For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past year; let me give you a formal introduction: Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen’s story is the perfect example of what you can achieve with lots of hard work, diligence and passion. He is the first South African chef to receive a Michelin Star for his restaurant, JAN, situated in the beautiful city of Nice on the French Riviera.

A photograph of Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen and his restaurant, JAN

From a humble town in Mpumulanga to the clear, crisp city of Nice

His humble beginnings as a little boy growing up on a farm in Mpumulanga linger on in his memories like unforgettable paintings. For Jan, life on the farm was not easy, particularly for a “weird little boy”. Food, however, was always a big thing in the family, living life from farm to table. He helped his grandmother in the kitchen, which was always full and busy, and to this day, one of his greatest inspirations.

Fast-forward a few years and Jan is riding his bicycle along the roads of Nice, a city he describes as having a similar atmosphere to Cape Town: “very laid-back with lots of tourists during the summer months”. What he loves most about Nice is that it feels more like living in a big village in that you always go to the same butcher, florist, hairdresser, pharmacy, bistro or greengrocer; otherwise it may seem like a betrayal.

A photograph of fish taken by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen
A photograph of a beautiful lobster with crumbs of coarse salt

JAN – A Breath of French Air

Jan Hendrik enjoys everything about food – making it, styling it, shooting it and writing about it. Photography is his “Sunday relax” activity – in fact, he photographed most of the images (except for a few portraits of himself) that grace the pages of his second book, JAN – A Breath of Fresh Air, published in March 2016.

A photograph of macarons in Jan Hendrik's kitchen
A photograph of taken by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Food photography trends

With the rise of foodie culture and smartphone technology, food photography is as trendy as ever. Jan Hendrik says that food photography is, all the more so, about storytelling: truly “transporting the armchair traveller to a place or table in an exotic location, experimenting with natural light, dark moods and strong backlights”.

A photograph of an interesting desert photographed by Jan Hendrik
A photograph of taken by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Food styling for your photographs

When going through Jan Hendrik’s cookbook, you will surely notice how the images range from dark and moody to fresh, light and clean. Styling food is about bringing together various elements – your vision, plating and lighting – all of which add to the appeal of a dish. Let your personality shine through! Jan Hendrik will fuss with a dish until, should someone look at it, they would undoubtedly say, “Ah, that’s a Jan Hendrik photo!”. Not fussing with the dish, in Jan Hendrik’s opinion, is what separates a mediocre from a great dish.

A photograph of a meal taken by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen
A photograph of oranges on a wooden table

How Jan does food and photography

Jan Hendrik confesses that he’s “not the biggest gadget fan”. He shoots with a Canon 5DsR camera, a 50mm f/1.2 lens, an 85mm f/1.2 lens, Manfrotto tripod and natural light only. In fact, his favourite location for food photography is right in front of his restaurant door.

He doesn’t like editing too much – “styling is more important to me”. He uses Camera RAW and then fine-tunes his images in Photoshop where he’ll crop, adjust levels and boost black contrast.

A photograph of desert in Jan Hendrik's kitchen
A photograph of a delicious and intricate looking cake

Experience, the teacher of all things

Just as Jan Hendrik feels he’s gotten the shot, he has learnt to stand back and look at something else for a minute before going back to shoot some more. This fresh perspective will help you to know when to take away from or add to an image, and soon it will become second nature. Remember that it is easier to style someone else’s food – so if you can, let someone else do the dishes as Jan Hendrik admits it can be “an absolute killer”.

A photograph of deep red plums and grapes with a glass of wine taken by Jan Hendrik

Letting you in on a thing or two

We’ll let you in on a little secret: In his living room, Jan Hendrik keeps an easel with a canvas and some oil paint close-by so that, once in a while, he can add another layer of paint to it. In addition to this interesting side art project, he tells us that he misses his family and friends, and a good ol’ braai from time to time.

A maestro in the kitchen and artist behind the lens, Jan Hendrik’s star shines brightly. We have much to learn from this talented man and we look forward to learning more about what’s cooking in his kitchen.

A photograph of Jan Hendrik cooking in his kitchen