Cook like you have a Michelin star: 10 tips from chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen
SA's golden boy reveals handy hints and the essential tools that'll help you take your cooking game to the next level
Much-lauded Michelin-star chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen has just announced that he is coming closer to home. He's been coaxed to open Klein Jan, an extension of his restaurant in France, out in the wondrously beautiful landscape of the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. It's set to open its doors in 2020.
He also plans on opening an incubation space in Cape Town to teach culinary students and his staff how to push themselves creatively in the kitchen.
As such, we asked him for some tips that'll help home cooks to take their kitchen game to the next level.
1. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP
Although Jan admits that he is not "a knife guy, with a roll of special Japanese knives", the four that he does have he wields expertly and with purpose. They are always sharp because a sharp knife is a precise knife.
2. SLICE IT WITH A MANDOLIN
"People need a mandolin," says Jan, "and you need to know how to work with it." The goal, he says, is to get to the point where you can slice something as thinly as possible. This changes the texture of an ingredient. But remember, safety first.
3. ORGANIZE YOURSELF
Before you start cooking, you should have all your ingredients and tools ready. The French call it "mise en place", Jan calls it essential. Know where everything is, what's in the fridge and what your next steps are before you do them. Being organised not only allows for faster cooking, but better results, as you won't let things overcook or get cold.
4. READ THE RECIPE
We've all been at a dinner party where you wait longer than expected for food because the host didn't quite think it through. "Some people just read the ingredients," says Jan, "and you're left with a lot of surprises."
5. REDUCE, REDUCE, REDUCE, REDUCE
"Don't faff with sauces," says Jan. He believes that if you give the sauce the time to simmer and grow in flavour, you can take very simple ingredients and transform them into punchy flavours.
6. AVOID CHEMICALS IN FOOD
As fun as molecular gastronomy is, Jan believes that there are too many chemicals in food as is. "And you can taste it, and you wonder why one in four people get cancer." We need to move back to knowing where our food comes from.
7. KEEP YOUR CLOTH CLEAN
In the professional kitchen, every chef has a cloth tucked into the back of their apron. It's there to open ovens, wipe down plates and clean up final presentations. At home, you can take up a similar practice, but know that germs can travel and a clean kitchen is a healthy kitchen.
8. GET A STICK BLENDER
This multi-use tool is a kitchen must-have. It makes almost anything into a sauce, turns chunky cooked veg into soups and smooths out whatever bumps have developed along the way. "Gotta love a stick blender," says Jan.
9. DOCUMENT YOUR WORK
As important as it is for professional chefs to be able to build up their knowledge and be able to go back to their documented dishes — a la the flip-card recipe trove Remy the rat pages through in the cartoon, Ratatouille (Jan's example, not mine) — he believes home cooks should take notes too. It's a good practice to take photos of what you've made so you can see how far you've progressed on your cooking journey.
10. QUESTION A LOT AND BE CURIOUS
Ask as many questions as you can. Questions are never annoying in the kitchen. "And if you don't know — and sometimes I don't — admit it and research it. It's how you learn and that's where the magic happens," says Jan.