Stephen Hickmore promised Stephen Billingham, President of SA Chefs Association, a date night. Two Lincolnshire lads out for an evening on the tiles. But, instead of a Curtis’ Pork pie and a pint of Sam Smiths, they were privileged to crack an invite to a very special evening with Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the first South African to be awarded a Michelin Star.
We were suitably eager. Arriving early at the grandly revamped Aurelia’s restaurant in Emperors Palace and, as one does, we headed straight to the kitchen. Much to our surprise we walked straight into Jan, who was grafting with the Emperors Palace team and Complex Sous Chef Justin Jonah. Jan had sent a complete brief of the menu to Justin a few weeks before with fine detail of the dishes for the evening. We could see from the excited energy in the kitchen that we were in for a six course Michelin Star treat.
Jan is a calm professional with an eye for detail and a nurturing leadership style. What a refreshing change from the so-called ‘Celebrity Chefs’ who no longer cook, and only bark orders just to bow to the accolades. In fact, Jan had been busy most of the day preparing what turned out to be a most enjoyable culinary experience. You see, Jan is an unpretentious local boy.
Jan was raised on a farm in Noodgedacht, Mpumalanga. After completing an Advanced Diploma in Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, he furthered his studies with a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Design and Photography. He worked as a contributing food editor for ELLE magazine in South Africa and Paris before relocating to Nice to open his own restaurant simply called JAN. The story of converting an old Scooter repair shop into a Michelin star restaurant is now a legend in itself, proof that hard work, focus and love for his art can bring enormous success. As Jan says, “I have learned that life rewards you when you live your dream. Go out and find your bliss.” His good news story should serve as motivation to all South African chefs.
His style is quintessentially South African; beautiful design, elegant yet earthy flavours
with a “breath of French air.” Food that takes you home with style. JAN’s cuisine and ambience has more than enough saveur to attract the Monaco jet-set to its petite and cosy 28 seats. Neighbours include an Auto repair shop and a neon sign factory. Not exactly the avenue of the rich and famous, yet JAN thrives.
I was fortunate to be seated with the enchanting Grant Bacon, Jan’s partner as well as a successful Cape Town businessman, photographer, ex-show jumper and winemaker. Conversation was about Jan and the trials and tribulations on his, sometime obsessive, journey to Michelin stardom. I was treated to many comical anecdotes as Jan adapted to the ‘quirky’ provincial idiosyncrasies.
The food expertly presented to us was a sophisticated mix of French haute cuisine with a substantial nod to South Africa traditional fare. The expressive, sensory refinement of a French country garden with the comforting aromas of Ouma’s kombuis.
The starter was Crab, salmon and citrus in a herb garden. A colourful and lively dish with sharp and smooth flavours complimented by a Hamilton Russel Chardonnay. On the table where whimsical mosbolletjies proving under a clear glass dome. These doughy delights were removed to the kitchen only to return freshly baked with lashings of Miso butter.
Jan admits he likes to lightly burn things, such as Cape seed bread. He loves the nostalgia that the aroma invokes and the tastes it releases. With this in mind, the main course was Burnt Beef, black trumpet mushrooms, porcini, artichokes, foie gras potato purée, liquorice, black truffle. Rich? Full bodied dining at its finest. Much to my delight, a little individual pot of the gravy was served. So, with Mosbolletjies to spare, Stephen and I mopped up the juices like two starving schoolboys.
I must mention the wine; Grant snuck us a bottle of Org de Rac Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013 which is an organic creation from Grant’s family vineyard in Picketburg, Swartland. Aurelia’s manager and sommelier Richard Daye was rather animated about it and Emperors Palace General Manager Wayne Hill was openly negotiating with Grant to ship a few cases for the restaurant. Billingham certainly tucked into a few glasses.
JAN only serves carefully chosen South African wines. I can imagine the local Nicois exclaiming “Incroyable” and “Mon dieu!” A South African having the audacity to serve foreign wine in France’s fifth largest city? Grant explained that this decision did court some controversy. But, guests have enjoyed the voyage of discovery with some of South Africa’s best vintages, with some diners visiting our great country as a result. JAN’s only local concession is a fine Henriot Champagne from Reims.
Chef Jan’s latest book A Breath of French Air is all about simple food with rustic elegance. Naturally fashionable, but not faddish. The sort of food that one can prepare at home, but could timelessly embellish a restaurant menu. Dishes such as Pork Chops with Whiskey-soaked figs. Malva truffles with Smoked Rosemary. Magret de Canard with Tonka Jus. I mentioned that Jan is a photographer and the cookbook’s carefully captured pictures depict life at the restaurant, chefs at work, the streets and sights that surround him at 12 Rue Lascaris.
Jan finished off the evening by preparing a dessert of cauliflower, amarula, white chocolate, coconut, honeycomb and malva. I love a good pud, and this was a very good pud indeed!
How could Michelin star food be so accessible? I always imagined it to be too delicate, over fussy, manhandled and snooty. Not Jan’s food!
Jan is an inspiring young chef. Confident in the limelight yet understated and modest. At the conclusion of the event he proudly paraded and thanked the Emperors Palace brigade. The Chefs clearly enjoyed his visit and the opportunity to work with a bona-fide home grown Michelin star chef.
I leave you with a quote from the book A Breath of French Air: “Every story has a beginning. Mine started at the tables of my mother and grandmother, where the notion of true South African hospitality seeped into my consciousness to become the foundation on which I would later build JAN. It is here that I learned the humble art of serving and creating a warm, welcoming space where people would feel special and escape the humdrum of everyday life, to enjoy the singular pleasure of good company and delicious food.”
Billingham and I had a most successful first date.