Getting to know SA chef Jason Whitehead

Image courtesy of Claire Gunn

Image courtesy of Claire Gunn

Renowned South African chef Jason Whitehead chats to us about his career highlights, favourite ingredients and the Cape Town food industry.

Where does your passion for the culinary arts stem from?

It’s definitely a family thing. My grandmother was a chef and ran a massive kitchen in a conferencing venue in Cape Town for many years before opening her own restaurant in Melkbos. My mother also owned a very popular coffee shop in the CBD, where I started waitering during the school holidays at the tender age of 14. I then started dabbling with two minute noodles after school (true story), creating as many variations as I could come up with using whatever ingredients were in the fridge, and that’s where it all started.

How does the Cape Town food industry stand out?

Cape Town is still the food mecca of South Africa; we have so many talented chefs here. You just need to take a stroll (a rather lengthy one) from the bottom of Bree Street all the way to the top to see the huge selection of amazing restaurants we’re lucky enough to have.

What are some of your career highlights?

There have been so many. Getting my Master in Thai Cooking in the heart of Chang Mai in Thailand was an amazing experience. Cooking for Meg Ryan, the Ferrero Rocher family and the Oppenheimers were also highlights. Then my little French bistro that I launched in 2013, Fréres Bistro, was also great fun until I sold it in 2015.

Together with Sally-Ann Creed, you’ve created the Tasty WasteNots book. What goes into creating a successful cookbook?

Having fun while doing it. If it feels like a schlep and you’re not good when it comes to deadlines, then your readers will definitely pick up on that. I had to edit my recipes so much as they were too long, mainly because I felt like I was having a conversation with my readers. I really loved every minute of it.

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to expand their culinary knowledge?

Spend lots of time in your kitchen and play with your food. Use cookbooks by your favourite food heroes, but make the recipes your own by adding your own twists. The only recipes you should follow to the T are when you’re baking as that’s an art on its own.

What staples should keen cooks keep in their kitchens?

A good set of knives is obviously essential. A set of heavy based pots and pans to avoid burning your food, and my micro-plane is always nearby for grating garlic, ginger, chocolate and parmesan cheese.

What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with?

Whole foods that are organic and free-range are a must. Then, being the curry nut that I am, I always have loads of garlic, ginger, chilli and coriander in my fridge.

Are there any ingredients you avoid?

I’ve never been a fan of green peppers, but other than those, I’ll try anything. If it’s edible, I’ll eat it!

What do you love about living in Cape Town?

I’m fortunate enough to live in Newlands Forest, which allows me the space to have my own organic fruit, veggie and herb garden. I have very few neighbours, so it’s really serene living there, and I’m eight minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the CBD. A quick 30-minute drive and I’m in the heart of the winelands, or 20-minute drive and I’m on the world-renowned Clifton beaches – what’s not to love?

How do you unwind from the pressure of the job?

The best way for me to unwind is to go for long walks in the forest, especially during the week when there’s no one there. Alternatively, enjoying a nice glass of wine.

What’s next for you and your career?

Hopefully more cookbooks. I have some great ideas (and some pretty crazy ones, too) for fun and original cookbooks. I’d also love to travel more. I’m fairly well-travelled, but would love to explore more of the Indian food scene, as well as visit Japan and Australia to learn more about their authentic cuisines.

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