Ker & Downey Africa > Journal > Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen | Michelin Star Chef and Restaurateur
“My heritage informs everything I do, most especially my work as a chef. But through every journey I’ve ever undertaken, I’ve always believed in being honest with myself, being curious, mindful of the impact my actions have on others, and in surrounding myself with great people.”
Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s inspiring journey has taken him from an old farming town deep in the heart of the Mpumalanga province in South Africa, to the vibrant city of Nice on the French Riviera, where he became the first ever South African to win the culinary world’s highest honor – the esteemed Michelin star.
It all started in Middleberg.
As a farm boy, Jan Hendrik’s curious and creative nature led him to the kitchen where he spent most of his time cooking and learning about food. Nurtured by his mother and late Ouma Maria, Jan instinctively knew from a young age that his destiny was not as a tractor-wielding farmer like his father. Instead, his days and nights were occupied with refining his innate talent for taking traditional South African flavors and elevating them to new heights. He was a natural, and soon he was opening the doors to his intimate 24-seater restaurant in Nice’s Vieux Port region named, quite aptly, JAN. Here, the wildly talented chef and his team turned classic French and South African cuisine on its head, incorporating Cremora coffee creamer alongside Boeuf Bourguignon, and vetkoeks with classic French pâté.
Less than three years after opening its doors, JAN was awarded its first Michelin star in 2006.
This catapulted Jan’s culinary career and creativity as well as his profound passion for cooking. He went on to open MARIA, a bespoke dining concept named after his late grandmother, write three bestselling cookbooks, launch his first SAFTA award-winning TV show, establish a bi-annual luxury food and lifestyle publication, launch the JAN Innovation Academy, and open the doors to his newest culinary venture – Restaurant Klein JAN at Tswalu Kalahari.
With his feet firmly rooted back in home soil, we asked him to join us around the campfire to have a quick chat about his latest venture, Klein JAN at Tswalu Kalahari, as well as the exciting launch of the JAN Innovation Academy in Cape Town.
So great to have you here, Jan. Thank you for joining us.
Your culinary curiosity has led you to explore some interesting destinations. What is it that initially drew you to the remote southern Kalahari in the Northern Cape, and what have been some of the highlights during your research into the culinary traditions and cultures that call this vast wilderness home?
I think I found the challenge of creating something of this caliber in one of the world’s most remote regions impossible to resist. But I could not have taken on such a challenge if I wasn’t convinced that the region had something incredible to offer.
From the first day I set out to meet the growers and makers of the Northern Cape, I was blown away by their resolve, their “boer-maak-’n-plan” attitude, their knowledge of the land, and their hospitality. I knew then that their spirit would breathe life into Klein JAN.
The home of Klein JAN restaurant, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve’s commitment to conservation, sustainability, community upliftment and ecotourism is second to none. How does this tie in with your vision for Klein JAN and the inspiration you want guests to take away from a dining experience there?
Tswalu’s ethos is central to everything we do at Restaurant Klein JAN – and has been throughout the design and construction, the menu development and our day-to-day life there.
Every ingredient we serve at Klein JAN is sourced from within a 300 km radius, the root cellar is lined with locally-sourced preserved ingredients, and at every step, our guests are immersed in a uniquely Kalahari experience.
In keeping with the spirit of community upliftment, you recently opened the doors to the JAN Innovation Academy in the heart of Cape Town. Can you tell us a bit about it and your vision for the academy in the future?
This online platform informs anyone on subjects that matter. We have two different types of courses. The necessities: courses that provide a platform for anyone starting in the industry, or who are simply curious. This is a free platform for anyone, and comes with a certificate upon completion. Then there are the more specialized courses: when you want to enhance your skills in a certain direction or want to know more about particular methods and skills – and how to get better at something.
It’s your last day on Earth and you’re offered the three course meal of your dreams, to be enjoyed In the location of your dreams. Where are you? And what are you eating?
On the farm I grew up on in Middelburg. Melkkos, Vetkoek en mince, and of course, a dash of mampoer. I would like my entire family to be there with me.
What is the number one destination on your travel bucket list and why?
More of Africa. Anywhere. Any place…. just Africa.
Can you describe the taste of Africa in three words?
Sweet, salty and smokey.
For a first-hand dining experience at Klein JAN and an exclusive stay at the award-winning Tswalu, get in touch with a LuxVenture® Designer today and start planning your luxury Karoo adventure.
Keep an eye out for more conversations and inspiring stories from bold achievers from both in and out of the travel industry with Ker & Downey® Africa’s Fireside Chats. There’s plenty more in store to whet your travel appetite!