JAN proudly bears my name and is the base of everything I do, but a lot of people don’t realise that I’m not the only one keeping the pots bubbling and the broths brewing. My work often takes me on tour or back to South Africa, so I really can’t do it without my team. For centuries, the brigade and hierarchy of any fine-dining establishment has been crucial to its survival, and JAN wouldn’t be what it is today without my head chef, Rutger Eysvogel. He’s been by my side since before we got the star – through all the ups and downs – and continues to build the dream with me on this incredible journey.
“Something told me I had to do it, and looking back, I was living my dream,” says Rutger about the day he got the call inviting him to join the team at JAN. “Six months after I started, we got the star. I’ll never forget at the ceremony in Paris, we went outside afterwards and I just saw tears in Jan’s eyes. In that moment I realised what he had achieved. His dream had come true. And he has passed that dream onto me.”
Although the dream had catapulted the restaurant into a shining new firmament, the journey was just beginning. “It’s definitely changed the way I cook – the way all of us approach food now,” says Rutger. “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to innovate our dishes. I do a lot of research, but it also meant changing my mentality. It’s not just about perfection, it’s about the choices you make – looking at everything you do honestly, finding the mistakes and getting it right.”
Rutger grew up in Saldanha Bay, a harbour town on South Africa’s west coast. He remembers discovering a book about Marco Pierre White when he was in his teens and he just knew that one day he wanted to work in a Michelin-star restaurant. He embraced his culinary career with vigour. By the time he was 24, he had worked in the kitchens of renowned wine estates, Tokara and Delaire Graff, as well as at leading restaurants in the affluent Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay, and Umhlanga to the north of Durban.
With fame comes intense scrutiny, and the restaurant’s fate rests heavily on the strength of its relationships. “We want the same thing,” Rutger says of his relationship with Jan Hendrik. “We move in the same direction. I see how he has grown, how he has handled the death of his father and grandmother. Although we at first connected through food, we share a much deeper connection now. We’re like brothers in a call to arms, fighting for something together…and it is a fight a lot of the time. Negative comments do get to you when you put your heart and soul into something.”
In their work, Jan Hendrik and Rutger both draw a lot of inspiration from their shared heritage. “We believe in South Africa. With every new dish we ask ourselves, ‘How can we incorporate our roots? What would our mothers have done?’” he says. “The food industry is so set in its ways. As a chef you have to stay interested, curious, and most of all, you have to stay true to who you are.
The question of what it means to work in a Michelin-star restaurant is a complex one. “The way we run JAN is very intimate and family driven,” says Rutger, “As the head chef it’s now up to me to pass the dream on to the team. To inspire them…guide them. But they have to acknowledge me,” he laughs, “If they don’t say ‘Oui chef!’ I’ll burn them.”