Despite having no formal training, Margot Janse has turned Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek, South Africa, into a culinary destination. She tells Kerstin Kühn about her journey from being an unknown actress to becoming one of the most celebrated chefs in the world
"I always get asked what the difference between male and female chefs is, and I've come to the conclusion that it's actually a very sexist question. Food is determined by the person cooking it, and gender doesn't come into that. It's as simple as that."
Meet Margot Janse, executive chef of Le Quartier Français, one of South Africa's most prestigious five-star hotels, located in the leafy village of Franschhoek in the Cape winelands. Straight talking, with a definite no-nonsense attitude, but warm and open with an infectious laugh and kind eyes, she personifies the alpha woman in the kitchen. With no formal training, just a few years' experience in restaurants, but an insatiable appetite for learning and a huge creative drive, she took over the kitchen at Le Quartier Français 18 years ago and since then has developed it into a top international destination. The Tasting Room has become a regular fixture on the S Pellegrino list of the best restaurants in the world, and Janse is one of just 13 women holding the title of Grand Chef, awarded by Relais & Châteaux.
While she insists that cooking isn't a gender issue, she quickly adds that there is a "definite difference" between male and female chefs when it comes to their motivation and style of management. "Women are differently competitive to men," she explains. "I have never, ever cooked because I want to win or be ahead of others. I've never done it for the glory or recognition. And in the kitchen there is a big maternal instinct that kicks in with me: I want to take care of people, I want to nourish them."
Janse oversees the entire F&B operation at the 22-bedroom Le Quartier Français, which includes breakfast for hotel guests, the casual Common Room, where lunch and dinner is served seven days a week, and the flagship Tasting Room restaurant. Here, she serves a nine-course surprise tasting menu five nights a week, pushing the boundaries of her own abilities with dishes that are constantly evolving. "I'm very critical of everything that I do. Nothing is ever good enough," she says, adding that her menu is a true labour of love. "It's like giving birth."
Growing up in Holland, where she trained as an actress, Janse moved to South Africa in 1991 following her exiled journalist boyfriend, who was returning home to cover the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment. Living in Johannesburg, the couple worked as a team, with him writing and Janse taking photographs. "It was an amazing time to be in South Africa," she recalls. "There was so much hope and promise."
But being a photojournalist wasn't what her heart told her to do. "I loved cooking, and after a while I realised that's what I wanted to do full-time," she says. And since there were no short cookery courses available in Johannesburg at that time, she threw herself in at the deep end, getting a job in the kitchen of well-known chef-restaurateur Ciro Molinaro.
"He was great. It wasn't fine dining but it was really good cooking, and I learnt so much while I was there," Janse remembers. "I lived too far from the restaurant to go home between shifts, so I'd stay and play around and try things. Ciro would look at what I was doing and say: ‘This is going on the specials tonight.' He was really encouraging and supportive."
Janse stayed for two years before moving to Cape Town, where she worked at the Bay hotel in Camps Bay under then executive chef Graeme Cuthell. She was put on a month-long trial, but it didn't take long before she was promoted to junior sous chef.
In 1995 she joined Le Quartier Français. "The restaurant had a huge name back then and I remember reading about it while I was working in Cape Town, thinking that I really wanted to work there," she says. "I went for an interview with John Huxter, the head chef, and got the job of sous chef."
However, Janse's arrival at Le Quartier Français came at a difficult time for the business as owners John and Susan Huxter's marriage was falling apart. When John eventually left just a few months later, Susan offered Janse the job of head chef. "I said yes, but it was the toughest, toughest year," she admits. "Who the hell was I taking over the kitchen? I was 27 years old, with no formal training and virtually no experience. The pressure of my first menu was immense. I didn't have a little book of tricks or signature dishes. All I knew was that I wanted my menu to be different from what everyone else was doing."
Today, Janse is one of the most celebrated chefs, not just in the southern hemisphere, but in the world. Her cooking style is confident and creative, just like her, with her background in the arts shining through. The hotel features its own art gallery, and the Tasting Room was refurbished last year by Janse's brother, a set designer, giving it a colourful theatrical feel with interiors inspired by the surrounding hills and winelands. Service is relaxed and engaging, with each dish matched by a local wine.
Janse's food is equally inspired by her surroundings. She is a fierce evangelist for local produce, and her menu features not just well-known South African ingredients such as Karoo wildebeest, Swartland guineafowl or Big Bay oysters but also unusual indigenous produce such as buchu, baobab, honeybush or sour figs. "Maybe it's because I'm not from here, but I've always been amazed by what is here," she enthuses. "The indigenous stuff has such incredible flavour, it's fantastic to work and experiment with."
Element of surprise
Her dishes are contemporary with an element of surprise and a sense of nostalgia about them. "A walk through Franschhoek", for instance, is a seasonally changing salad of local leaves and herbs from the village, while Paternoster, named after a fishing village on the West Coast of South Africa, brings together salted farmed kabeljou with black mussel, seaweed and edible sand, evoking memories of a walk on the beach.
With Le Quartier Français comprising several operations, Janse could be forgiven for focusing just on the Tasting Room. But she's as hands-on now as she was the day she joined the restaurant. "If I want my team to respect me, I can't work less than them," she insists. "It's tough in my kitchen; it's not a walk in the park. But more than anything I want people to enjoy themselves. I want them to get on with their co-workers and respect each other. You spend a lot of time at work, so it's important that it's a positive environment."
Janse is a grounded individual whose passion and creativity know no limits. With South Africa on the cusp of a new era politically and spiritually as former president and Father of the Rainbow Nation Mandela's life is reaching its end, she remains positive about the country's future: "Twenty years ago nothing that was made locally was good enough; be it shoes, clothes or food, everything had to be imported. The pride has come back, and it's hugely exciting what's happening now, especially in the creative sector. People are really doing things."
Janse is one of those people.
Mrs Ndaba charity project
From the small beginnings of Muffin Friday four years ago, when children at a nearby crèche were given a muffin containing their complete â¨daily nutritional requirements, Le Quartier FranÁ§ais' Mrs Ndaba charity scheme has grown to feed a total of more than 800 underprivileged kids five days a week.
"We started out making muffins once a week encouraging guests to help â¨out and soon people were giving serious money sponsoring a day a week for a whole year," Janse explains.
She subsequently created a daily changing menu of protein, fruit and milk for the kids, inspiring two Dutch guests so much with her initiative they invited her to host a fundraiser in her native Holland, with the aim of securing the future of the project for three years.
"We raised â¬75,000 (£64,000), just short of R1m," Janse says.
The money enabled the scheme to extend its reach to include two more crèches, delivering food to 120 children. But with significant funds still left in the bank, Janse decided to reach out further and team up with a not-for-profit organisation called Kusasa to sponsor a breakfast club feeding 700 children across two local schools each morning before class.
A second fundraising event in Holland earlier this year helped raise a further â¬70,000 (£60,000) and today, Janse's initiative reaches 820 children, providing them with a nutritiously balanced meal to start their day.
Beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granita, buchu
1/2 gelatine leaf
50ml beetroot juice
Pinch of salt
50g panko crumbs
10g beetroot powder
Spinach and onion purée
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
10g unsalted butter
100ml single cream
100g baby spinach
Pinch of salt
Cucumber and dill granita
150g cucumber, diced
10g picked dill
5g white wine vinegar
1g xanthan gum
Buchu powder (40g dried buchu leaves, blended very fine using a spice grinder)
For the beetroot sponge, soften the gelatine in a small bowl with ice water and set aside. Place the beetroot juice and salt in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.
Remove from the heat and add the softened gelatine leaf. Strain the beetroot juice into a medium-sized bowl. Place over another bowl filled with ice. Whisk the beetroot mixture vigorously and continuously until it is aerated and cold. The gelatin will have set it. Scoop the mixture into a piping bag and pipe into a half-sphere Flexipan mould. Refrigerate.
For the beetroot crumbs, preheat oven to 100Â°C. Mix the panko crumbs with the beetroot power and lightly toast in the oven for 20 minutes. Leave to cool and place in an airtight container.
For the spinach and onion purée, sweat the onion in the butter until translucent. Season with salt. Add the cream, and reduce over high heat for five minutes. Remove from the heat.
Blanch the spinach in boiling water for one minute. Remove the spinach with a large slotted spoon and place directly into a blender jug. Blend until very smooth, add the creamed onions and blend again. Pass through a tamis.
For the buttermilk labne, hang the buttermilk overnight in a muslin cloth. Once drained, discard the whey and place the "labne" in a small piping bag.
For the granita, blend all the ingredients in a bar blender and pass through a fine sieve. Pour into a tray with a wide base, and freeze.
Scrape the frozen mixture with a fork to form fine flakes. Keep frozen.
To serve, scoop the centres out of the beetroot sponges and fill with some of the spinach and onion purée. Then take the two halves and stick them together. Carefully roll in the beetroot crumbs.
Pipe 1tbs of buttermilk labne on the plate and drag across with a small spatula. Place a beetroot ball on the plate. Scoop some of the granita next to the ball and sprinkle with some buchu powder.