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"Life is what you do between meals; real living is what you do during them." It’s her personal motto. And for those who knew her when she was young, when her dreams were far from the kitchen, hearing her say it is incredible. Margot Janse is the most anti-conformist, surprising, respected and prize-winning chef of the two-starred South African restaurant, The Tasting Room, in the boutique hotel, Le Quartier Français.
She wanted to be an actress. But in the end, the world of theater and the restaurant world have many common points: they both require a high level of concentration, both require nightly performances in the attempt to please an audience, hoping for applause. Named Chef of the Year 2012, the Holland-born Janse has an obsession: “No boring dishes, because each dish has to say something.”
FDL caught up with the Chef for an interview...
When did you understand this was your path?
Rather late. I used to want to be an actress, and went to acting school. I liked to cook, but I never imagined it would be my profession – for me it was just a hobby. I went to South Africa for a photography class and I’ve been here since 1995. I worked as a waitress because I was attracted to the atmosphere of a restaurant. Then I began to be interested in the dishes. At a certain point I became curious enough to go to school.
Most chefs have had mentors. Who were yours?
I began working for Ciro Molinaro in one of Johannesburg’s best restaurants. He taught me everything about being in the kitchen and the dining room, but he also taught me how to run a restaurant. I rarely stick with a menu; whenever I perfect a dish I soon invent a new one and work on changing the old one. He used to say, “I'll never forget the wise words from a Buddhist monk - organic food may be more expensive - but all we need to do is eat less and waste not.” I also have to mention the three-month apprenticeship at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in 2000. It’s where I learned rigor and perfectionism in the kitchen.
Land, ingredients, culture: how important are these in your culinary philosophy?
The connection with land here is paramount, more than in any other country in the world. My creations are nourished with exceptional African products, which are in constant evolution. When a new ingredient is discovered, I analyze it for a long time and try to extract all of its nuances. For example, now I’m working on the sensory universe of “Buchu” or “Bucco”, which is a South African plant. It has a very concentrated fruity aroma that resembles peppermint. I’ve been adding it to various dishes.
How important are social issues for a chef?
They’re fundamental – especially when working in a problematic social context like South Africa. A year ago, a hotel guest made a generous donation to a charity, so we decided to prepare meals for children in several villages – and we’ve kept doing it. We created a highly nutritious muffin, full of important ingredients. In total, 850 children benefit every day from our Isabelo Project .
*Some of the many accolades Chef Margot Janse received in her career: Chef of the Year 2012 in 2012 Eat Out DSTV Food Network Restaurant Awards. No. 2 in the 2012 Eat Out DSTV Food Network Restaurant Awards. S.Pellegrino Top 50 best restaurants awards 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2002; Best Restaurant in Africa and the Middle East 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005; Relais & Châteaux Inaugural Rising Chef Trophy 2006 First Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef in Africa 2007; Virtuoso Best of the Best culinary experience 2008 Hotel Magazine USA – Top Ten Restaurants in the world 2008