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HOW NOT TO RUN A RESTAURANT

A FEW OF MY PERSONAL DOS AND DON’TS

For some of us, the idea of one day having our own eatery is a dream come true. Maybe you were inspired by a great movie, or perhaps you grew up in a family of chefs. Whatever your reason, the reality of owning (and running) a restaurant is far from romantic. What do you do when you order “duck” and the next day a live duck arrives at your door? When nine tables at your restaurant order the seafood plater but the tenth reveals an airborne shellfish allergy, do you show them the door or set a special trio of tables on the sidewalk? Sometimes, instead of writing an all-purpose manual of how to open a restaurant, it might be better to start with what not to do.

JAN | Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen | HOW NOT TO RUN A RESTAURANT

When I look back at my career as a chef, this still makes me blush…

Gosh, there were so many! I go red quickly if I feel out of my “zone”. This I learned in my student days in the kitchen when my head chef, then Bruce Robertson, heated up the pass. I was in the walk-in freezer every five minutes looking for an ice pack of some sort to put on my face and ears. So yes, if you can’t handle the heat, go to the fridge. Find your spot.

In my later career at JAN, there was plenty to blush about, although no emoji quite captures the deep red hue my face turns when guests arrive and just want a salad or scrambled egg. As with everything, you learn to roll with the punches, and you often ask yourself, is this really what I do? Do I need to please? A few ticks on your checklist later and you realise that if you stick to your guns – or if you’re just a really, really nice chef – you, you can make them the best scrambled egg they’ve ever had and give them an experience they won’t forget!

An experience I won’t ever forget was when a lady, who came to dine at JAN on her own, had so much wine, she literally took a bite of the finest, smallest bowl of porcelain with a milk tart filling in it. I heard a loud crunch from the kitchen… next thing, Sophie arrived, pale faced: “Chef… table four… she ate the bowl!” I rushed over to the table, dropping the words, “Call an ambulance!” on my way. But when I arrived at her table, she was sitting deep in her chair, enjoying every crunchy shard of that superfine, petit porcelain as it turned to a fine powder and she washed it down with a mouthful of sweet wine. I was still shaking, so I went outside and sat on the pavement with my hands in my hair. Phew! “Are you serious?!” I thought to myself. All those thin, beautiful bowls went to the bin instantly.

What really went on behind the scenes on Restaurant JAN’s opening night…

A shot of Mampoer every hour in the toilet to get my nerves down! My dad still gave me the bottle to wish me luck. Slap-bang in the middle of service on the first night, the power went out. BOOM!! All black. A few candles were still flickering awkwardly on the tables and the guests didn’t say a word. Maybe they were being polite.

Being from South Africa I should’ve been used to this. I took a breath, went straight to the bar and grabbed two bottles of Champagne, instructed a fancy French waiter to follow me with a tray of flutes, and shouted, “Champagne for everyone!” The power came back on 45 minutes later. It turned out to be a short in the electric system of the new kitchen. All I can say is, communication is everything. People need to understand what is happening. Don’t try to hide things or pretend all is in order when clearly the power is not coming on soon. I made some friends for life that night.

JAN | Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen | HOW NOT TO RUN A RESTAURANT

When employing a new chef, this is the biggest deal breaker for me…

Someone who jumps around from kitchen to kitchen. I look at longevity in a CV. Making sure there are a solid few references, and I really talk and get to know that person. Let them cook with you a few times and see if they dance your dance. (In a kitchen, we dance. Everybody moves to their own rhythm.) I always come back to the word, tribe. Whoever you appoint, make sure they fit in with your people. Have they got a sense of humour, are they hard working, serious about what they do, but not an asshole? Attitude is a total no go, and if you pull that old-days vibe and come in with this swearing bad-ass spiel, you’re out before you’ve even walked through the door. Kindness is key. I want to be able to sit around a table and actually discuss concepts with you without feeling like you’re going to knock down everything I bring to the table.

When ego goes too far…

We try hard to stay confident, but sometimes it goes over to a bit of ego, I guess… I’ve seen that a few times at JAN in the past eight years since JAN has been open. Then, it’s about relying on the balance within your team. Identify someone’s best attributes and inspire them to grow on that. Make them attentive to the things that can be improved on. It’s not always easy taking criticism, but the worst way to react is with a, “How dare you?” Rather say, “Thank you. If you didn’t tell me, no one would have.” Of course, if you think I’m totally off point, then perhaps this isn’t the place for you, but I always try to put myself in that position. I would much rather someone pointed out my mistakes to me than letting it fester.

How the Restaurant JAN team continues to exceed expectations after nine months in lockdown…

Kudos to my incredible team. They were ready for opening night eight months ago already. Every day, they sent me messages, photos, ideas for changes they thought we should make, they watered the plants every week, and even did some additional courses to augment their skills, like online service and wine courses. None of us could wait to be back and to do what we love doing.

Would I change anything about Restaurant JAN?

No! I have too much to be thankful for to ask for more.

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