Q&A With Jan Hendrik Van Der Westhuizen
By Hanfred Rauch
“It is not a restaurant. It’s a home where we aim for people to meet new friends and leave feeling enriched and happy.” From the get-go, this has been Jan Hendrik’s philosophy behind his first JAN experience in the Cape Winelands.
What initially drew you to the idea of creating a JAN experience in the Cape Winelands?
My first stop after school was the Winelands – to study, work and to learn what incredible wines we have to offer. This was more than 20 years ago and this little house in the middle of a lavender field kept haunting me. Over the years it has evolved from lavender field to vineyard and lavender field again, but always this tiny house with so much character intrigued me to no end – made more intriguing by the fact that it stood empty.
I felt people needed to experience it and this is when I pitched the location for my fourth TV series to producer/director Carien Loubser. In fact, I didn’t give her much of an option. I had a meeting with Hanneli and Hein Rupert and said to them I would love to film a series with my most iconic South African heroes inside this beautiful little house, which I then learnt was called Veepos.
The Connection between JAN being in France and with our local presence at JAN Innovation Studio in Cape Town made it a no brainer that, once the filming was done, we had to open the space up to outside guests, allowing them so take a peek into this magical little space that carried so many deep and loved conversations. JAN Franschhoek was born. It is not a restaurant. It’s a home. Where people meet and leave feeling enriched and happy.
To what extent do you feel your early career as a chef was shaped by your time living and working in the Winelands?
I was obsessed with the place. It ticked so many boxes and my journey to meeting amazing foodies, chefs, winemakers and wine lovers turned it into home. I lived in Paarl for five years, and five years in Stellenbosch. Franshhoek always felt like having ice cream on Sundays!
A JAN signature has emerged over the years. Your experiences gravitate towards small, intimate gatherings rather than large, boisterous affairs. Both Klein JAN and JAN Franschhoek are also centred on small, heritage farm houses given a new lease on life through a world-class dining experience. With this in mind, how would you describe your approach as a restaurateur?
There is beauty in the details. I personally can’t deal with many people around me. I like to think I am a silent introvert. So, creating smaller experiences which turn into gatherings rather than dinners makes me feel at ease; controllable circumstances where I have a connection with my team no matter where they might find themselves in the world.
The most difficult lesson I’ve had to learn in life is that you cannot please everyone. You have to respect your signature and as much as possible, try to make it come across to your guests. Having several locations and experiences allow me to step out of them often, reflect and come back with a clean, fresh palate for change and adjustments to make our offering more exceptional.
How would you relate your attraction to farmhouses back to your childhood?
Soul, stoeps, and summers spent white washing the walls with chalk after the rains. I have an intimate love of spaces that remind me that a table is for more than something for sitting at. The farmhouse kitchen and dining room is the soul of any home, and this is where I learnt to love what I do today.
JAN Franschhoek is different, though. How would you describe your involvement in the project – from initial design to launch – and what is your involvement in the experience now?
From day one, the set design was curated by myself and our amazing Creative Director, Alwijn Burger. We wanted to bring the iconic JAN blue into the space with rough floors and wooden chairs – a fire going and beautiful fynbos hanging from the ceilings. Opening the space up to the public was, and continues to be challenging sometimes, as it is incredibly small. Definitely not a commercial or industrial kitchen, which led me to design the menu according to what I know the team would be able to pull off. As with all the JAN establishments, I design the menu with my team, led by Chef Antro Davel, our Group Executive Chef. We test, we taste, we run it, we repeat, we fail sometimes. We mostly succeed, though, and finally serve a meal to our guests that comes from a lot of conceptual creative thinking.
I visit JAN Franschhoek often to make sure the team goes upwards and onwards and that we redesign certain elements that maybe didn’t work as well as we thought. It takes years for a dining establishment to find its soul, signature and message. And what we have achieved in such a short time is incredible. Humbly saying that no one is perfect, we aim daily for doing our best and learned that the fastest way to kill something special is to compare it to something else.
This small house in the middle of a lavender field not only reminds you of being somewhere else but giving our guests that visit to this home of ours, and a special memory to cherish.
What is your future vision for JAN Franschhoek? Is this a long-term dining experience or do you see yourself creating more temporary, short-term experiences going forward?
For now, we are focussing on this season and will soon reveal the way forward. Exciting times!