Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen constantly reinvents himself, writes Nidha Narrandes.
Michelin Star chef, yes of course that would be first and foremost, but if there is one way I would describe Jan Hendrik Van Der Westhuizen it would be a regte plaas seun from Middelburg.
While some chefs, who have received such accolades might find that offensive, Van Der Westhuizen revels in the fact that he comes from the soil of a small town in South Africa.
And that, right there, is what makes him as real as it gets.
But Van der Westhuizen is not just one thing; he is constantly reinventing himself. From culinary school to design, to photography and an internship at Elle magazine. He has seemingly done it all in his short 34 years.
Van der Westhuizen is not defined by his Michelin star or the string of success that followed with Jan, his restaurant in Nice, France. He wears his enthusiasm on the sleeve of his perfectly tailored, navy-blue coat. You can almost reach out and touch it.
He describes himself as part of the slash generation. And what that means, he explains, is there is always going to be a backslash next to his job specs: Chef/photographer/designer/writer/stylist.
The Good Food & Wine show is what brings Van der Westhuizen back to South Africa. The country’s largest culinary event begins today, and ends on Sunday, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. There is no doubt that it will be translated into the Great Food and Wine show, as he headlines the event alongside the original celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White.
Two worldly food innovators, both bestowed with the highest honour of Michelin Stars, bringing their energy into a space filled with people hungry for food knowledge.
Jan catapulted Van der Westhuizen to fame, and bore one Michelin Star in three years, but his heart remains with Mzansi.
“Coming back to South Africa for the show feels like nothing has ever changed. It’s just like the same for me. I love coming back. I am very excited for my first Good Food and Wine show,” he said.
Eager to share his journey and knowledge, Van der Westhuizen will cook along with the guests and throw around some life-altering advice, so you better get your tickets.
“People have read a lot about Jan (the restaurant) and all of our accomplishments in France, but not a lot of people can actually access that, so it is nice to come to South Africa and show what it’s all about,” he said.A huge fan of White, Van der Westhuizen is eager to meet the Briton and tap into his sense of cooking.
“For the first time this year they are doing chefs tables, which is a one-on-one cooking (experience) with me,” he said.
“I am cooking a three-course meal for a group of 30 people. They can ask questions and they get to taste the food. It is a true foodie experience. Then there’s the chef’s theatre, where I demonstrate dishes. I am doing really cool stuff. I think people are going to love it.”
Middelburg, the home of culinary enlightenment – said no one ever – is where Van der Westhuizen was born and, strangely enough, the place where he was baptised into the world of food.
He gives all credit to his mother and grandmothers, who were the essence of great food.
“I always go back to their food as a reference. My mom and my grandmothers taught me how to cook and enjoy flavours. My biggest fan is definitely my dad, who is now the Kardashian of Middelburg. He is so funny, and without a doubt my biggest supporter,” Van der Westhuizen giggled.
It is clear, though, that he misses home terribly but for now, his place is with his “baby” in France. Which conjures up the much-asked question: Why Nice?
“I believe in time and place, and that was the time and that was the place. I opened Jan four-and-a-half years ago; I had just finished working on yachts in Monaco and the owner of the yacht planted the seed in my head. He said that I should really consider sharing my food with people,” Van der Westhuizen said.
“Nice was the cheaper alternative in the French Riviera. I found this little shop that was previously a motor-repair cycle shop and my business partner looked at it and said, ‘well, if you think it’s good then let’s try it’. We renovated it and signed the contract before we even knew what we were going to do, and that is how I like to do things. Just kind of get into it and make a success out of it, not to faff and think about things too much.”
Pleasing the French
It is not easy to convince the French to enjoy a South African dish. Maybe if they visit our country they would be more open to experimenting with our flavours, but you can’t get away with trying to convince them in their backyard.
“The French grow up with a certain way of cooking and they don’t like experimenting with too many flavours. They don’t like cinnamon for example. They’re not huge on spicy foods. They don’t like combining sweet and savoury, and that is something we as South Africans are huge on,” Van der Westhuizen said.
“When I opened (Jan), it was trial and error. The French thought bobotie was an attempt on a dessert with baked custard and meat. The reviews were killing us. So we needed to reinvent the menu combining French methods with my heritage. Jan then established itself with a menu that is a combination of the two.”
I tried to get him to open a restaurant in Cape Town, and as much as I wanted the scoop on that angle, Van der Westhuizen says it is not happening any time soon.
His plans for the next 10 years is to come back to South Africa and explore more of his uncharted talents.
“South Africa is so fashionable. I miss the people a lot, especially my family. I want to come back home,” he said.
At the Good Food & Wine Show, local foodies will have the chance to interact with a line-up of exciting food personalities, including muso and restaurateur, J’Something from Micasa. As an added bonus, J’Something will take to the stage and perform.
Reza Mahammad, Jenny Morris, Lentswe Bhengu, Sarah Graham, Neill Anthony, Lisa Raleigh, Sherwyn Weaich and Vanessa Marx are also on this year’s Good Food and Wine menu.
* To find out when to catch your favourite foodie, visit http://www.goodfoodandwineshow.co.za/http://www.goodfoodandwineshow.co.za/