The Way We Do Food At Klein Jan
A Conversation with Etienne Wessels, Head Chef at Restaurant Klein Jan
It would be an understatement to say that creating magic in one of the world’s most remote restaurants would be a challenge for any chef. But then you realise, the magic is already here. All you need is vision to unlock its full potential. Since Klein JAN’s opening last year, Etienne Wessels has not only risen to the challenge, but he has been my collaborator, fellow creator and custodian of my most ambitious project to date. Here, Etienne shares his story and vision.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef?
It started during visits to my grandparents in George – they really instilled a love of food and cooking in me. Later, at home, whenever I wanted to get out of doing chores, I’d go to my mom in the kitchen and ask if I could help. My love of food grew into an obsession.
Where did you hone your skills as a chef?
All over! I went to chef school in Hermanus. My first job was at Terroir in Stellenbosch, then I worked at a spa in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands and Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl. I worked at two game lodges before I went on to Denis Private Island in the Seychelles, which helped me to prepare for a life at Klein JAN, even though the environment is completely different.
How did Klein JAN happen?
My wife, Tika, and I got a call telling us about this amazing opportunity. We did about three interviews, plus we had to cook a 10-course menu at home. Tika (now General Manager at Klein JAN) took photos of the dishes and we sent them off. The wait was nerve racking, but we were lucky enough to get the job!
How has working at the restaurant changed your outlook on food?
The Klein JAN experience is so unmistakably Kalahari, so my outlook has changed quite a bit. I find it so great to pick Chef Jan’s brain, to see how he looks at things. He’s always driving us to reinvent the food we may have lost over the years.
How does your approach to food differ at Klein JAN?
The Kalahari is central to everything we do. As the seasons change, we look at what is available on the reserve and locally – never outside the Northern Cape. We forage some ingredients and preserve most of what we source for the next season, as we never know if it’s going to rain. Our relationship with our suppliers is key, and some produce their goods exclusively for Klein JAN. Our work calls for innovation, but always with great respect for our heritage.
What has working at Klein JAN taught you about the future of food?
To reconnect with your roots and all the forgotten dishes of South Africa, and to tap into people’s memories of flavours they might not have tasted since childhood. I think we’re going to start seeing more restaurants all over the world reimagining the food from their past.