Superchef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen (37) went from boerseun to being the first South African chef to be awarded a coveted Michelin star. What’s more, Jan-Hendrik is fiercely passionate about South African wine, and the biggest stockist of SA wines in France. Anton Pretorius chat to Jan-Hendrik about his success overseas against all odds.

Superchef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Growing up on his family’s dairy farm just outside Middleburg, Mpumalanga to being awarded a Michelin star for his restaurant JAN – located in Nice, France – Jan-Hendrik’s journey to the pinnacle of his culinary career is nothing less than extraordinary.

Jan-Hendrik’s restaurant opened its doors for the first time in 2013. The dishes are heavily influenced by South African heritage cuisine with a touch of French and Italian influences. South African wine also plays a big part in the experience and Jan-Hendrik stocks the widest variety of South African wine in France.

Whether it’s serving his French patrons a packet of rusks (with instructions on how to eat it) or seared tuna with mieliepap panna cotte and chakalaka, Jan’s concept of serving classic, traditional South African dishes with a European twist is testament to his ‘out-the-box’ thinking and his flair for innovation.

I have a wine background. After studying for a chef at Zevenwacht, I did a stint as a wine rep for a while and I absolutely loved it. I also completed a several wine courses at the Cape Wine Academy. My love affair with wine allowed me to spend a lot of weekends on magnificent wine estates and I got to spend quality time, just chatting to various winemakers. It also allowed me to build up a library of flavours and a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It taught me to be curious and to surround myself with good company and ask a lot of questions!

Making it as a boerseun in France is no easy feat. To be honest, there’s a lot of luck involved. It was about being at the right place at the right time. But it’s also about surrounding yourself with the right people. People that embrace and challenge my ideas and theories. It’s important to create your own, unique style and constantly push the boundaries with fresh, new concepts.

Winning a Michelin star was massive for me. My team and I worked hard and pushed ourselves to the limit. It always seems a distant thing, but with determination, hard work and passion, anything is possible. For a chef, I think you need to be daring, energetic and curious to succeed.

Innovation is a big part of what we do here. If you look at all the successful chefs in the world, innovation was a crucial element for starting their own brand and business. It’s hard to put innovation into a box. It’s about style, business model, and there’s a very ‘artistic’ feel to it. But most importantly, it’s about executing those innovative ideas.

Jan-Hendrik and Org de Rac winemaker Frank Meaker with the JAN wine range.

I make it my business to know what my customers want. It’s usually through trial and error. Every Friday, we add a new dish to the menu. This is a good test for patrons and locals who join us for lunch. I can immediately sense whether they like it or not. I don’t sell my soul, but we do put our customers first…

The latest trends in food are still local and natural in France. Street food was become the new fine-dining. Food that has soul, a story and that’s traceable is always a winner. The trend in restaurants is for chefs to be more hands-on and front-of-house. Taking plates out and describing to the clients where it comes from.

At my restaurant in France, I stock several stand out South African wines. This includes MCCs like Krone and Graham Beck. I also love wines from the Swartland region and I often stock Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie wines. I’m also particularly fond of wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley such as Creation and Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Other than that, you’ll always find a Kanonkop or a KWV in my restaurant.

Instead of your normal food and wine pairing where you prepare a dish and usually pick a wine that goes with the food, we tend to focus on a particular cultivar (say Chenin Blanc) and cook various dishes around it. We want customers to really experience a different taste sensation. It all comes back to ‘thinking-outside-the-box’. For me, it should happen organically.

Going forward, we want to start actively promoting the JAN wine brand. Frank Meaker (winemaker at Org de Rac) is doing an outstanding job, and the response was been excellent. I’d really like to push more South African brands and dishes overseas and help people develop a taste and pallet for our wine and food. 

 

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