December 4, 2018

Meet Chef Juan van Deventer

Thirty-four-year-old Juan van Deventer is the head chef making magic in the kitchen of the acclaimed restaurant at the Groot Phesantekraal wine farm in the Durbanville Wine Valley.

Worcester-born Van Deventer first became interested in food as a possible career when at the age of 17 he started watching the Food Channel. He says he has very strong memories of food playing a big part in his early years.

“Some of my earliest memories of food includes my dad going crayfish diving in Hermanus while my brother and I stood on the rocks looking out towards him in the ocean. Then my mom would steam them at home and we would have them with loads of mayonnaise. My grandmother also cooked and we would visit them often for Sunday lunch. I can remember them having a hole in the paving at the back of the house for potbrood.”

So how did the 17-year old fan of the Food Network get to where he is today, turning out fabulous fare for local and international visitors alike?

“At 17 I did not know what I wanted to do after school so I took an aptitude test and from that, they determined I had three choices – landscaping, engineering or cheffing. I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office for nine hours a day and I also like working with my hands. So I chose to become a chef and went to study at Warwicks Chef School in Hermanus. After graduating I travelled overseas to gain some more experience and ended up working at a number of different establishments including the Marriot Hotel in Canary Wharf in London and Admiral’s Cove Golf and Country Club in Jupiter, Florida in the US. After I returned home I worked at various places; the Showroom Restaurant with the late Bruce Robertson and the Marine Hotel with Peter Tempelhof and the Birkenhead House Boutique Hotel. My wife, Maret, and I also had our own coffee shop for three years before we started at Groot Phesantekraal.”

“The Restaurant at Groot Phesantekraal first opened its doors in 2014 with a very small team. I was in the kitchen on my own for six months doing a three-course menu consisting of two starters, two mains and one dessert. Year by year we hired more staff, but I decided to keep the menu small and change it every three months. Some people don’t like it when we change the menu but it keeps us motivated and it keeps the guest coming back for more.”

“We started doing brunch on Saturdays (as far as I know we are the only ones in the Durbanville Wine Valley offering this) and our wood-fired pizza oven –  which will initially be for Saturday lunchtime outside only – is almost ready.”

To get more personal with the rather-shy van Deventer we sat down with him after breakfast service to get more

Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a bit of an introvert. I don’t like to be the centre of attention. I guess I let my food do the talking. I like cycling, the outdoors and – oddly – I also love gaming, which my wife hates! I’m 34 but feel like I’m still in my twenties.

What is your food philosophy?
When I start working on a new menu the first thing I do is find out what will be in season. That’s when you get the most amazing taste out of each product. Getting the dish to taste amazing is more important to me then plating it up to look like a piece of art. The presentation is important, but if the food doesn’t taste great the presentation is useless.

What kinds of foods do you think are underrated?
Courgettes. I love using them. From pickled and battered to baby marrow and corn cakes. They are so versatile.

What are your favourite three dishes on your current menu?
The pan-fried hake with parsley pesto risotto and carrot puree, the pork belly with fondant potato and pineapple, and the chicken salad.

Your success speaks for itself and you are without a doubt an inspiration. What are some of the qualities that a chef must have in order to not only realise their vision but also lead a team?
I am a strong believer that respect is only earned when you set the example to follow. If the floor needs scrubbing, I scrub the floor with my team. If the kitchen needs cleaning, we do it together. I don’t go sit in the office and expect them to do it by themselves. I hardly ever shout. If they make a mistake I show them how to correct it. If your staff are happy it will show in the food and the service and it will trickle down to the client. Customers can see when people are genuinely happy to serve them and they are not just working for a pay cheque every month. We treat our staff as family and not just employees.

What do you believe are the latest food trends?
I don’t really follow trends. It’s difficult to say. I guess being in Cape Town with the water crisis, chefs have become more water-wise and are cooking with different techniques that use less water; steaming, raw food, pickling, etc. I’ve seen many chefs experimenting with fermenting lately.

Do you do the cooking at home and what is on the menu?
I hate cooking at home. That’s the last thing I want to do when getting home. My wife Maret is an amazing chef, so she does most of the cooking. I do help out every now and then and braai on weekends.

What is your favourite dessert?
A 70% dark chocolate fondant with homemade ice cream. Boring, I know, but I will always go with anything with chocolate.

Your favourite kitchen tool?
My serrated pastry knife. It’s a favourite in the kitchen so I’m always looking for it. My staff tend to borrow it quite often.

Is there anything you don’t eat?
I don’t like offal. I don’t like the texture but otherwise, I eat most things.

What other chefs have inspired you?
My friend Kyle Burn (head chef at Jordan wines). He works crazy hours and he hardly ever complains. He also has two boys which must be a handful. I follow most chefs around South Africa and the Western Cape on social media. They are all an inspiration.

What is the one dish you still want to master?
A glazed Entremet Cake – which is a multi-layered mousse-based cake with various complementary flavours and varying textural contrasts. I’ve never seen anybody in South Africa make it. I would love to taste it and make it at the same time.

Your favourite three ingredients
Butter, vinegar, salt.

What advice would you give to a young, ambitious chef who is just starting out in the industry?
Work hard, the rewards will come. Don’t jump the ranks. As soon as you get to the top you stop learning as much. Seek out people to learn from.

Anything else you would like to add?
“He can’t do it without me,” says Van Deventer’s wife interrupting us to chase her husband back to the kitchen to start preparations for lunch.

Written by JAG Communications