Margot Janse and David Higgs on their culinary trajectories

Kitchen cowboys and 'kapokbos': These rock star South African chefs tell their stories and talk about what fine dining can be.

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While Janse grew up in a “medium-sized house in a medium-sized town” in the Netherlands, Higgs grew up in a “small dorpie” in Namibia (then called South West Africa) where he caught his first fish, a galjoen. He would go fishing with his dad before school: “When we got home, that’s what we ate.”  

Janse’s mother would make the same vegetables every night, cooked the same way (“overcooked”), but her father, who left the family when she was a toddler, would feed her beer and take her skiing and to eat escargot. “He searched for adventure and excitement,” she says.

It wasn’t long before Janse was searching for her own adventure and excitement. In 1990, she arrived in South Africa with her then boyfriend, a South African journalist. She was 20. He was, by her admission, much older. Janse took the photographs to accompany her boyfriend’s copy but food began its inexorable pull. “I was always cooking and was really excited by cookbooks and going out for dinner with the little money we had,” she says.

Higgs finished high school, did his national army service and started pounding the pavements on Cape Town’s foreshore, looking for a kitchen to take him in. In 1990, one at a three-star Protea hotel did just that and he proceeded to cook breakfast there for a year.

The Tulbagh Hotel was cowboy cuisine. When it got busy there were whole chickens in the deep fry . . .  The head chef was smoking pot under the extractor fan.

“It was carnage but, fuck, didn’t that just excite you? Wasn’t that really what it was all about? That’s what sucked me in,” he says.

Continuing the alternating narrative, Janse says that at 23, “that’s what I wanted” – describing not necessarily Higgs’ experience but to be cooking full-time. “That magic, that magic from the kitchen. I wanted to do this for real and not from my little kitchen at home.”

She also had no experience and found a job with Ciro Molinaro at his Parktown North restaurant in Johannesburg. There she learned how to “play” and make food but also how to handle the administrative side: stocktake, ordering.

From there she went to Cape Town and The Bay Hotel and its fine dining restaurant. During her trial evening she saw a mille-feuille that looked like a creation of Marco Pierre White, the British rock star chef of the time. "I have to get this job," she says she thought that night.

It was during her time at The Bay Hotel that Janse became single. She had heard about Le Quartier Français (LQF) and recalled visiting Franschhoek for the day and staring at the menu and thinking, “Oh my god, they serve rabbit. I want to work here.”

Serendipitously, one of the younger chefs from her first job in Johannesburg had in the interim become the sous chef at LQF and when he decided to return to Jo'burg, asked if she wanted to take over.

It was 1995 and Janse was 26. Not only was she offered the job of sous chef by the restaurant’s owners, but a bust-up in their marriage a couple of weeks before she was due to start the job led Janse to take over the kitchen as head chef instead.  “And, what a journey. It became my nest, my home, my identity.

“I didn’t come to Le Quartier with my suitcase of ideas. I didn’t have really a philosophy or some kind of picture of how I thoughts things should be,” she recalls.

For Janse, things really fell into place about kitchen structure, perfection and speaking one’s own language on a trip to the States. She visited three top restaurants: The French Laundry in Napa, Jean-Georges in New York City and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. In 2004 she introduced a tasting menu as the only option at LQF’s The Tasting Room: “It was a big thing because nobody else was doing that.”

For Higgs, the next 10 years were about refinement: entering competitions, seeking better jobs, getting better jobs, becoming involved in all aspects of the industry such as industrial catering, teaching and opening the first business of his own in 2000.

Eventually he wound up at Rust en Vrede, also in the winelands, where a new restaurant was to be opened on the historic estate. “When you walked into this space you could just feel it, and I knew exactly what needed to happen there,” he says – despite the mould, the black and the mass number of wine barrels.

Higgs describes how a restaurant space almost dictates what you do there. The space dictates the plate.

He described the sorts of plates he wanted to a local ceramicist; he designed the chairs. The elaborate front gates to the estate were moved so that diners drove through the vineyard to get to the restaurant, creating more of an experience, he says.

After four years in Stellenbosch at Rust en Vrede, a mate in Jo'burg asked him to come help out at a hotel there. Higgs says he arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the music was thumping and there were 400 people on the pool deck. Instantly he knew that was where he wanted to be. And, so, he engineered a reverse city trajectory from Janse, where he is now in charge of all culinary and beverage activity at the Saxon – one of Jo'burg's smartest hotels – and executive chef at five hundred, its fine dining eatery.

There he has a certified organic vegetable garden on the roof (he worked on a wine farm and never had a veggie garden, he remarks), and the garden made him start thinking about food differently.

Janse is well known for using indigenous herbs in her food: buchu and kapokbos (indigenous rosemary), and sacred salt from Limpopo. She champions nose to tail cooking, i.e., not permitting waste (a trait she gets from her mother, she says) and celebrating where the food comes from by highlighting that in the cooking technique.

“For me the dish makes sense because it’s about where it came from and that’s what we’re celebrating,” she says.

I’m Dutch by birth and South African by choice, Janse says.

Both of them are guided by Ferran Adrià’s dictum that food trends are meaningless; what’s important is to feed those who cannot feed themselves and share what you know. To that end, Janse participates in a scheme that started off by feeding 70 disadvantaged kids in 2008 with a daily nutrition-packed muffin, and now feeds 1150 kids with a daily balanced meal.

“We need to feed the children. To make sure they have a brain so they can think and make decisions in the future,” Janse says.

“Let that be the next trend,” Higgs adds. “Hopefully.”

Watch the Interview with Margot Janse