Food before self: Chef Margot Janse

In a world that tends look with some suspicion on those that stick and stay, I’m delighted to note that Chef Margot Janse recently celebrated 20 years as executive chef at renowned Le Quartier Francais, possibly South Africa’s finest restaurant.

Recipient of countless awards, a Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef, and a two times winner of Chef of the Year, I’ve met Janse just the once, years ago, and only as a guest of Le Quartier’s The Tasting Rooms in Franschhoek, the main kitchen’s hugely admired offshoot. Back then it was less well-known, which is why I was probably able to get a table. Today, the waiting list has been known to be a year long, such is its popularity.

However, whatever her success, it’s clear from everyone I’ve spoken to, and in particular returning guests, that it’s not fame or recognition that drives Janse. On the contrary: it’s the food. For Janse, 20 years of cooking at Le Quartier has been about the adventure of taste, the exploration of the very local, the ambition to create a qualitatively different fine dining experience. She’s hands on, extremely hard working, and remains addicted to the notion of food as fun. ‘Life,’ she once said, ‘is what you do between meals. Real living is what you do during them.’

It’s a playful piece of bombast, though wonderfully indicative of Janse’s passion. When she first arrived in South Africa in 1991, Nelson Mandela free, the country bursting with a new and brilliant sense of its future, her plans to become a photographer were quickly scuppered by the experience of working with Johannesburg-based restaurateur Ciro Molinaro, and later in Cape Town under Bay Hotel’s Graeme Cuthell, both of whom recognised her talent in the kitchen. Within four year’s she’d applied for a job as assistant chef at Le Quartier and twenty years later, here we are.

Personally, I love the fact that Janse has given so much career time to Le Quartier. It speaks volumes in terms of commitment and loyalty. Clearly, and despite everything, she’s not about herself. Her kitchen’s neither over-regimented nor run on awe. She makes time for her family. She’s a driving force behind the Isabelo Project, a small and local charity that helps provide varied and highly nutritional meals for over 1000 local school children.

Asked once what would her advice be to anyone wishing to become a chef, she said: ‘Work with your head down, but with your eyes and ears wide open. Absorb everything like a sponge.’ It hardly needs saying: Margot Janse is an extraordinary person, a top chef, yes, but also a truly good person – though guaranteed you won’t see anything so much as a self-pat on the back. She’s way too busy doing food.

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