At 19h30 this evening ‘JAN’ will be launched on via, on Channel 147 on DStv, a series of nine hour-long episodes kicking off tonight. It celebrates JAN restaurant in Nice, which has been awarded one Michelin star for two years running, and its co-owner Chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen. I have had the pleasure of eating at Chef Jan-Hendrik’s JAN restaurant three times in the past three years, the most Proudly South African restaurant in the world, and deserving of the highest Eat Out accolade in the 2017 Top 10 Restaurant Awards. Excellent news is that Chef Jan-Hendrik is missing South Africa, and has very gently hinted that he will be setting up a JAN restaurant in the Cape!
We received a carton of popcorn, water, and a glass of Lord’s bubbly, and were invited to sit back and relax, and watch the first episode to be broadcast this evening. The first episode is largely focused on the restaurant in Nice, with Chef Jan-Hendrik speaking most, but his Chefs Kevin Grobler and Rutger Eysvogel contributed too, as did Chef Jan’s business partner Pascal Szafranski.
When the producers of via first heard about JAN’s Michelin star accolade in 2016, they invited Chef Jan-Hendrik to participate in a program series about his restaurant. At first the chef refused, but eventually he contacted producer Carien Loubser, and agreed. I was told that it was a miracle shoot, with nine episodes shot in nine days, not only in Nice, but also across the border in Italy, mainly in Apricale, the Italian village to which I was introduced by Chef Jan-Hendrik in 2015, and where I spent three weeks in August this year to write my book.
We were told that via TV makes celebrities into normal people, and normal people into celebrities, but somehow neither category seemed to apply to Chef Jan-Hendrik. He is a creative chef with South African roots and an international status, having received the highest international accolade of any South African restaurant, with the Michelin star. Chef Jan-Hendrik recalled the call which he received late on a Saturday evening, all in French, but he did understand the word ‘Michelin’, and that he was to get onto a plane to Paris to receive his first star. It was unbelievable to him. Pascal added that it was almost impossible for JAN restaurant to receive a Michelin star, given that Chef Jan-Hendrik had never studied or worked under a French Chef. The restaurant received its one star in February 2016, and repeated this accolade in February this year.
Chef Jan-Hendrik studied cheffing at the Zevenwacht Cookery School, and also did a course in photography and design, which stood him in good stead. He had been in France for two years already when he met Pascal, now his business partner. When he found the restaurant space he tells the audience: ‘It was my time! It was my space!’.
Chef Jan-Hendrik explained that we all need a little bit of luck in life. He had searched for a restaurant space in Nice for months, despite living in Monaco at the time. He walked around the Nice port area, and saw a boarded up property, which indicated that it had restoration potential. Chef Jan-Hendrik saw the potential in the space, and Pascal reinforced that Chef Jan-Hendrik has a creative eye, knowing exactly how to transform it into the beautiful space that it has become, with a grey wall colour, chandeliers from the Metro in Paris, and riempies type chairs made in France. Flower arrangement are created by Chef Jan-Hendrik himself, and orchids in pots, and other greenery, even containers of herbs at the entrance to the restaurant, soften the restaurant room and lift its status. Chef Jan-Hendrik told himself to ‘Just do it’! Jackie Burger worked with Jan-Hendrik at Elle magazine before he was a chef, and she praised him in saying that his ‘creativity is spontaneous, he is an artist’.
In 2013 the doors to JAN restaurant opened, and at the time that I had read about Chef Jan-Hendrik in 2015 via Errieda du Toit, the restaurant had already received a Michelin knife and fork, a first entry level recognition of the restaurant’s potential. I ate at the restaurant in June of that year, and it was the greatest excitement for me, being the highest accolade restaurant I had ever eaten at, and meeting Chef Jan-Hendrik for the first time. I asked him during the lunch if he could recommend a small French village in which I could brush up on my meager French learnt at the local Alliance Français, but he could not recommend any. He did say that Apricale on the other side of the Italian border, north of Ventimiglia, is his escape hole, and he would check if there was a room available at the B&B, which is exactly what he did, and I was very lucky to get a booking for a week, at the Apricus Locanda. His mother was visiting from Middelburg at the time, and we drove to Apricale, Chef Jan-Hendrik doing a sightseeing tour for us on the way.
In the first episode we were shown Chef Jan-Hendrik in the shower, dressing in his chef uniform, adding his badge with a French and a South African flag, worn by each of his staff members. and then heading to his restaurant but on the way he pops into an antique shop with beautiful crockery, seeing it as an inspiration for a new dish to create. He said that he gets excited when he sees creative things. He also popped in at the florist, buying roses, and then creating a dramatic arrangement for the restaurant.
Chef Jan-Hendrik said that both his grandmothers were ‘creative foodies’. His mother too was an excellent wedding cake baker, and Chef Jan-Hendrik would help her decorate the cakes while his dad waited patiently outside for him with his tractor. His parents and grandmothers were very proud of him opening the new restaurant. Chef Jan-Hendrik’s dad expected him to farm, and was surprised that he wanted to be a chef. In becoming a chef, he had to not disappoint his parents, and he put enormous pressure on himself, to achieve. The best moment was when his father came for dinner to the restaurant one evening and ordered a cognac and Coke, his father feeling content in the restaurant. Chef Jan-Hendrik recalled having such a feeling of satisfaction. ‘I felt that I had arrived’.
Head Chef Kevin Grobler, formerly of Delaire Graff, spoke about his boss, praising Chef Jan-Hendrik for being inspired, creative, and passionate in everything he does. He has a high respect for Chef Jan-Hendrik. He said that it is a huge bonus to work in a restaurant which became a Michelin star a few months after he started working there.
Chef Rutger Eysvogel also moved from Delaire Graff to JAN, and praised Chef Jan-Hendrik for showing him what cooking is about, and what he wants people eating at JAN restaurant to feel after a meal. He always makes things look beautiful. The goal is to wow the guests, and they put everything into what they do, including mopping the floors, dusting the flowers, and in creating the food and serving the wine. Chef Jan-Hendrik is a perfectionist. He added that Chef Jan-Hendrik sees beauty in chaos. The cuisine the restaurant offers at JAN shows that South Africa is not a third world country, in that it produces amazing food.
Chef Jan-Hendrik was described as being different to other chefs, in seeing things holistically. Ultimately he wants to promote South African culture and cooking. He used the word ‘heritage’, reflecting his pride in South Africa, and his origin. Guests should not just enjoy eating at the restaurant, but should also have such a good experience that they can sense that everyone had put everything into creating the meal. This is very gratifying, giving him and his staff contentment.
Chef Jan-Hendrink shared that he started offering Malva Tert and Bobotie at JAN Restaurant, but the Bobotie was not always well received by his patrons, the sweet and sour taste, with coconut, chutney, egg, tomato salsa, and banana being an unknown mix of flavors. Chef Jan-Hendrik amended the bobotie recipe, creating a Bobotie macaron instead. He then introduced a Brioche-style Mosbolletjiebrood in the restaurant, adding aniseed, and serving it innovatively with an edible pork fat candle. He spoke about sago pudding and fruit encased in meringue, and topped with hibiscus powder. Guests receive a dunking Beskuit to eat with coffee the next morning, with guidelines as to how to eat it the South African way.
A guest exclaimed: ‘You gave me goosebumps, taking me back to my mom and gran’s cooking’. Another guest praised the imaginative presentation.
Chef Jan-Hendrik told us how he battled with French initially, receiving whole duck with feathers when he ordered duck breast. He had to learn the French character, he said. Some evenings he needed to take a sip of mampoer sent over by his father when things get too tough for him.
The pressure to maintain the Michelin star is tough, and hence Chef Jan-Hendrik drives perfection in all respects in his restaurant, as the inspectors are not announced and could be one guest, or a table of six. They use a checklist to evaluate the restaurant, including the tablecloths, the fold of the toilet paper, and many more elements to evaluate the restaurant. Chef Jan-Hendrik said that he never dreamt of being in a Michelin Guide. Receiving a Michelin star is what chefs dream of. Since receiving the Michelin star for his restaurant, Chef Jan-Hendrik has remained humble.
The music in the first episode we saw earlier today is a beautiful mix of classic pieces and French songs. The first episode opens with Edith Piaf’s ‘No Regrets’, sung in Zulu, which was played to the audience as a stand alone piece a second time. The first episode ends with Chef Jan-Hendrik taking a break in Apricale, a perfect place for him to escape from his own perfectionism.
It was at this point, during a question and answer session, in being asked what would be next after the Michelin star, that Chef Jan-Hendrik repeated what he hinted at a year and a half ago at the launch of his second cookbook ‘JAN: A Breath of French Air’, namely that he misses our country, and that ‘JAN is op pad!’, which we take to mean that a JAN restaurant will open somewhere in or close to Cape Town in the future. This created a stir of excitement in the audience.
The remaining episodes appear likely to be focused mainly on Apricale and Italy. Apricale is a place in which Chef Jan-Hendrik can let down his hair, and open his head, giving him inspiration. The series shoot was completed nine months ago. They had no time to do a recce, the filming ‘being 100% real’.
At the conclusion of the screening of the first episode we were invited to the rooftop of the Cartel building on Waterkant Street. Here more drinks were served, Lord’s sparkling wine, water, and G&Ts. A food feast created by Chef Johnny Hamman of Slippery Spoon drew ohsss and ahsss, cane baskets and chandeliers clustered together over the table, and the table laden with delectable treats
# Rounds of Brie with white chocolate ganache, topped with sour dough crumbs.
# Bee pollen macrons with lemon and honey syrup.
# Mosbolletjiebrood with homemade butter and honeycomb!
Every South African who is proud of our trail blazer Chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen should diarise Tuesdays at 19h30 for the next nine weeks, to be inspired by what Chef Jan-Hendrik and his team have achieved, and this is only the beginning….,!
Disclosure: Each invited guest received a generous goodie bag laden with treats, waiting for us on our seat. It contained a bottle of Fairview 100% extra virgin olive oil, Fairview Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Collection 2014, a ‘Melkkos Makrolletjie’ by Crumb Cakes, a packet of JANPAP super maize meal, Fairview Dried Cranberries Semi-Soft Medium Fat Cheese, and a Rialheim gift voucher to the value of an unbelievable R500.
‘JAN’, VIA channel 147 on DStv, Tuesdays for nine weeks from today, at 19h30, and Sundays at 20h30. Also on Showmax Online.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com Twitter: @Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram:@chris_ulmenstein