How a Middelburg farm boy earned SA’s only Michelin star

 
 
 

Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen bunked rugby in school. But he wasn’t misbehaving. Instead, he whiled away his time kneading dough in his grandmother’s farm kitchen. It was there that he learnt the power of food beyond sustenance. Cooking brought the family together. Meals were an escape, a moment where nothing mattered but the hearty, home-cooked fare before them. Now a multiple award-winning chef in France, Van der Westhuizen has come a long way from that Middelburg dairy farm. But his heart remains rooted in South Africa.

In a short space of time, Van der Westhuizen has worked incredibly hard to perfect his skills. Culinary courses in Stellenbosch and an internship at a Parisian magazine gave him a foothold that culminated in the opening of JAN in the south of France. The achievement didn’t come easy. “When I opened my restaurant, I was petrified,” Van der Westhuizen says. But his mother’s words in response stuck with him. She said, “My kind, dis net ń restaurant.” In the time since, Van der Westhuizen became the first South African to receive a Michelin star. But the chef is driven by his commitment to his craft rather than seeking recognition. “The pressure has always kept me motivated,” Van der Westhuizen says.

In everything he does, be it running his restaurant, guiding people on food tours, or publishing cookbooks, Van der Westhuizen’s approach is that of a perfectionist. But there are no airs and graces, nor any diva-like behaviour to this chef. At JAN, he works with a South African team, integrating flavours of home into the menu, and welcoming people with the hospitality his ouma instilled in him. With quiet modesty, he sums up his raison d’ȇtre: “I’ve worked hard to make my country proud.” Still a farm boy at heart, Van der Westhuizen’s commitment to his heritage and pride for South Africa is humbling.