With just $50 in his pocket, SA-born chef is now living his MSC dream
Jacques Van Staden, MSC’s Vice President, Food & Beverage globally, looked dapper in a black printed suit and a patterned black and white tie.
We were seated at a small table at the Edge Cocktail Bar on the impressive MSC Grandiosa.
Staden shared how proud he was of South Africa’s recent Rugby World Cup win and his early cooking memories.
"I grew up cooking in the kitchen with my grandmother from as early as eight years old. I loved cooking and regularly prepared meals for my family. My father did not want me to be a chef. When I told him about my chef dream during a conversation in 1983, he responded with: ' You wanna be what?' It is not a man’s job to cook," he said, revisiting his early teens.
Staden yearned to be a chef despite not receiving his father's blessings at the time. Once he completed military school, he decided to pack his bags and leave South Africa to chase his chef aspirations.
The South African born chef and entrepreneur moved to the US in 1990 at the age of 19 with just $50 (about R750) in his pocket. He sold his car to purchase a plane ticket. Going to the US was a bold move and a tremendous challenge for a young adult.
Staden soldiered on.
He worked his way up - from mowing lawns with his friend, cooking meals for the ambassador at the South African embassy in the US, and serving as standby security to working with some of the industry’s most respected chefs and gaining Michelin star status in his restaurant.
His resume is rather impressive, too.
He held sous and executive chef positions at many restaurants across the US, including Watergate Hotel where he worked under the leadership of the late three-star Michelin chef Jean-Louis Palladin. He also worked at the London Club in the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas and Michelin-star award-winning restaurants Andre’s & Alize in Las Vegas.
Staden was also the Vice President of Food & Beverage and Master Chef for Celebrity Cruises and president and CEO of the Miami-based JVS Culinary Group.
He is the founder of 2941 Street Food, an award-winning modern fast-casual Mediterranean concept with five locations in Detroit, Michigan.
He said his new role on MSC came purely by chance.
“Earlier this year, I received an email from the Vice President of Hotel Operation asking whether I would be interested in working with a cruise line again. Initially, I did not want to go back to working in cruise liners, but I decided to meet with Pierfrancesco Vago to find out more about the company and the opportunity. I fell in love with the company,” he said.
Staden assumed his current role six months ago. Based in Geneva, Staden is instrumental in the food and beverage options on all MSC Cruises worldwide.
His experience precedes him.
At Celebrity Cruises, he worked with three physiatrists to study human behaviour of people from all nations. He observed their tastes, likes and dislikes, cooking techniques and products.
“MSC is a beautiful company. We have a big vision of where we want to take the company's food and dining experience. MSC is a global company that caters to all regions.”
Staden added that the main dining menu changes every day and prepared from scratch. The cruise company is currently looking at ways to incorporate more dietary friendly items like plant-based foods on its cruises.
Staden revealed that the food is cooked in batches daily. On Grandiosa, there are 300 kitchens and waiting staff.
“Everything is cooked from scratch. We normally prepare recipes for up to 50 guests that are based on guests estimations, proportions and the number of people who are likely to tuck into that particular meal. We cook meals as the demand for it grows.”
When asked about a day in his life, he said his day started with a shower and a cup of coffee.
“On any given day, I usually have about 300 emails to check. To make the process easier, I label emails under different categories including challenges, issues and emergencies. The day usually consists of scheduled meetings. Our travel trips are planned ahead of time,” he added.
He has not forgotten his roots. He usually spoils his friends with South African inspired meals, including cheddar cheese and tomato toebroodjie (sandwiches) and Bobotie.