Franschhoek chef Jean Pierre Smith’s reputation is on the rise at Lust Bistro and Bakery…
Words: Diana Wemyss
Pictures: Johan Wilke
Jean Pierre, or JP as he is more fondly called, the chef at Lust Bistro and Bakery at the 300-year-old Vrede en Lust wine estate in Franschhoek, is a sharply witty, somewhat mercurial character, an individual with strong views to whom people are instantly drawn.
He has a wonderful rapport with both staff and customers, who often become firm friends. On the slight incline at the junction of the Klapmuts Road and the R45 to Paarl, is a tiny thatch cottage where Jacques de Savoye, the original owner of the then-forested, lion-infested farm, lived in the 1600s. Lust Bistro and Bakery is built on the end of this historic gem and it is here that JP is winning customers for his light, fresh meals and, above all, for his breads.
The previous incarnation of Lust was Cotage Fromage, which JP started with partners Matthew Gordon and Duncan Doherty, each champion chefs in their own right, but this was to prove a clash of temperaments and characters. After a stint in the Bahamas at an idyllic tropical island resort owned by magician David Copperfield, JP was lured back to the wine estate. “It took a lot of brainstorming with owner, Dana Buys, before we finally reinvented the venue as a bistro and bakery,” says JP.
At Lust, JP has set high standards for his artisanal breads, which are in such demand that customers drive from Cape Town to find them. “It is not a pretty conversation if they get here and find we are sold out,” he says with a laugh. Key to the enterprise is a large wood-fired oven where some 300 loaves of bread are baked daily in high season. “The oven was built by an old Croatian man called Shimmy – I never did get to know his surname,” says JP. “It is 45cm thick and has four different layers. Shimmy was very secretive about how he built it, sending me away on trumped-up errands if I started watching him too closely. Once it was built, I was very excited but thought, what a wild pony I have here. I had to find out what sort of wood to use – how big, how dry. Of course I could bake, but this was an entirely different thing. Instead of waiting for the oven to heat up, I had to wait for it to cool down. You have to stoke it up to 600°C. And then you have to be fast loading it up and this is not as simple as it sounds. You have to learn to load with a long paddle into a very small front door. I can tell you, in the time it took to get really comfortable with the beast I had invented a whole new vernacular.”
The fermentation starter for JP’s immensely popular sourdough breads is 16 years old. “That’s nothing,” he says. “In France some of them have been going for 140 years.” JP started his dough on a visit home to his family in 2000 and they kept it going for him through the years until he finally returned to settle in South Africa. “No, they weren’t interested in cooking, just the end result – getting a fresh loaf of bread every day.”
His career in food only began after finishing his B.Com degree in industrial psychology, and travelling to the United Kingdom and South Korea. “I initially studied marketing at Rand Afrikaans University (now UJ) but switched to industrial psychology,” he says.
Back home, unable to come to terms with the idea of working office hours, he enrolled at the Stellenbosch Institute of Culinary Arts. He says wryly, “I went into cooking because I was lazy, and how bizarre is it that I now get up and start work at 3am and work seven days a week. My parents, who live in Pretoria, always decide to visit slap bang in the middle of season with ten weddings in a month. So, last time they were down here I said to my dad, if you want to see me, you will have to bake with me. We were making ciabatta and I don’t have much patience, especially when he kept making suggestions on how to do things. I don’t think we spoke for a month or two after that.” He laughs.
“We make mistakes every day, but it is not the end of life or the world as we know it,” he says philosophically. “Current trends for bakeries include gluten-free baking and using ancient grains such as spelt, kamut and buckwheat, but be careful. Ancient does not necessarily equal gluten-free. I am not much of a slave to trends, it feels too much like a copy and paste exercise. On a positive note, though, I have been talking about the benefits of natural and slow fermentation of dough long before any trend-guru invested in the idea.”
JP lives on the estate with his two dogs, which he says are fervent gardeners. “They dig up everything I plant.” Lust is nicely ‘woody’ with lots of American cedar tables and rustic chairs. The terrace on a warm sunny day is just the place to have breakfast before a cellar tour, or lunch after a tasting.
We spent a little more time getting to know this Country Chef:
Name two food trends…
Fermentation, “charred”, smoking and using whole, raw vegetables from “top to tail” seem to be the food trends for this season. This I know, because I’m very adept at Google searches.
Best cooking advice from your mother / grandmother / father…
Hmmm – not quite sure about this one. My grandmother was a women of very few compliments and pieces of advice, which made gems of those that she did part with. She was the person who told me that I’m good at cooking (Incidentally she followed that up with “although you have very little to work with in the leg department” – referring to my calves.). Best advice she gave me was to just take a beat, consider what I want to do next and play it out in my head – before jumping in. (Reading between the lines I also believe she was teaching me not to take myself too seriously).
Main cooking mistakes novices make…
Presentation has become so vital…and with good reason. However – at times the student chefs that come through my kitchens are so focused on presentation – that they pay no attention (or very little) to the hundreds of decisions that precede that.
Your biggest flop…
Too many to recount! (not to mention embarrassing). The silver lining though is that I don’t make the same mistake twice….at least not in my profession.
Must-have kitchen kit…
Decent knives, and cooking vessels. Everything else is a bonus.
When last did you have a takeaway and what was it?
I can’t remember when – but it was Sushi.
Best farmer’s market…
I am very hands-on at LUST, meaning that by the time the farmers are exhibiting their wares at the market – I’m already elbow deep in Ciabatta dough. All of this is to say that I can’t really recommend any markets, as I’ve not been to any in the past few years.
This question made me laugh. Reason: Why should it be so difficult to name just one! I’ve always enjoyed Gin & Tonic….and nowadays it’s quite an adventure with all the craft distillers specialising in Gin. However – LUST is located on Vrede en Lust – and of course I enjoy wine as well.
Sjoe – my answer would be similar to the market question. There are so many fantastic restaurants to choose from nowadays.
What would you order for your last supper?
Potato gnocchi and basil pesto.
Here are chef JP’s 5 Tips for Successful Breadmaking
Try out some of his bread recipes:
- Bitter-chocolate, Banana and Coriander Quick Bread
- Quick Seed Loaf
- Rye Loaf
- Rich Man’s Brioche
- Lust Sourdough
You can also try his:
- Peri-peri chicken livers with wood-fired sourdough bread
- Spiced duck breast with marinated wild mushrooms, pomegranate glaze and black rice
Lust Bistro and Bakery