To say that Margot Janse has an adventurous spirit is something of an understatement. This is a woman who, at the tender age of 20, announced to her family in the Netherlands that she was upping sticks and heading for the wild, politically turbulent climes of South Africa.
“I’d met a South African,” she tells me from the kitchen of her restaurant in the small, beautiful Western Cape town of Franschhoek. “I met him in Holland – he was a political journalist in exile at that point – and he got offered a job in Zimbabwe, where we lived for a couple of months. Then it all started changing: the ANC became unbanned; the political prisoners were being released; Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison and pretty soon after that in April 1990 we moved to Johannesburg.”
Thus she found herself in the post-apartheid chaos of South Africa, taking photographs for her boyfriend’s stories and ensconcing herself in her adopted home’s socio-political world, as she’d later come to shape its culinary one. “The whole globe was in South Africa at this point and I was taking photographs,” she says. “There was Nelson Mandela, you know? When you’re twenty you don’t realise you’re emigrating or making a huge life decision, you’re just having an adventure.”
And what an adventure it’s been – leading here, to her role as Executive Chef at the luxurious Relais & Chateaux Le Quartier Français, where she’s cooked for the past 17 years, gaining accolades for her restaurant that include numerous mentions in the World’s 50 Best list and the title of “Best restaurant in Africa and the Middle East”. In that time, Janse has built up trusting, cooperative relationships with local suppliers, and is now cherishing the very best produce she has at her disposal – cooking her ‘African Inspired Surprise Tasting Menu’ menu for guests who are visiting for a refined, unforgettable dining experience. She tells me that “we’re not ruled by budgets, but by quality”, which is a stark contrast to her beginnings in the continent, when “we had very little money” and lived off avocados and guavas foraged from the garden. “It was a culture shock, but it was amazing. I’m not sure how to describe it in words but I can still feel it – everything had much deeper colours and everything was different.”
It wasn’t until after studying photojournalism in Johannesburg for three years, that Janse felt the pull of the kitchen. “I loved photography but the kitchen was really beckoning,” she says. “It was a place of such magic to me – eating out was such a treat. I was always cooking or throwing dinner parties and I wanted to be a part of the restaurant scene.” So at the age of 23 she entered the professional kitchen world, working for well-known restaurateur Ciro Molinaro and learning everything about running a kitchen, from how to do a stock take to how to manage staff. After that she worked in Cape Town for two years, before breaking up with her journalist boyfriend, and, looking for a fresh start, applying for the job of sous-chef she saw advertised at Le Quartier Francais, which she got.
Shortly afterwards the head chef, who’d built up the restaurant’s reputation as the best in the region, left, leaving Janse to pick up the pieces, and take on the role of head chef at a very early stage in her career. “All eyes were on us,” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘who’s that?’ – I was 27, I didn’t have a particularly interesting history and hadn’t been a head chef before. Very soon after my first menu I went back to Holland to visit my family and I booked a flight to London and ate everywhere for five days – places like Gordon Ramsay’s that were setting the trends. We change all the time, we learn and we evolve and that’s why I’m still here, after all these years, because it stays exciting – you never sit back and rest and your laurels.” After such a long stint in one restaurant, this is an important point for Janse, and we speak just as her restaurant has undergone a complete refurbishment at the hands of her theatre set designer brother. “It’s vibrant, exciting and more colourful,” she says. “We don’t want it to be intimidating, we want it to be a really cool space to sit in because it’s about the food, not about sitting in a museum – the space has got to fit the food. We’ve also enlisted a local furniture maker to make new furniture out of salvaged black wood and oak trees for tables and chairs, which is exciting.”
True to the independent spirit of the 20-year-old who set out to another continent, Janse says that she has no desire to be “mainstream” in her cooking. “I’m inspired by where I am and I’ve never wanted to do what everyone else is doing. I think it’s important to have your own identity. Even at 27 I my philosophy was about what was around me and using ingredients other people weren’t using – I was trying to make it work with local suppliers, but it was much harder back then because the consistency wasn’t there. That’s been amazing, how things have changed and how farmers and producers have progressed. The produce I can get now is incredible – the people get enthusiastic, and they’re willing to work with me.”
It’s this determination to work with local suppliers that defines Janse’s food, and situates her among the likes of Denmark’s René Redzepi and Brazil’s Alex Atala in terms of showcasing her country’s native cuisine. “I believe my guests come here to experience South Africa – so I’m not going to feed them Asian-inspired food. It’s important that they experience Africa in the cuisine, so I use indigenous ingredients in a modern way, with modern techniques, so people can taste things they’ve never tasted before. We’re in Africa but we’ve got all the toys here too – so there’s no excuses, we have the sous-vide machines and the Pacojets. And I’m still discovering. It’s not always easy to get things in a regular supply, but South Africa is very seasonal, which is wonderful because we have great game, herbs, seeds and greens and things that we work with.”
Africa might not be the first place you’d think of for good artisan cheese production, but Janse has found a producer close by making a reblochon-style ‘Lanquedoc’ cheese that she serves with a large puffed maize crisp flavoured with red wine vinegar, served with charred leeks and charred leek powder in one of her new dishes. Surprise is an important element of dining in The Tasting Room, and Janse likes to build anticipation at the start of the meal with old fashioned coupes of South African sparkling wine, before serving snacks followed by her no-choice menu, with each diner receiving different dishes. She especially likes to include unusual produce that has a story attached to it, like the soft, sour, powdery pulp from the seed of the baobab tree (known colloquially as the ‘upside down tree’), which she uses in desserts like baobab and pear parfait with caramelised honey jelly. In another dish, the pulp is folded into local yoghurt, supplied by a nearby buffalo farm, and served with a consommé of watermelon and tomato with fennel pollen.
“Our service staff are all local and very proudly south African. With the baobab they’ll talk about why it’s called the upside down tree, and they have their own stories about the ingredients too because they’ve grown up with them. I’m turning them into things that are different, but I’m honouring their indigenous ingredients and I want them to tell that story because it’s part of the heritage. It’s about saying to the guest, ‘we’re sharing this continent with you, here on this plate’.”
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