Margot Janse: 'Mandela still had that aura'

Thursday 13 August 2009 12:24 BST

The important guests had arrived, 60 of them were in the restaurant. In the kitchen of 'Le Quartier Francais' at Franschoek, you could cut the tension, like a knife through butter.

This was the night when it would be decided whether 'Le Quartier' would win a prestigious award. The stakes were high.

Anxiety was already in the air, partly due to Executive Chef Margot Janse's choice of the sweet dish. She had decided to make passion fruit soufflé, hardly a straightforward task. Now, the decision looked hopelessly ambitious.

Janse had told her staff they could either play safe or push themselves. In the end, she made the decision. "They thought I was mad" she smiled.

The plan was to cook three batches of soufflés, 25 at a time, at one minute intervals. These top kitchens work with almost military timing and precision. But then came disastrous news.

'The oil is cold in the fryer' said one of Janse's staff. A fuse had blown and there was no time to repair it. Janse ordered a cupboard full of frying pans to be pressed into service. Quel calamite….when they started cooking the first ones, the eggs stuck to the bottom. That was clearly no good.

As the clock ticked on and the judges awaited their soufflés, someone produced a small fryer. It was their only hope. "We did six at a time, that was all we could manage. We had to cook 60 eggs that way" Janse remembered.

Incredibly, it worked. The soufflés were wonderful and the staff got a standing ovation (as well as the award) when they took their bow afterwards, in the restaurant...

Strange people, these chefs. If they're not effing and blinding like troopers a la Gordon Ramsey, they're running their businesses so badly they crash ignominiously, like Anthony Worrall Thompson in the UK. Temperamental, blinkered, up their own cassoulet and just one-dimensional?

Well, Margot Janse seems a remarkably level-headed, calm sort of human being. It's not as if she's just some wannabe meat balls and chips creator. This slim, matter-of-fact Dutch born lady has been voted South Africa's best chef and the restaurant she serves, was rated 35th best in the world as well as the best in Africa and the Middle East. It's fair to say she'd cook you and I into the proverbial Zabaglione.

But then, maybe Janse has a more rounded, philosophical view of life because she knew another world before she arrived upon the stage of cracked eggs, asparagus spears and heated saucepans.

She found herself in Africa because, after some early disappointments back in Holland when she was rejected for theatre schools, she decided to follow her South African exiled boyfriend to the world's most dramatic continent. It was 1989 and when he was offered a job in Zimbabwe, Janse found herself working as a waitress, earning money to help fund their lifestyle in the capital, Harare.

"It was a real culture shock. I had never been outside Europe but suddenly we were living in Africa with a huge avocado and also mango tree in the back garden. It was exciting."

But not as exciting as the scene into which Janse was about to stumble. Her boyfriend's work took him to Zambia and Janse, clutching her little camera, joined him. What they experienced was the intriguing political world of the ANC's preparations for Mandela's release and the transformation of the Republic into a proper democracy.

In October 1989, Ahmed Kathrada, along with Jeff Masemola, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Oscar Mpetha, and Walter Sisulu had all been released from Johannesburg prison. History was in the making and when the political freedom fighters went to Zambia, Janse and her boyfriend were there.

"We went to Kenneth Kaunda's mansion where the likes of Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were doing interviews. I would write out the interviews for my boyfriend, it was very important for me to be part of that."

Not long after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in February 1990, he too went to Zambia for talks. Again, Janse was there. "I met him and I think he is amazing. I don't think there are many other leaders in the world like him. There are very few people of that stature and integrity. He had just come out of prison when I saw him in Zambia but he still had that aura.

"I was watching him, taking pictures."

She decided to call to him, and Mandela stopped to offer his hand. The big moment had arrived: Janse had her scoop photograph lined up. Alas, nerves got the better of her. "I couldn't focus the camera, I was shaking so much" she laughed. "I took a couple but they were blurred. It was all too much for me."

She had less happy memories of life in Zimbabwe. "When Mugabe was going through town in his motorcade, there was a strange atmosphere. It wasn't quite fear although you had to stop walking otherwise they might shoot you. Even then, it was clearly not a healthy place."

Eventually, Margot Janse went to South Africa and she has been there ever since. Not with her original boyfriend, but today with her husband and 4 year-old son in Franschoek. She really started her career in Johannesburg, ploughing a lonely furrow from her home right across the city to Ciro Molinaro's Parktown North restaurant, famous for its home-cooked Italian fare that locals consider among the best in Johannesburg, where she'd got a job.

"I earned very little, I had to do double shifts every day" she recalls. "I didn't have a car and had to catch three buses. But I had the chance to cook and make things which would be on the specials that evening, and I also studied numerous cook books. I learned a lot about how a kitchen works. There were 26 in that one and I could see the person in charge ended up doing a lot of managing."

It is a syndrome she has come to understand herself. "You have to solve the problems, which means there are days when you don't cook. To me, if there is a day without being creative, it's a day wasted."

From Johannesburg, she joined the Bay Hotel, at Camps Bay, Cape Town. But in 1995, she was offered the chance to work at 'Le Quartier' and got a job as a sous chef. "I realised this was my chance. I would constantly study cookbooks and plan meals. After six months I was promoted. When the chef at Franschoek who had worked at Ciro's went back to Johannesburg, I got the job."

But high standards were expected of her. The restaurant was already 'Restaurant of the Year' and had won major awards. Could this slim, quiet Dutch woman with a shy smile take it to the next level ?

The rest, as they say, is history. Together with her staff, several of whom are young and learning the trade, she has created a stunningly successful and productive restaurant, a place where people travel miles to eat. She finds herself spending a lot of time structuring the cooking side of the business. "For example, it is hard work finding your suppliers. I have about 60 of them

"But for me, that's one of the most exciting parts of my job; finding beautiful produce. That is where it all begins."

She has firm views on the absolute muck that untold millions of people around the world put their down throats on a daily basis. "I don't desire to go to McDonald's, I would rather not eat" she says. "I don't believe in it, it's not good for you. You won't see me in places like that or KFC.

"We need to break that habit but it's difficult. You can only do so by teaching people to think differently about food. They need to start looking at other things. It's not just about feeding the top end of the market; it's about educating people about food. The obesity problem in the US & Europe shows people don't know how to eat, whereas here in South Africa the biggest problem is poverty.

"We have a responsibility to teach the young generation. We need to start growing vegetables in our gardens and in some cases, smoking our own food. We have a fertile land in South Africa and a great climate. We can grow all kinds of food. We must improve and that means starting with children."

What type of kitchen does Margot Janse run? She thinks and hopes it is a happy place, for she firmly subscribes to the philosophy that if it isn't, in the end the customer will end up tasting the disharmony in their food. To produce dishes of such high quality, a great deal of thought goes into every breakfast, lunch and dinner served at the restaurant.

Oh, and one other thing. Stress. "Most of the day you are getting ready for a stressful 2 or 3 hours" she says. "To do all this, you need a team where people can help each other. Things happen, it's the same as any other job. I can get cross, but..."

No effing and blinding, surely.

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