THE DAY A FARMBOY PICKED A STAR
Every person has a few memorable days that stand out from the rest of their lives - those days that glow a little bit brighter when you stand back from the tapestry of your life to see it as a whole. For me personally the 29th of January 2016 will forever remain one of these special highlights, because this is the day that the universe chose to give me a little pat on the back to show me that I've been paddling in the right direction...
For a chef, a Michelin star is acknowledgment of years of dedication to a craft, the ability to survive despite grueling hours and difficult clientele and the unrelenting passion required to dream up imaginative, yet fortifying dishes that both nourish and delight. It's a thumbs-up from the food world's harshest critics and it is almost impossible to describe the sheer, unbridled joy that comes with this world-renowned mark of recognition. Being the first South African ever to earn a Michelin star is an honour beyond words and one I will cherish for a lifetime.
How we got here
The story of how this eager young lad came to own a French restaurant is one filled with many obstacles, hard work, determination and more than a little bit of luck. I believe that each of us will experience a few occasions in our lives where the stars are perfectly aligned to make our dreams come true. Destiny will shove you into the right place at the right time, but in that moment it remains your responsibility to take the plunge - to close your eyes, leave the safety of your comfort zone and prove how badly you want it even though you doubt yourself every step of the way.
I still remember the day I told Pascal Szafranski, co-owner and business partner at JAN, that I wanted to open a restaurant in France as clear as day. I was finally ready to run my own kitchen; to leave my mark on each plate of food served. In hindsight tackling the challenge of feeding the fussy French and battling the red tape that comes with opening a restaurant in France seems like an insurmountable fool's errand. Yet, somehow we managed to pull it off, even with the odds stacked against us.
Today I manage staff members from all over the world and see to it that the standard of our service and cuisine meets and exceeds the early endeavours that won us numerous awards and prestigious listings. JAN is my homage to South Africa's proud tradition of indiscriminate hospitality and I'm reminded of my roots every time I pour a glass of Pinotage or serve a plate of food.
When I was 12 years old my parents won a trip to France and upon their return from beyond the pond I spent hours pouring over the Air France magazine they brought along. I was fascinated by the foreignness of it all and even tried to teach myself a smidgeon of French from that magazine. Fast-forward to my years as an applied design student in Stellenbosch, where I was lucky enough to encounter Jackie Burger, who opened the doors that allowed me to spend time as an intern with Elle Magazine in Paris and a chance trip to the south of France that culminated in a gig as a private chef aboard the yacht of a Swedish family who vacationed in Monaco. Suffice it to say, France was calling and I simply heeded the missive.
France has an incredible market culture and having access to high quality seasonal produce has made a big impact on my cooking. I have learned to play along with the seasons and not stubbornly insist on serving asparagus when the pumpkins are ripe for the plucking. On a less impressive, yet infinitely amusing, note the language barrier has also on occasion required some on-the-spot ingenuity, such as the times when my Afrikaans accent implied that I wanted a single pork chop instead of a full pork loin or changed an order of quail into seven live ducks.
The day of the star
On Friday 29 January 2016 at exactly 22:30 the phone rang at JAN, the maître d'hôtel picked up and was told it was an urgent personal matter that only I could attend to. Any person who has ever worked in a kitchen on a busy Friday night will understand how laughable this notion was. I shrugged it off and told the maître d'hôtel to take a message. The caller left his cell number and I only returned his call late that evening, thinking that it was a neighbour who had a complaint (as the French are apt to have).
Turns out it was a member of the Michelin board informing me of the star our restaurant had received. At first his rapid diction was incomprehensible and all I could make out was 'Michelin' and 'etoile' (star). Once I got him to repeat the message at a slower clip, I realised, with a dry mouth and pounding heart, that this was it. We did it.
Ever since we opened to the doors to JAN in September 2013 it was my desire to share my heritage with the French public by reimagining South African classics with the European palate in mind. I believe that this novel approach resulted in memorable dishes that, alongside fresh presentation and the inimitable South African hospitality I was taught at the tables of my mother and grandmother, put JAN on the radar of the Michelin board.
I am humbled by this great honour and would like to dedicate the star to the team of amazing people that I surround myself with - the strong, hard-working individuals who toil alongside me and are always there to support me in times of both failure and success.
Originally published 23 February 2016