In a League of Her Own – Since she pioneered tasting menus in this country in 2004, renowned chef Margot Janse has continued to challenge the tastebuds of diners at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek…
Words: Diana Wemyss
Pictures: Daniela Zondagh
When chef Margot Janse trains for the Two Ocean Marathon she never runs a circuit. “I just run and run. Straight on. I know it’s 24km to Glen Carlou or 18km to another point and I run there and get a friend to pick me up at the end. I never like to go back on the same route.”
It just about sums up the forward trajectory of Margot’s career, and her unwillingness to rehash old ideas and go over old ground.
One of South Africa’s most celebrated chefs, she is in a league of her own, forever pushing the boundaries of her creativity, forever looking for new ways to combine flavours, textures and colours, and always ahead of the pack. “I don’t want to do what people expect,” says Margot, who for the last 20 years has been executive chef at The Tasting Room, at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek. “I don’t want to play safe,” she says.
“I have never been good at following rules but, having said that, there are obviously basics you have to adhere to. Still, I always want to explore my own path.”
Eating at The Tasting Room – dinners only – is definitely something for the cognoscenti, for those fed up with the boring routine of meat and three veg. “I never do boring,” says Margot repeatedly. The three-and-a-half-hour meal of eight, African-inspired courses is a bit like a magical, mystery tour, with no menu to tell you what to expect – everyone has the same first three dishes and from then on there’s a mix and match selection to get the talk going and the juices flowing.
Behind the restaurant is a tangled vegetable and herb garden of self-sown plants – even weeds – which Margot is happy to incorporate into her dishes. Most importantly, she doesn’t pay lip service to any ingredient. Nor does she throw in a bunch of horsemint, for instance, just for flavouring, but uses our local plants and ingredients, like mebos, buchu, baobab seeds, kapokbos and amasi, as the very heart and basis of a dish.
Her unconventional approach sees her combining butternut purée with crayfish, for instance, and serving kohlrabi pickled in hibiscus. Her recipes are a challenge to replicate, but the ingredients are, she emphasises, all available and some probably on hand in your garden. She certainly leads the foraging brigade.
Unusual ingredients have become quite the flavour of the moment, and Margot says they’re becoming much easier to find. “The fruit of the sour fig [Carpobrotus edulis] is widely available next to the road in late summer, and can be bought at farmstalls. Baobab seeds and hibiscus tea can be found in health shops and larger supermarkets.” Margot says buchu is quite widely available, and that there is a buchu tea called Moondance – pure, dried buchu inside the teabags – also available at supermarkets. Sorghum grain, for instance, is readily available at health shops.
There is a sense of theatricality about the restaurant and it comes as no surprise that the decor is by Margot’s brother, a theatre set designer, back in her homeland of Holland. Margot insisted on plush carpeting to keep noise to the minimum. The colours on the walls and floors are sombre and, instead of real flowers on the table that might confuse with a play on the olfactory senses, there are quirkily crocheted, potted succulents. All to neutralise the background and make the food the hero of the evening, when mood lighting and colourful chairs and murals bring the scene to life.
A bit of conceit you might suggest but, in spite of her status on the culinary stage, Margot is without vanity or affectation. Journalists who interview her concur on her openness, her warmth and how grounded she is. How compassionate too. This year (2016) she ran the Two Oceans to raise money for the Le Quartier charity, Isabelo. In 2013 she ran the Cape Town marathon to raise funds for upgrading the kitchens at Dalubuhle Primary School where the Kusasa Breakfast Club meals are cooked. This rather special initiative to feed the primary and pre-primary children in Franschhoek was started in 2009, by baking muffins in the kitchens of Le Quartier Français every Friday for one small crèche. The concept proved so popular that, with the help of donations from guests and friends of Le Quartier Français, it changed to a nutritious lunch every school day for 200 pre-primary schoolchildren.
Today, children’s meals are all prepared by The Tasting Room team at Le Quartier Français, who donate their time and expertise so that every cent donated is spent on the children. “Our charity Isabelo feeds 1 300 children every school day. Two hundred of the nutritious lunches for three pre-primary schools are cooked in my kitchen every morning,” explains Margot. “We also organise 1100 breakfasts for two local primary schools.”
Like the actress she first set out to be, Margot is thoroughly aware of the importance of the audience, or in this case her diners. Yet creative and innovative as she is, there is no grandstanding. “We cook for you,” she tells people. Once a guest was asked what he was allergic to. He replied, “Cats and dogs.” Margot retorted facetiously, “What a good thing we’ve taken them off the menu.”
On another occasion an internal note about what a guest did not eat, read ‘cheese, pork, the following fowl, bat, cuckoo, eagle, hawk, heron, lapwing, ostrich, owl, pelican, stork, swan and vulture, game following seafood, eel, porpoise, shark, whale, clam, crab, frog, lobster, octopus’. Jokes aside, Margot takes very seriously the allergies and dislikes and likes of her guests. “We are not doctors, nor God,” she says. “If someone has an allergy then we stay well clear of that particular ingredient.” All this adds to the challenge. How do you create a dish without onion or garlic, or a sauce without milk?
And the success of Margot and her team in the kitchen is all the more remarkable given that sometimes diners will only tell them a few hours before, even when they have started serving, what they don’t eat. Gerald van der Walt, her right hand for the last two years, says, “It all happens with a max of eight minutes between courses, because you just can’t keep people waiting.” Which all makes for a faultless performance.
South Africa is Margot’s adopted land, and she has been here longer than she lived in Holland. “I think this is what made me so curious, coming from another country,” she says. “When I arrived in this country and went into Checkers I found milk in bags and jam in tins. Back home these were in bottles and jars but, having said that, the delicious milk here tasted like nothing we had at home.”
Best cooking advice…
My father encouraged me to be inquisitive and always try the things I did not know. From my first Chef Ciro Molinaro: always taste in your head first.
Main cooking mistakes novices make…
Not using enough seasoning.
Your biggest flop…
I left the indigenous ingredients for a dinner in London back home – forgot to put them in my suitcase. I remembered as we were landing at Heathrow, not a great feeling. Luckily a very kind guest from Le Quartier flew in to London the next night and brought the ingredients for me.
Must-have kitchen kit…
A great knife and stainless steel.
When last did you have a takeaway?
Best farmer’s market…
The Biscuit Mill
Chenin blanc / Bubbly.
Chef’s Warehouse in Cape Town / Bread and Wine in Franschhoek.
What would you order for your last supper?
Fabulous cheese and great bread
Salt and lemon or lime
Least favourite ingredient…
Try Margot’s recipes
- Crayfish, Butternut & Sour Fig
- Glen Oak Chicken Croquettes, Amasi Pap and Wild Greens
- Goat’s Cheese & Pear
- Sweetcorn Custard, Black Pepper Meringue and Hibiscus-pickled Kohlrabi
- Salt-baked Quince, Coconut and Baobab Ice Cream with Honeybush Butterscotch Sauce
- Sorghum, Buchu and Spinach Risotto with Gemsbok Loin