When South African-born Michelin-star chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen decided to embark on a homecoming project, the die was cast – he sketched the foundations of Klein JAN on a napkin. Three years later, this ambitious endeavor has been received with great enthusiasm by foodies and diners alike.
An invitation arrived in my Inbox to spend three nights at the incomparable Tswalu, one of them being earmarked to delight in the culinary journey of Klein JAN. With no hesitation on my part, I immediately accepted. Not only because I knew my days would be filled with wondrous game drives, phenomenal food, and the most extraordinary accommodation, but seeing the Kalahari landscape following the rains is simply mind-blowing.
After a two-hour flight from Cape Town with Fireblade Aviation, I am collected at the Tswalu airstrip by my guide Richard Visser and tracker Ben. As we meander through the reserve, I am struck by the ubiquitous presence and fragrance of sour grass permeating the cool morning air. At The Motse, I am met and welcomed by Tswalu’s head of hospitality, Nigel Pace and Rosy, my personal butler for the next four days.
Being a Tswalu Instagram follower, I sometimes feel like I have ‘insider knowledge’ on what the reserve has to offer. Few things beat new life in the bush and when I enquire about a recent automate your posting I spotted new lion cubs, Richard and Ben track them down. In fact, they find both the northern and southern pride on four different occasions.
On my second night at Tswalu, I am delighted at the prospect of dining at Klein JAN. Having followed the journey from fruition, we were allowed a sneak peek last year in the midst of construction. The global pandemic delayed the opening by a few months and what I see here tonight unfolding in front of me, is certainly a labor of love.
Diners arrive courtesy of their Tswalu guide and tracker at Boscia House. This century-old farmhouse has been lovingly restored with the addition of a stylish outhouse. Maître d’ Marais Uys walks towards us, immaculately dressed in a crisp white linen shirt, leather tie, JAN leather apron, white face mask, khaki pants, and black shoes. Our waiter presents us with a warm refresher towel, after which Marais shows us to our table on the stoep (veranda). The Boscia canapé experience consists of a lavender fever berry water palate cleanser, served in a crystal glass that is gently placed on a monogrammed JH napkin, your margarita of choice, accompanied by delectable springbok biltong & marmite lamington.
Inside Boscia House, Marais explains the history of the little farmhouse that dates back to 1918. Artefacts from the era adorn the space – an old-fashioned telephone, a bespoke mirror, furniture from the early part of the last century, and cooking utensils reminiscent of that time period.
A short lull is interspersed with solitude as we step outside into the darkening night, faced with the surreptitious building’s rust-like corrugated exterior where diners can expect the unexpected. As the door of the water tower creaks open, I hold my breath – the most magnificent floating staircase leads into the depths of the earth, illuminated by twinkling lights as I descend this architectural marvel by Adrian Davidson from Savile Row, the smell and sound of petrichor envelop the genius design, paying homage to the life-giving earthy scent of rain blessing the parched land.
Down below, another phenomenon comes into view when the sliding glass doors of the archways open to the ingenuity that is the root cellar, housing fresh produce sourced and provided by the surrounding farmers, kept at a constant 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity. Being in the middle of the Kalahari, the technology used to keep the ingredients fresh has been tried and tested for centuries, with great success. The beautifully designed and stocked root cellar is 65 ft in length, and is lined with shelves, and contains everything from pumpkins, gemsbok cucumbers, raisins, table grapes, Tsamma melons, preserves, dates, potatoes, onions, cheese, dry-aged beef, and an enviable collection of South African wines.
We are ushered out of the root cellar towards the soup kitchen, which incorporates the coal stove that belonged to Ouma Maria, Jan Hendrik’s late maternal grandmother. Taking pride of place at the end of this modern passageway, this nostalgic pièce de résistance is used on a daily basis for brewing stock and cooking delicious homemade soups.
Another door slides open and this time, the modern dining room with custom-made chairs appears, in stark contrast with the interiors of Boscia House. White tablecloths, absolute chic simplicity, and the most delicious accompanying fare by chef Etienne Wessels and his team will make you wish Klein JAN had made his debut in the Kalahari a lot sooner.
*** Views expressed are the author’s own.