'JAN' gives intimate look of life in the Kalahari & cooking under desert stars

Renowned chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen speaks to our lifestyle editor about his third season of 'JAN', and his latest restaurant in the Kalahari game reserve

22 August 2021 - 00:01 By andrea nagel
Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.
Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.
Image: Anelia Loubser

It can take months to get a table at Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen's latest restaurant, Klein Jan, located in one of SA's most beautiful private game reserves, Tswalu Kalahari. But for a taste of the magic he creates there and a front-row seat to the action, foodies, design lovers and anyone who likes a good story can catch season 3 of the award-winning series, JAN, on Showmax and DStv.

The show premiered in 2017, with seasons 1 and 2 transporting viewers to Italy and France and charting Van der Westhuizen's journey to Michelin stardom. This third season, set in the Kalahari, is more intimate. It is also breathtakingly beautiful and a little wild. It traces the origin and evolution of an extraordinary idea that arrives on a swarm of white butterflies and culminates in an opening night under African stars.

Throughout the eight episodes, Van der Westhuizen takes viewers into his confidence about what a farm boy from Middelburg - whose whimsical fusion of South African cuisine with the finest French cooking has won favour with the world's most exacting food critics on the French Riviera - dreams of in the enormous silence of the Kalahari desert.

How has the pandemic treated you?

I've been busy in Nice - there are so many countries with restrictions on travelling - it's weird, one week we'll just have just English people and the next week, just Spanish — but we're very full. Since the vaccinations rule in France, where customers can only enter with a vaccination barcode, patrons feel safer and so it's much busier.

The new episodes of 'JAN' focus on the Kalahari desert ...

We opened Klein Jan in April, but since all the restrictions, lockdowns and alcohol bans, it's been up and down. It's in the middle of nowhere, but the middle of everywhere, you'd go to Upington and the closest town, Van Zylsrus, is about an hour away, it's really small, basically just a gas pump.

What's on the menu at Klein Jan?

We built a root cellar, it's the heart of the restaurant. It's where we keep whatever is opulent for the season. Currently we have pumpkins, which we've bought from the farmers. We perfect dishes using particular ingredients — we actually get to know particular types of food intimately.

Oryx cucumber consommé with pickled springbok.
Oryx cucumber consommé with pickled springbok.
Image: Via/Jan

What would you recommend from the menu?

We play around with local produce. All the drinks and spirits we serve are made by local people. There are a lot of melons in the Kalahari, so I'd suggest you start with a melon margarita, made with millions-of-years-old Kalahari salt crystals, which we shave. We're doing a lot of game — springbok with contrasting flavours, fresh, savoury, salt, sweet.

Then preserved peaches with ideal milk, very local tastes. We use ginger beer to flavour dishes, or African beer — there's an interesting pumpkin and spekboom dish with a wors sous. Local Kalahari cuisine.

Which was your favourite episode of the new series to film?

If I have to choose, my favourite would be the one where I went with the Khoi San and spent time hunting with them. I learnt how they see the world and how beautiful their appreciation for life is, despite the fact that they have so little — yet they're so content.

I was fascinated by the time they spent collecting their food. In France we have the markets, a real sense of abundance. Now I go to the market and think, "No — just one tomato today". That's all I want to work with. It took me back to basics.

Hunting with Khoi San people.
Hunting with Khoi San people.
Image: Anelia Loubser

What's the story of the three-million-year-old salt?

It's incredible. There are salt pans, close to Van Zylsrus, that nobody ever acknowledged. We took plates and cutlery and dropped them into the pans. The crystals will grow on them — we're giving it eight months, then our guests will eat off utensils covered in a growing mineral. It's so Kalahari. The owner of the pans gave me this beautiful salt crystal and we shave a little off it every time — it's like tasting history.

Do you have to change gear when you go from the Kalahari in SA to Nice in France?

Jan in France is so different to Klein Jan in the Kalahari. But I do take something like a rock spoon, which inspired me in the desert, or a local artist's work and use it as an ornament in the French restaurant.

Klein Jan is all made up of experiences — it's not just one restaurant. The restaurant goes underground, and becomes more modern as you venture below the surface. It's the way we grew up with our grandparents. The more you go underground, the more you go into the future. We take what's influencing us today and combine it with something like French silverware and a rusted tin plate. Or the beautiful contrast of French linen and Baccarat crystal glass — I love contrast.

Looking out onto the Kalahari game reserve.
Looking out onto the Kalahari game reserve.
Image: Anelia Loubser

Does this come from your travels and sophistication mixed up with your childhood growing up in Middelburg?

Isn't that what we all do as we gather information, experiences and inspiration? Smell, taste and what you saw on your mother's table that resonates with you. It brings me so much joy to see something old and forgotten getting a fresh start, being seen in a new way. It's all part of storytelling.

Is the visual a big part of what you taste?

Coming from a photography background, yes, the visual is important. But a dish wouldn't be on my menu if it's not tasty. It needs to be exquisite and to challenge the person who eats it with textures and temperatures. But I love to push my team to execute something that's more than just a braai broodjie, for instance.

Like the cover of the latest Jan, the Journal? That beautiful tart?

'JAN' the journal.
'JAN' the journal.
Image: Supplied

Well, did you take the dust cover off? The portrait of me underneath is about the new generation of chefs. We can't sit still and wait for things to come right, for our industry to fix itself. We have to think like sportsmen — go out there and be active. In another context, fashion plays a big role in what influences people. I get that from my days working with fashion magazines. There's also the question of how we're taking care of ourselves.

It seems to me that everything you do centres on storytelling ...

Yes, for instance, we could have launched another cooking show where I chop the onion and tell you how many millilitres of water to use. I think there's no better time for South Africans to come together and tell stories that remind us things will be OK. There's definitely a comforting element to the series. It moves me to feel like I'm bringing about a change in people's understanding of each other through food. The series is about focusing on the characters around us and making us aware of each other.

• 'JAN', season 3 is on Showmax and on the lifestyle channel VIA — DStv 147