Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s Instagram is packed with photos of delectable dishes and far-flung travels, but in July 2019 he interrupted that feed with a heartfelt plea: “Please don’t throw your old cookbooks out.” Instead, he asked his followers to send their faded cookbooks and notebooks full of family recipes to him. His goal? “To preserve our South African heritage by collecting as many South African cookbooks as I can… to share with the next generations of culinary students.”
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While van der Westhuizen made his name globally with Restaurant Jan in Nice, France, South Africa will always be the source of his culinary inspiration. He grew up in the northeastern province of Mpumalanga, learning to cook from his mother and late ouma (grandmother). “From them, I’ve learned not to look too far for anything,” he says. “I try to keep the produce really local, but I use many of the methods they taught me growing up.” He applied this idea in Nice, remixing South African favorites with French ingredients, and in 2016 he became the first South African chef to receive a Michelin star.
“It was huge news back home,” he says, “as it proved we could cook our food and be recognized for it.”
The award also spurred him to open his Jan Innovation Studio in Cape Town in 2019. At this creative space, he’s curating the largest collection of South African cookbooks in the world, a treasure chest that honors everyone’s ouma. Since posting his request, he has received 1,500 books—some a century old, many with handwritten margin notes detailing what did and didn’t work.
For van der Westhuizen, each well-worn page has the potential to inspire a new dish. During his regular visits to Cape Town, he hosts a handful of dinners at the studio, where guests are treated to an experimental tasting menu. “It’s the perfect time to test what we’ve been working on,” he says. The library serves as a setting for one of the courses, giving diners the opportunity to leaf through those culinary memories.
Certain recipes, such as sago pudding with haddock, apple, and chorizo, have even found their way to van der Westhuizen’s menu in Nice. And last year, when the chef opened his first restaurant in South Africa—an intimate venue called Klein Jan (Little Jan) at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve—he featured many dishes from the cookbooks, including a noteworthy delicacy: pickled camel hump. Someone’s ouma is surely very proud.