In 2016, Jan Hendrick van der Westhuizen was the first South African awarded the prestigious Michelin star for his restaurant, Jan, in Nice, France. His food has captivated audiences worldwide, both on their palettes and in their imaginations. Van der Westhuizen is not only a world-renowned chef but also a master food photographer. We sat down with the award-winning chef to find out what makes him tick, where he draws his inspiration, and what a comfort meal looks like for a Michelin-star chef.

Take us through a typical day in the life of Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.

No two days are the same.

As a young man, you were inspired by the culinary arts, but what prompted you to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in applied design and photography, and how has that tied in with your journey?

From the moment I picked up my first cookbook, I became fascinated with food presentation and the way it’s photographed. For a long time, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a chef, photographer or stylist. In the end, I became a bit of everything! Photography has always been a part of my life. However, I wanted to have that immersion in the medium you can only get when you live and breathe it every day, which is what a dedicated course offers. Today, I encourage all the young chefs working in my kitchens to document their food and create an image library they can reflect on one day.

Michelin star chef
Presentation must play a significant role in your career as a chef and restaurateur. What role did photography have in the early development of your career?

While studying culinary arts, I photographed weddings to pay for tuition and accommodation. This is where I realised that photography has so many angles. Especially starting out in wedding photography – it was all about timing and capturing moments. On the other hand, there is the precision that goes along with styling in the studio and the artistry of working with food for long hours. At the end of the day, it’s all about storytelling. Transporting the armchair traveller to a place or table in an exotic location, and experimenting with natural light, dark moods and strong backlights. Styling food is about bringing together various elements. Your vision, plating and lighting – all add to the appeal of a dish. It’s important that my personality shines through so that anyone can look at an image or dish and undoubtedly say, “Ah, that’s from JAN!”.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process? What areas are you the most hands-on in?

Planning, or as we call it in the kitchen Mise en Place, this really counts for any creative project. Prepare, plan and make sure your vision is clear in your mind. I’m extremely hands-on when it comes to the presentation and styling of a dish. I’d often work with other photographers on a food story or a cookbook, but I like to get up close and personal with the food. Because of my photography background, I have a good idea of what the food will look like on camera, but even when I work with another photographer, it’s important that we get each other and that we’re on the same page. I also believe that the smaller the crew/team, the better the results.

Jan Hendrick van der Westhuizen
Tell us about your and your team’s favourite photographic gear which you use for your shoots.

A few years ago, I started working with Leica, which was quite a mind switch, but my Leica goes everywhere with me now. At JAN Innovation Studio, where we produce JAN the Journal and our video content, we use Canon and Sony interchangeably – with a range of different lighting gear. For the rest, we’re Apple people.

Can you tell us more about the Jan Innovation Studio and the launch of your food photography course?

We launched the studio in 2019 as a creative space where we could produce our media content, but more than that, the space is also where we host our bespoke events – specially tailored culinary experiences. We also recently launched the JAN Innovation Academy, which offers a session called A Feast for The Eyes; it’s for anyone who is a foodie looking to document their culinary work or for those who are in the creative industry and are already comfortable holding a camera. This session will give them better insight into working with food as a subject.

Can you tell us a little about bringing the JAN journal to life?

Our approach has always been to treat the Journal like a luxury lifestyle publication rather than just another foodie mag. My frustration with only publishing cookbooks was that the process takes so long that by the time you’re on the shelf, you’ve moved on in your head. Having an episodic publication like the Journal means you can capture your ideas as they happen, and each Journal becomes like a beautiful time capsule of the way you looked at the world at that point in time. The process was not easy. But we’re currently working on volume 10, in our 5th year of publication!

Jan Restaurant, food photography
Can you offer a key piece of advice for those looking to start a career in food photography?

Any angle is the new angle; any light is the new light, and any subject is the new subject. The more freedom you allow yourself behind the lens and the less constraint you feel about possibly not having the best camera, the better for your process and the work you will produce. There are so many ways to show off your work these days. Use social media to establish your voice, then start building your brand. The more you grow into yourself, the less you’ll start looking over your shoulder to see what everyone else is doing. And that’s the only way you’ll stand out – by staying true to yourself and always challenging yourself to do it a little differently and a little better every time. I posted pictures of my food on Facebook years before I opened JAN. Then a publisher saw it, and that is how my first book, The French Affair, was born.

Can you give us some insight into what it takes to build such a prestigious brand?

It’s always tempting to want to please everyone, but that’s never a good idea. You always know when a brand is being inauthentic. No matter who you are, you have to stay true to your roots, grow where you’re planted, and never forget where you come from. Other than that, quality and consistency are everything. Oh, and probably the most important, surround yourself with amazing people in every aspect!

Chef Jan, food photography
What are some of the core values you have built your foundation on?

Authenticity. Curiosity. Heritage. Sustainability. As a business, our mission is to preserve the beauty in the world by inspiring people to slow down, take the time to see things in a new light and be more curious. And to create a better world by inspiring others to be kinder to themselves and others by living mindful and fulfilling lives through great food and experiences.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your career?

Be open. Things don’t always work out the way you envisioned, but if you let it, life can surprise you in ways you never thought possible. Be honest and kind. This will show in your work, people will taste it in your food, and it will linger in a customer’s mind when they meet you.

food photography
Who are the role models or creatives you have looked to (or still look to) for inspiration?

I get inspiration from a lot of things. I wouldn’t say there was one particular role model I’ve ever modelled my life on. You find your own way. I’ve been fortunate to meet many of my heroes, like Massimo Bottura and Marco Pierre White, both of whom I respect a great deal. But in the end, we’re all just people, and the way we do things is unique to each of us. It’s only when we embrace who we really are that we truly shine, and funnily enough, that’s when you get people’s attention. Your inspiration can be as close as your backyard.

Name three things in your daily life that are invaluable to your success.

I’ve learned to listen. Also, how to be decisive. I’ve never been great at routine, but I’ve found that there are certain things that anchor me in a day: making time for myself – even if it’s just ten minutes – to check in with my thoughts, learning something new and checking in with my family.

food photography
You have been known to say real-life photography is your favourite photographic style. If there was one candid moment captured of you, what would that real and honest moment look like?

Me at a beautifully set table with the most delicious food, surrounded by the people closest to me.

And lastly, what is your go-to meal when no one is watching?

Bovril on toast dunked into a cup of black coffee, oh and an Oreo Mcflurry at midnight!