At the dawn of Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s new restaurant opening, the South African chef and restaurateur shares the philosophies that have guided him to Michelin-starred success.
Acclaimed Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen Is Coming Home to SA
‘It’s been more than six years since I opened my restauarnt Jan in Nice and I’m feeling the same now as I did then – an itchy nervousness. It’s fantastic, it’s what drives me,’ says the first South African Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. Revered for bringing koeksisters and melktert to a part of France famed for socca and salade niçoise, the acclaimed chef is now bringing his vision home to the untouched Kalahari.
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, one of South Africa’s leading private game reserves, will be the home of his second unique culinary venture, Klein Jan. Faced with the challenges of the region, where certain produce and ingredients might be difficult to come by, Jan Hendrik’s vision has shifted from opulence to restraint. ‘Jan has so much in Nice; indulgence of produce and myriad options. I’ve decided that this is going to be the exact opposite. It’s going to be extremely minimal – because there is nothing there. That’s the beauty of it,’ he says.
‘People can feel luxury with so little around them. And there’s an art to getting that right.’
Playing on the word ‘klein’, which means ‘small’ in Afrikaans, Klein Jan – also a name Jan Hendrik was affectionately called as a child – will be small in more ways than one. ‘We have limitations and finite access to produce, so we’ve put a radius around Tswalu Kalahari to denote the distance where ingredients can be sourced from,' he says. 'The Orange River runs through part of the area, lending us to a wine and brandy region, too.’
Similar to chefs and restaurants facing a new age of dietary restrictions and demands, limited access to ingredients will largely inform the menu and dishes served. ‘It’s going to push me,' says Jan Hendrik. 'It’s like, when you open your fridge at home and there are only three items and you’re starving, or you’ve only got chickpea flour and olive oil in the pantry, you’re forced to make something different. That’s when the most creative things happen.'
‘To me, that’s a big stimulant – I’ve “done” the French thing. I’m busy with it, Jan is remaining open, but this is a new and very different project that my creative side is yearning for. It will definitely be challenging.’
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Like a society increasingly shaped by dietary restrictions and specific eating habits, so too has social media influenced the way in which we experience new places, and the way in which we share our stories. Noteworthy destinations and star restaurants booked months in advance – often before flight tickets – means that expectation leaves little room for error.
‘There are people who go to places for a social media “check in”, or picture on Instagram sharing a bottle of wine with friends in a fancy place,' says Jan Hendrik. 'That’s fine, but I think there are bars for that. We design a menu according to authenticity, heritage and seasonal sustainability; it takes a lot of work and months to perfect.'
‘I have a vegan in my kitchen and she’s taught me so much: we need to consider our footprint. Our kitchen is always ready, we don’t make a scene. We are a calm and open team and always provide.’
Following on from Jan Hendrik’s curated eye and hunger for all things beautiful – as shown in every element of Jan – at Klein Jan, his creativity will be similarly propagated in areas outside the kitchen.
‘Don’t get me wrong, my life is not suddenly going to be minimalist and bare. I’m not that kind of person. I love chaos and clutter – but organised chaos,’ he laughs. ‘It’s through curating and seeing things as if they are a photograph that my imagination comes to life, looking at the originality of the shape and its reflection, the material, what does it make you feel? When I plate food, I always start with maximum and then take elements away. At the end I may be left with very little, but it’s perfect. A potato on a plate. That’s all we need. But within two weeks, I think, “Oh no that’s way too boring, take it away”.’
This minute attention to detail is what separates Jan Hendrik’s work and vision from many others, as well as the value he places on heritage and nostalgia. For many South Africans – and there are many – who visit Jan in Nice, the experience tastes like home. ‘The first thing I tell my chefs when they walk into my restaurant is, sit and write down 10 dishes that you grew up with. And that’s where we start,' says Jan Hendrik.
With a strong desire to share and honour the roots of the country he loves, be it in Nice or the Kalahari, we can look forward to a dining experience that’s equal parts poignant and magical. And from Jan Hendrik, we’d expect nothing less.
Klein Jan will open at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in 2020. For more information, visit restaurantjan.com.
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