I can’t remember the moment…” says Margot Janse – executive chef at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français and newly crowned Chef of the Year at the 2012 Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards – of her decision to become a chef. “I suppose it was a small dream first and eventually, at 23, I took the leap and started working at Ciro Molinaro’s restaurant in Joburg.”
And how glad we are that this Dutch-born innovator took the leap – 20 years ago now – and abandoned earlier ambitions of being an actress and photographer.
Today she’s won more awards for her cooking and all her work at Le Quartier than Meryl Streep has won Oscars. Margot joined the famed restaurant in 1995 and took over as executive chef shortly after. Under her guidance, the restaurant has made it into the Eat Out Top 10 an unprecedented 11 times and spent eight years on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. She’s also been a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef since 2008. Impressive is an understatement.
So let’s talk about her food.
Vivid, conceptual, and interwoven with stories, Margot’s food explores Southern Africa on a plate.
“The guests that come to dine are not just there for dinner,” explains Margot. “The whole experience is about celebrating our country and region. Our service style is based on storytelling, instead of factual information sharing. We tell you about the winemakers and his dog, the things granny did with buchu and why the baobab is called the upside down tree. When, at the end of the evening I get thanked for a special experience and for all our guests learned about this amazing country, its culture and indigenous produce – that's when I know we got it right.”
Ingredients are indigenous, from buchu and waterblommetjies to kapokbos and sour figs. They’re also lovingly and painstakingly sourced from sustainable suppliers.
“I have an amazing bank of hand-picked suppliers,” says Margot. “Farmer Angus from Spier has an honesty and pure approach in his farming that has to make him my favourite. Chickens, eggs, beef and my little lamb cheeks, are all farmed with integrity.”
Instead of a long list of options, diners have just one choice to make: whether to have the five-course or the eight-course surprise menu. You might find yourself eating a rock, a cigar, or a bowl of cheese. Margot’s food, in a word, is fun.
As for the restaurant, Margot recently brought her brother, designer Herbert Janse, out from the Netherlands to refurbish its interior. Handwritten neon signage and quirky Dutch antique lamps are juxtaposed with beautiful natural wood tables, made from wood from the area by Stuart Davies. Overhead, a massive chandelier made from over 2000 balls and 20 lights twinkles. All-in-all, it’s a far cry from the starchy fine dining experience one might expect at a top restaurant.
Bruce Palling, Eat Out’s international judge, echoes this sentiment and lays on the compliments. “Here is a chef with superb classical training, yet with a sense of playfulness. I would rank my dinner here with the best I have had anywhere in the past year.”
Eat Out editor, Abigail Donnelly meanwhile praises Margot’s vibrant flavours and polished dishes. “Cleverness and confidence shine on the plate. Margot is simply extraordinary.”
Want to know more about The Tasting Room? Read Andy Fenner’s review of the restaurant.
Want to know how the winners of the Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards were chosen? Find out all about the judging process.