For the French, you need to be a craftsman and an absolute specialist in your field. That’s how hectic it is.
And then you get brands like Remy Martin Cognac, which is also French, and they’re just on a roll with the slash-generation and they’re loving it. They’re just pushing it out there and that is where I got my philosophy of the slash-generation from. The fact that a company so big and so respectful for so many hundreds of years of making amazing liquor, a thing that is so beautifully crafted – that they have this massive campaign about needing more slash-generationalists.
I have come to know that you rely on certain local products that you import from South Africa to your restaurant in Nice, France – which ingredients from here can you simply not cook without?
That changes a lot. Currently I’m obsessed with Worcester sauce. Especially from Worcester. I’m packing an incredible amount of Worcester sauce in my suitcase for Thursday and I’m also picking up vinegar which is made with fynbos, barrel matured and proudly South African. So, there’s always, always something. That’s why I come here so often; it’s to check out what’s going on. There’s so much beautiful products going on. There’s also a biltong dukkah which blew my mind. Definitely those three.
You spend a lot of time abroad in the south of France and then periods of time in South Africa. Where do you feel most at home – or rather, what defines home for you?
How does that corny saying go? Home is where the heart is. With my mom. On the farm. Definitely around a fire and the stars and the sky. I love, love, love the sky. Cape Town has also been very special to me. I studied here, I got lots of amazing friends and memories here.
Most of your recipes contain strong elements of South African and Afrikaans culture and heritage – how are these recipes received by the French (and other Europeans) that visit your restaurant?
It is strange to them, but also remember; that is what we do. So, they know what to expect when they come there. They don’t expect French cuisine. That makes it slightly easier for us to know that we’re going to take this person on a culinary journey or armchair travelling, if you want.
The French don’t like cinnamon and spices too much. But we always give options. So you’ll have a pancake and a mini milktart and then you’ll get an option that doesn’t have the cinnamon and spices; something with fruit or pasties. It’s constantly challenging.
“South Africans don’t get to see or experience what we do at the restaurant, so Jan the Journal is our chance to open up and to actually say, this is what we’re serving…”
We do feedback forms every day after the guests dined at the restaurant. I receive them on my laptop and I can actually get each individual guest’s feedback and I can see what they liked, what they loved, what they found interesting and how we can tweak it so that it’s even more interesting.
I check the plates personally as they come back to the kitchen. I’m more in front of the bin than on the pass. So, I’m actually just checking what’s being thrown away; what the customers are not eating. It’s incredibly important to know what’s going down the wasteline, especially from a business perspective, too.
Jan the Journal is so much more than just a recipe book or lifestyle magazine – it’s a luxurious amalgamation of snippets from your personal diary, a showcase of your journeys and expressions of art and photography. If you had to choose one of the more than 50 recipes from Jan the Journal, which is your favourite – or which one did you enjoy creating the most?
South Africans don’t get to see or experience what we do at the restaurant, so Jan the Journal is our chance to open up and to actually say, this is what we’re serving this season, this is what is on our menu. A lot of the recipes are easy to make, like really easy.
The recipe I enjoyed most, and it goes hand-in-hand with the restaurant, is the edible candle. When I made the candle I really felt that this is something that is so dear to me and that’s so spiritual. It also has a strong connection with my grandmother; I light a candle for everyone that breaks bread with me. There’s something really conceptual to that.
On a night when you get home after work, and you don’t feel like dining out or cooking anything elaborate, what is your most favourite quick and easy comfort meal?
It’s definitely a peanut butter en jam sandwich. Definitely. Three seconds in the microwave and then the peanut butter just starts to go oozy. Or I’ll literally take a whole fresh baguette, cut it open and layer thick butter, biltong and chips. With mayonnaise and chutney. Love, love, love, love, love it. But only if I have the real, lekker Mrs. Balls chutney chips, otherwise it doesn’t work. I’m very easy when it comes to food. I have evenings when I’ll make myself something amazing, but at the restaurant we are so focussed on perfection that when you get home you really just feel to make a one pot dish. I love curry, or ‘n lekker potjie, a stew.
The burning question on everyone’s lips – what’s next for you? A quick glimpse into upcoming projects? Will you be bringing JAN home anytime soon?
Jan the Journal is a bi-annual publication so at the moment we’re working on the next edition. I don’t want to spread myself too thin. At the moment I’m finding the TV series, the restaurant and the journal very satisfying; it gives me a big kick. Having said that, there’s always something up my sleeve, and it’s always something that I love and respect and it will be completely unexpected. At the moment I’m bringing JAN home through the TV series and the journal. I’m focusing on making South Africa more famous by showing off our culinary art in Europe. I’m constantly pushing for excellence and innovation.