Jan Van Dyk is an old-school chef from South Africa who once had the honor of cooking for F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at the National Sports Awards gala dinner in his home country. His career has spanned appointments in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and China, and he is also an accomplished author in the field of cookery books. In July 2017 he became Executive Chef at the Anantara Siam Bangkok, overseeing operations in the hotel’s renowned Madison Steakhouse, Biscotti, and Shintaro restaurants.
If you don’t cook for others, what are the dishes you cook for yourself?
If I’m not cooking for others I’d rather be sitting at home with a bottle of wine and plate of cheese, watching the sunset. I like cooking at home, I like to experiment and come up with ideas before coming to work and trying it. But I don’t think chefs are ever at home alone, we’re always catching up with friends, going to restaurants, seeing different people. But on that rare occasion when I’m alone I don’t always want to cook – who’s going to clean?
What are the challenges with amazing outlets opening outside hotels?
Hotel restaurants are also amazing. The restrictions, in my opinion, are in terms of costs, marketing, and what we can spend. Freestanding restaurants have different profit margins, and for them it’s all about volume, so they can spend more on marketing. Hotels have a company policy, this is our vision, we do this, and we don’t do that. Hotels are often a bit afraid to experiment so they’re not going to do something bold. Freestanding restaurants are free to try new things. Of course, hotels can be open to new ideas too, but they are also very structured and they follow a system that works – and remember a lot of freestanding restaurants close down very quickly.
Do chefs nowadays need to be more creative than they used to be?
Not creative, no. I think they need to be more educated in the old style of cuisine, the art of cooking, the old processes we learned as young apprentices. A lot of chefs throw something together quickly and it looks good and they can sell themselves well, but you don’t see the basic principles of cooking – I think they are being lost. Special restaurants become ‘occasion restaurants’ but you need people to come at least once a week, not just on special occasions. Of course, those restaurants are good, they open up your vision and it’s good to experiment. We have to be more creative than the guy next door or people will go to him, but we mustn’t lose sight of the basics
What is your ultimate goal for your career as a chef?
It goes in stages I think, as you mature in life. Now that I’m in charge of a couple of restaurants the aim is to look after my younger chefs, to educate them and guide them and help them to become better chefs so they can succeed in life. For things like Michelin stars – maybe ten years ago that could have been a goal, but not now. Now it’s important for old school chefs to help younger chefs. I want to pass on my knowledge, not that I’ll be passing away tomorrow.
What do you see as lacking in younger generation chefs?
They are very creative, open-minded, and quick-thinking but they’re not following the basic techniques. Nowadays there are easy short-cuts to enhance your cooking. It’s not cheating – but take a good consommé for instance – not many chefs can make a consommé as they don’t learn it any more. But it’s still a classic. And butchers are out – we’re not smoking or curing meats. It’s cheaper and easier to just buy it, but it’s a technique you should know and learn as it can enhance your restaurant.
What is your CSR initiative for your kitchen?
Food waste is a problem, and overproducing. It’s horrendous. There are lots of chefs talking about sustainability and saving the planet, but what I was taught was first to look in your own dustbin, analyze that, and see how you can re-use it. For me it’s very important to reduce wastage. I’m not at the point where I’m out there fighting in the front row, but I support it 100%.
A lot of chefs talk about overproduction. Why do you overproduce?
Because we’re not eating seasonally any more. Thirty, forty years ago we ate asparagus in April and May. We ate strawberries in March. We’re not doing that any more. I think its not good for our health that now we can eat anything any time. Another problem is perceptions. When you come to the breakfast buffet you pay the same price whether you come at 6 o’clock or 10 o’clock, so you want the same buffet – so I have to put out a full buffet so it looks good. Then five minutes after you finish, we have to close up so there’s wastage. We can change the bread rolls from 8 grams to 6 grams but it still ends up in the trash.
What is the most important quality of a chef in order to work in hotels?
The most important thing to work anywhere is a sense of humor. And you have to be very patient. You have to make it enjoyable if you want to teach young chefs. The days when I was growing up, we had horrifying experiences in the kitchen but those days are gone. Chefs have to be more humane. We’re not in the back kitchen any more where you can throw pans around and swear. Now you have to love your job.