This story was first published on 13 April 2016 and was updated on 23 April 2019.
In one of the chicest restaurants in the South of France, Jan Hendrik has become the first South African chef to get that coveted Michelin star...
Nice, however, is not a word Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen wants to utter or hear himself. “Nice?” he asks. “How can anything be nice? Once, someone who ate at the restaurant came up to me and said my food was nice. Nice? Are you sure, I asked her deadpan, that you don’t mean beyond brilliant [or something to that effect]?”
No half measures about this man. He’s only 36 but is one go-getter, with a lightning bolt of a career that started out on culinary courses in Stellenbosch, then a switch to design, then an internship with a fashion magazine in Cape Town, with a transfer to a top food magazine in Paris, again as an intern. Soon it was time to fly on his own, this time a stint at presenting the very best fine dining on a yacht based in Monaco, before the idea of owning a restaurant took hold. In fact the owner of the yacht suggested it.
Now another meteoric rise. He spotted a quaint old Vespa mechanic shop on the port side of Nice and that was that. After a major refurbishment JAN opened in September 2013 only to receive a Michelin star at the beginning of 2016 (with other stunning awards in between, but Michelin is the Oscars).
Jack (or Jan) of all trades
Jan Hendrik is a perfectionist. Of the one-man-show kind. Take a look at his new cook book JAN – A Breath of French Air and you’ll get the idea. The beauty – the menus, the plating, the photographs, the styling, the writing, the design – is all his. And the thing about Jan is he makes it all look so easy.
He really has what it takes to create a perfection so effortless that it just becomes comfortable and comforting.
“Everything has to be perfect,” he says. “Everything. Everywhere. In the restaurant it’s not just the food, it’s the flowers, the lighting, the linen, how we fold the napkins, the way we chat to guests. And there’s nothing hard about that.”
No I suppose not, for someone who was overhauling the dairy on his parents’ Mpumalanga farm outside the dorp of Middelburg, when he was ten. Dressing up the milking staff and putting on background music from Beethoven kind of thing.
But is all this daily pressure of having perfection no bother at all? “Oh please, just before the restaurant opened I was horrified. Petrified. But my mom just said, ‘My kind. Dis net ‘n restaurant.‘ And she’s right. And she’s right about something else, which I’ve thought a lot of since receiving the Michelin, and needing to keep the utterly high standard such a star demands every day. It’s that if you’re petrified of something then you know it’s worth doing.”
Yes, an intriguing man is Jan, with a lot of opposites going on. A picture of elegance, there he is all beautifully turned out but folded loosely into the sofa, chatting to me in bits of English and Afrikaans like I’m his mother. The urbane chef who loves to muck in and do an hour of dishwashing every day. Live in his Nice villa and run his sophisticated restaurant, but never lose his longing for South Africa.
Reminders of home
“The bush, the bush,” says the boy from Middelburg, as if he aches to think of it. But then he brightens. “The South Africans. Their friendliness and the way they maak ‘n plan. They’re so hardworking and they never sulk. Oh, and of course the farm.”
Just mentioning the farm takes him back to a life so far from where it’s playing out in the streets of Nice right now. “I have such a typically warm South African family, and the kos has always been so important. The braais, the big meals that take forever around the table. And those intense cook-offs between my oumas.”
And of course his “divine” mother Hester. “Always so cool and calm, so stylish, such a good cook. I always wanted to cook, and from when I was 12 she helped me to hide from my father for three years that I wasn’t playing rugby in the afternoons. She’d fetch me from school and we’d go off to Middelburg Steers instead where we could eat and talk about food.”
Ouma Hessie and Ouma Wessie also had a huge influence on his career. “Nee wat, those two. There was Ouma Hessie, always the sophisticated entertainer putting on such a glamorous show, and then there was all the boerekos and comfort food from Ouma Wessie, who always burnt the food.”
But he promises that there is nothing better than the flavour of melkkos or a jaffel with curried mince, that has been burnt by accident. “Put it on a plate and you have with it that scooping of love. Delicious. Like the taste of pap when it’s burnt and you have to pull it from the pot. I even burn the béchamel at JAN.”
Comfort food with a modern twist is what he serves plentifully at his Michelin-star restaurant. “You know South Africa is so deep in my blood that I have to find little ways of going back home when I’m in Nice,” says Jan. For a start he has South African chefs and a small team that all chip in and work hard together, like a family.
He’ll use fynbos and proteas in the flower arrangements, and plenty of South Africa in the food. “You should see me when I’ve visited home and I arrive at the airport with bags and bags of Kalahari Desert salt, which I will not cook without. There’s also masses of buchu for our tea trolley and for jellies and Madeleines. And all the spices and flavours from my past. The cloves, bay leaves, star anise and cardamom that my oumas cooked with.”
For Jan it’s nothing less than a tragedy that you’re not allowed to braai in France. “So I use fantastic South African recipes on my menu. I make my own biltong, and use beef tongue, koeksisters, skaapboud, mosbolletjies, and even serve mampoer for boeremoed. And malva pudding, my favourite vir seker. Believe it or not but I was actually standing with my mouth full of malva pudding when the Michelin inspector surprised me with his card.”
But he says that for the French palate he has to tone things down. “I had to drop the cinnamon tastes, and tone down the Cape Malay flavours. Take the egg out of the mosbolletjies, for instance, and add aniseed.” It’s also taking a while to get the French really into his South African wines, particularly those from the smaller farms, but he says the younger palates are definitely becoming interested.
The one thing he misses when in South Africa is the high-standard markets that are ubiquitous in Europe. “The local markets are what I love most about Nice,” he says. “You won’t believe the produce, so bright and ripe and tasty. But make no mistake you don’t just walk in and start ordering and buying. It’s taken me two years to build up a relationship with the producers. And I learnt the hard way. When I first opened I ordered some duck breasts for a service and went outside to collect the delivery to find four ducks quacking at the door.”
What was easiest when he opened JAN’s doors was to offer a place where he knew people would want to spend time, and enjoy everything about their surroundings as much as they did the food. “It’s what my oumas taught me,” he says. “They gave me that sense of unique South African hospitality.”
He says it is precisely that which has made it so easy for him to say, “Come. Sit and eat with me. Enjoy my oumas’ tables of beauty and love.”
What meal tops your list?
My dad’s braais are something out of this world but, no doubt about it, there’s one meal that is just it. My mom’s skaapboud stuffed with cherries. With her steamed groenboointjies, and pampoen poffertjies with caramel sauce. And no, wait. That’s not it. To end it off her utterly divine suurlemoen poeding.
Would that be your last supper?
Hmmm. No, actually, I think here I would need to have my ouma’s whole peach preserve on fresh farm bread with lots of butter. Oh to peel that peach off the pip.
And a favourite meal that really makes me think of my past is to take any meat, brown it, add some veg to the pot, and some spice, some water and wine, and just let it go.
And if I couldn’t have that then my dad’s braaibroodjies would do just fine. Or a chips and biltong sandwich – what a disgrace for a Michelin chef to say that.
Your favourite tipple?
I just LOVE wine. Let me sit down with a Merlot or Pinotage and some very stinky cheese and I could not be happier.
Your favourite recipe ingredient?
I don’t have one I have many – any fruit or vegetable that is colourful and fresh and ripe.
What do you miss most about South Africa?
The bush, the space, the fantastic people. The people, particularly in Joburg, are supercool. Much more stylish than the French.
And if you lived here what would you miss about France?
Oh the markets. Never in South Africa will you find markets like you do in Europe – here in Nice on Mondays – with so much that is so bright and beautiful. I jog every morning and there’s nothing like my Monday run to the market, everything fresh, fresh, fresh and smelling and looking so good.
Your biggest mistake at Restaurant JAN?
Serving ingredients that were out of season. I was so thrilled to find snap peas from Kenya and, well, the French nearly killed me. It’s just not on. There you only serve ingredients that are in season there.
Do you have a cooking bible?
I have two. Kook en Geniet by SJA de Villiers which has been around since before I was born. You should see my copy. To say it’s been well-used is kind, as it’s really such a gemors. It’s full of markings and notes and dog-ears and what all else and it looks stunning. Just how a brilliant cook book should be. I so hope my cook books end up looking like that. Such a sign of respect for the chef.
The other fantastic book was a birthday present. It’s a thesaurus of thousands of flavours and cultural mixes. Every ingredient and what you can do with it.
What are the food trends to follow?
I am not a follower of trends but certainly I do care deeply about knowing where food comes from. Knowing the story of what’s on the plate is big right now and that’s good. Know that it’s organic and has been well treated. And I certainly have to keep up with what’s happening in the food world but I’m not a slave. Fermented food is big, and yes I do love it. But other trends like mixing sweet with savoury are not always happily accepted. The French don’t really like it – I found that out when I served bobotie with chutney.
With perfection. With beauty. Restaurant JAN is so pretty, so stylish, and I really do take care of every detail. Nothing can ever be too good. Too beautiful. When guests arrive I want them to enjoy a good three hours of loving everything about their surroundings as much as they love the food.
Try some of Chef Jan’s recipes
Recipes from JAN – A Breath of French Air by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Struik Lifestyle)
- Olive and Rosemary Sticks with Whipped Miso Butter
- Roast Lamb with Stuffed Pumpkin Flowers
- Baked Trout Provençale
- Pancakes with Mushrooms and Gruyère
- Naartjie Panna Cotta with White Chocolate Rocks
Words Julia Lloyd
Photography © Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen 2016 and Supplied