A conversation with Hessie van der Westhuizen

By Hanfred Rauch

Having worked with South Africa’s first Michelin-star chef since shortly after he got this prestigious accolade – not as a chef, mind you (my cutting skills wouldn’t see me through the first day) – I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to raise this enormously inspiring individual for whom a challenge is simply an opportunity in disguise. What was clear from the moment I met Hessie van der Westhuizen, Jan Hendrik’s mother, was that as much as his grandmother is credited for shaping his love of cuisine, his mother gave him the foundation and freedom to grow into the man he is today. Their bond is so much more than that of mother and son – she is his confidante, his best friend and his biggest fan.

What is your earliest memory of Jan Hendrik in the kitchen, and when did it become apparent that food would be his calling?

I don’t know where he came from! He was always fascinated with what I was doing. When he was eight, he would stay up late with me as I decorated cakes for weddings and christenings, giving me advice. When he was nine, he made me breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Even then he knew how to make the simplest food, like eggs and waffles, look beautiful.

Around that time, he went to visit my sister in the Cape. I’ll never forget, he flew with Sun Air. He came home with a whole collection of airline cutlery and made us sit in the lounge while he pretended to be the airline steward, saying the whole speech (and speaking into a hairdryer) about fastening our seatbelts and telling us where the exits are. He served us food, which we had to eat with the airline cutlery, and recorded the whole thing on a tape recorder. I listened to it again just the other day and got tears in my eyes.

But his love of food became clear when he went to high school and took hospitality and catering as a subject. He founded a food club at the school called the Green Peppers (that is still there today), and when he was 14, he entered a Rooi Rose cooking competition all by himself. He did everything by himself, even when he decided what to study. One day, he came home and told Boet (Jan Hendrik’s father) and me that he was going to Zevenwacht’s culinary school and that he knew how he was going to pay for it – he had even arranged his own accommodation.

What do you enjoy cooking with Jan Hendrik?

Jan would sometimes bring us the most amazing prawns and crayfish to cook together while having a glass of wine and listening to good music. Those are always such special moments to me, but it’s not always the cooking I remember. I don’t know many sons who would do this with their mothers, but some of my favourite memories of spending time with him were when he would pack a picnic basket and tell me, “Just bring your hat and some sun block and leave the rest to me.” We would go up into the mountains. I would tan while he would read magazines and play music on a portable vinyl player. We’d see all the people below but no one could see us.

Ouma Hessie (Maria) had a big impact on Jan Hendrik’s cooking, but what was your favourite memory of her?

I remember when a French TV crew came out to the farm in 2018. My mother was quite frail by then, but she spent the whole day cooking with Jan Hendrik as they made all these dishes together for the programme. At the end of it she came around the corner with her walking stick – dead tired – and said, “Now, aren’t we going to have a nightcap?” We sat together having Jeropiga, laughing and talking into the night. I just remember the look of satisfaction on her face and how proud Jan Hendrik was of her. It was one of our most precious memories.

Another very special memory I have of her was when I would visit her house when they still lived in town. I would go around tasting something from every pot or casserole cooking on her stove – even before it was fully cooked – the green beans, the sauce from the leg of lamb… then she would say, “Don’t karring with my food!” We made a lot of good memories in the kitchen.

What has been your favourite memory of Mother’s Day so far

Mother’s Day usually falls somewhere during mid-May, which is close to my mother-in-law’s (Ouma Wessie) birthday – and mine is in June. 2014 was the last time so many of us were together; the four mothers (myself, Ouma Hessie, Ouma Wessie and Rindie, Jan Hendrik’s sister), my father, Boet, and Jan. The only people that were missing were Jaco, (Jan Hendrik’s brother) and his family. Jan set the most beautiful table with my black dinnerware set that Boet had bought me at NAMPO years before, with red serviettes. It was just the most wonderful dinner, with roasted leg of lamb, boerbone from our garden, pampoenkoekies… there was a mixed salad and rice… It was just so special to me.

If you had to spoil yourself, what would you get yourself from janonline.com?

Last Christmas, Jan Hendrik really spoiled me by bringing me a whole hamper of gifts from the shop. I was so overwhelmed. The Kampvuur Kers (JAN Feu de bois candle) was probably my favourite. I love the smell and it lasts for such a long time. I also love that organic olive oil and I probably use the lemon squeezer at least three or four times a week. The leather apron is really a very nice gift for a man, I think. It looks professional and makes any man look like a real chef, even when he can’t cook. But I find my favourites are always sold out, like those beautiful vintage plates. I also liked those toile napkins, especially the Middelburg to Monaco range, and the glass cloth with the blue stripes along the border.

When it comes to the books, I would say you have to have The French Affair. It’s such a beautiful book to have in your home. But every time a new Journal comes out, I buy one for every grandchild. But you have to stop with those Journals soon, because my pockets are running empty and I’m running out of storage space! (laughs) I just feel when they grow up, they’ll appreciate it so much to see Oom Jan’s legacy.