Ah, French Michelin-starred cooking. The visions come easily: towering soufflés, lashings of fois gras, snails in clouds of garlic, all washed down with rivers of Champagne, and presented by an unsmiling man with a moustache and a practised air of indifference. And that can easily be the reality – unless, of course, the menu is peppered with biltong, bobotie and Amarula, the glasses are filled with the best of the Swartland, and the waiter tries valiantly to get his Gallic tongue around “mosbolletjie”.
Welcome to Jan, the Côte d’Azur’s little slice of South Africa.
If you have even a flickering interest in food, then the remarkable story of Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen is unlikely to have passed you by: from aspiring young chef to South Africa’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, he’s become the poster boy for South African cooking abroad.
The second volume of his journal – as much art as it is ode to food – has landed on local shelves, and his beautifully shot series for Showmax extended an already substantial fan base. All of which has nudged him towards near-mythical status in his home country: who is this Michelin-starred chef, and more importantly, is his Michelin-starred food really any good?
I got the answer to the first of those questions a year ago, dropping in on Jan in his eponymous restaurant in Nice for a delightful hour. Jan the man has an easy charm, a wonderful story, and a generous pouring hand; Jan the restaurant is a study in intimate design, and together with an early bottle of Jan’s own label wine (South African, naturally), provided welcome respite from the most unusual flurry of snow that besieged the coast of France that week.
But for all the pleasure of conversing with the man who represents South Africa’s biggest success in France since John Smit hoisted a trophy aloft in Paris 12 years ago, one crucial element was missing: the food. I was there on a Monday, Jan’s kitchen was closed, and so the menu could be read, but not sampled. The Louvre without Mona Lisa, Die Hard without Bruce Willis, the Proteas without AB: the most important part of my pilgrimage was missing.
One year later, though, I rectified that. There can’t be room for more than 30 or so people in the restaurant, and the place was full, mostly couples soaking up a space made for romance – and one lone South African, brimming with anticipation. So what was it like?
Unexpected, and yet warmly familiar. An opening salvo that included a biltong lamington, a successful savoury spin. Mosbolletjie served with burnt banana and Amarula butter, a proudly South African counterpoint to rustic French bread with an almighty crunch. Sea bass perched atop a delicate Rooibos meringue. And a curried lentil bobotie – another inventive spin on Jan’s childhood memories – alongside guinea fowl. I spent a week eating my way through Paris last year, and encountered not a single guinea fowl; safe to say this is another South African attraction on the menu.
A playful grape and Cognac dish preceded Jan’s ‘japie se gunsteling’, a pineapple and coconut finish to a night of Afro-French fusion that offered a similar blend of wine, as important a part of the night as any. Jan has a carefully curated South African wine offering, with Org de Rac’s opulent reserve Chardonnay the highlight on the night; amongst assorted French wines, the Domaine de Bablut Chenin Blanc was excellent, but I’d back a top South African Chenin as its equal at the very least. Throw in some excellent Champagne, and Jan’s food has sterling company.
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It could have ended up as kitsch cuisine, a culinary caricature of South African fare. Instead, it’s a brilliant coming together of traditional Afrikaans dishes, modern flair, and an appreciable influence of the country Jan has made his second home. South Africa and France haven’t always gone well together, but Jan Hendrik’s temple to the food (and wine) of his home is a pas des deux par excellence.
This week I’m drinking:
I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time at 40 000 feet or thereabouts, and I’ve flown on most airlines. Qantas has a terrific menu, Air New Zealand offers some excellent Kiwi wine, and as beleaguered as the airline might be, South African Airways has always offered some of the friendliest service in the skies. But for overall experience Emirates is difficult to improve on, and the bar at the back of the A380 is as good a place as any to while away a flight. Last week’s Emirates list included a blissful 2001 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (you could get a taxi from Nice to Monaco for the price of a bottle), but I got particular pleasure out of watching numerous passengers enjoying the 2015 Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon. A strong, well-rounded wine from one of Franschhoek’s leading producers, it stood up well in some exalted company. Go, South Africa!