To be born a boy in Middelburg, in the heart of the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, is to be born with a destiny. A destiny that usually involves waking up with the roosters, tractor work, and chronic lumbar pain from heavy lifting. But for Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the farm life wasn’t written in the stars. He was destined for other stars… of the Michelin variety.
Jan found his heart’s home in the kitchen with his mother and grandmothers. And it was here—amongst the copper pots, spilt wheat flour, and pungent aromas of chopped onions—that Jan whetted a talent for cooking that would eventually take him to the French Riviera and commit him to the history records of the culinary arts.
Let’s meet South Africa’s very first Michelin-star chef: Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.
A breath of French air
“To be taken up in the Michelin firmament is arguably the culinary world’s highest honour. But to venture to France and to receive this accolade in Michelin territory, is a rare feat.”
With an education in culinary arts and applied design, and experience working for local and international food publications behind him, Jan Hendrik cooked up an idea: to reinterpret South African mealtime stalwarts—like melktert and biltong—for European audiences. He pursued this dream from concept to concrete and, in September 2013, flung open the doors of a 24-seater fine-dining restaurant called JAN in the Bohemian district of Nice Port in France. Less than three years after opening, his inspired cuisine catapulted Chef Jan to the world’s highest echelon of culinary achievement and he became the first South African in history to receive a Michelin star.
Chef Jan then launched his second dining experience right across the road from JAN, which he named after the woman who had had a profound impact on his cooking: his grandmother, Maria. This private dining room offers customers a segue from their meal at JAN, where they can indulge in a handsome selection of cheeses and delicious preserves, all sourced locally or made from local market ingredients.
Jan Hendrik comes home: The Innovation Studio in Cape Town
As South Africans, we are proud of Chef Jan’s historic accomplishments. But, short of travelling to France, where can we get a plate of his Michelin-star food? The answer is: 87 Kloof Street in Cape Town. The Innovation Studio serves as Chef Jan’s official base of operations in South Africa and a sort of “mad scientist’s” kitchen for experimentation and innovation.
Here, in a stunningly restored heritage building, right on the northwest-facing skirts of Table Mountain, The Innovation Studio fosters exactly what the name says—innovation—by Chef Jan’s team of chefs, students, and food developers. The goal? To explore the unique culinary heritage and ingredients of South Africa and, using that inspiration, to raise from the countertops dishes of such elegance, vision, guile, and deliciousness that France considers them worthy of a Michelin star.
Then, a few times per month, guests like you and I can visit The Innovation Studio for a truly special night of food experimentation that will make you too want to escape to the French Riviera and open your own restaurant. These evenings deliver a wine-steeped feast of such intrigue, theatre, and “tongue-in-cheek sassiness”— to quote food writer Jane Broughton—that they make most other dining experiences seem by comparison quite pedestrian.
The next feast dates for The Innovation Studio are scheduled in advance, and the cost is R2 500 per person. View the website to secure a booking.
KLEIN JAN at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
The thing about a great dining concept is that it is a tragedy not to share it. And so, unsurprisingly for his vast popularity, Chef Jan is taking his concept to Tswalu Kalahari, South Africa’s largest private game reserve. Launching next year in 2021, KLEIN JAN at Tswalu Kalahari promises to expand the reach of Jan Hendrik’s unstoppable and glorious creativity. Additionally, he will be working closely with Tswalu’s Executive Chef Marnus Scholly to incorporate the reserve’s food philosophy into his menu, which places emphasis on locally grown and sourced produce and ingredients.
Publications, television shows, and wine
A Michelin star is a fine thing but it’s by no means the end of the road for one as tirelessly ambitious as Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. Over the years, he has released innumerable creative projects, including an award-winning cookbook, The French Affair; the bestselling book JAN – A Breath of French Air; and a bi-annual luxury food and lifestyle publication called JAN the Journal, which offers a compilation of recipes and culinary stories. He even launched his own TV show, a SAFTA award-winning culinary travelogue called (no surprises here) JAN.
In 2017, Jan Hendrik released his first wines under his own label, a red and white wine crafted from grapes grown on Org de Rac, an organic wine farm in the Swartland region. “For me, the relationship between food and wine is unquestioningly symbiotic and it is impossible to think of the one without the other,” he said in a 2017 interview.
Naturally, his restaurants’ wine lists also pay homage to the wines of his homeland. “JAN’s dishes showing a bit of South African boere-flair truly come to their own when paired with a local wine, and our clients from France and other European countries recognise this and really love it.”
An honour for South Africa
Award-winning restaurants, innovation, cookbooks, publications, and TV shows…Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen has a galaxy of achievements behind and, no doubt, ahead of him. But the brightest of these has got to be his Michelin star, not necessarily because of the honour it bestows upon his restaurant but because of the honour it bestows upon his homeland here in South Africa.
Imagery: Jared Ruttenberg, supplied