South African-born Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen talks about his life in France
Your story is well documented – from Mpumalanga farm boy to top chef. What smell or taste immediately takes you back to your childhood?
Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen: The heavenly smell of rain cascading down onto the dry red earth on our farm. The smell of smoke from my late grandfather’s cigar or pipe. The smell of the coal stove. The smell of burnt food – there is often a story to it that it was forgotten or done on purpose over flames.
You have resided in the South of France for 13 years now. What do you enjoy most about living there?
Definitely the light. And the sun. We have sunshine for 300 days of the year. The famous artists Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh – they all came here for the light. I thought it was an urban legend, but I notice it so much now with being here. The blue sky with the yellow buildings; there is just this lovely contrast. And the restaurant, of course, has kept me here!
Apricale is a huge favourite. It’s about 45 minutes’ drive from Nice, in the Liguria province of Italy. I got to know Apricale about 10 years ago through a friend of a friend. I went there on a bus the first time. I remember feeling like I was in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. I loved the fact that when you go through one point, which is a small town called Dolceacqua, you feel like you’re going into a time warp. Everything stays behind – your worries, your negativity and your problems. It’s just beautiful. I don’t want to spend too much time there, though, because then I’ll lose perspective on life.
How much has your French improved?
It’s progressing slowly, but I don’t think it’s that great. I’m a very curious French-speaking person, so I’ll ask a lot of questions when I don’t know something. I’m definitely not fluent. I would say it’s about 60%. I’m learning every day
Tell us about Elizabeth, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Lizzie! She’s my everything. She’s my best friend. I never knew that an animal could love you this much until I got one. She’s my first pet. She’s named after Queen Elizabeth and is a very petite Cavalier with the most incredible personality. Lizzie is a huge foodie and has a refined palate. She’s an absolute snob when it comes to food! She’s going to have chicken, she’s going to have beef, and then the next thing I know, she hates pellets. Her favourite thing to eat is steamed chicken – she likes it warm but not overly steamed; it still needs to be soft. She loves yoghurt and frozen yoghurt. She’s by my side 100%, and even though she pretends she’s not looking at me, I can see one eye always goes left, and she’s watching where I’m going. She’s got a second father, Pascal, who opened the restaurant with me. Whenever I travel, she stays with him.
She seems to be the most wonderful travel companion. Do you only take her along when travelling by road? Has she been on a plane?
She’s very pretentious! The standing joke is that she flies to Paris to get her hair done. She’s allowed on the aircraft and goes in the cabin with us. She loves flying and has been all over Italy with me. I’m super-impulsive, and one day, I walked past a pet shop and saw this beautiful dog. I walked out again, phoned my best friend, and told him “I think I’m going to buy a dog”. I don’t regret it for one second.
You seem to really love travelling, immersing yourself in a place and enjoying the cuisine and the scenery. What is your favourite place to visit internationally, and why?
It keeps changing. I like to sleep in a hostel in Naples and understand the local people that go there. The next day, I’ll go to a 5-star hotel in Portofino. I love contrast and the clear structure of it. One day I am in Nice at my restaurant. Afterwards, I can go to an opera in Monaco, and the next day, fly to the Kalahari to drink brandy and Coke with the locals around a campfire. I love simplicity.
How often do you visit South Africa?
It depends, but on average, three or four times a year. The factors are usually my journal, television shows, my restaurants and my masterclasses in Cape Town and Johannesburg. On each trip, I visit my restaurants in the Kalahari and Franschhoek, and we redo the menus every season.
Your own favourite meal to make for yourself?
That changes a lot. Currently, I’m obsessed with two-minute noodles, tinned tuna and either a béchamel sauce or a really good mayonnaise, completed with lots of Tabasco and something fresh.
If you dine out, what is your go-to dish to order?
I love chicken and either order that or a salad. I’m a fast eater – it comes from being in kitchens since the age of 15. There’s no time for sitting down, as you’re always on the go. I would either have a starter or dessert, never both. This might sound weird – I’m not a huge foodie but more of a flavour person.
What type of patron are you when dining out?
I tip well. I respect them. I’m uplifting. I’m a very calm patron and appreciate honesty when it comes to food.
How do you live your life to the fullest?
I bend reality. I keep thinking about something, and the more you think about it, the more likely it’s going to happen. Every morning when I wake up, I tell myself this is how I’m going to feel today. I look forward to the future and keep reminding myself of special things. And surround myself with happy, incredible, positive people.
Text: Heléne Ramackers Photography: Hanru Marais
For more information, visit janonline.com.