5 Minutes with Chef John van Zyl of Thali Restaurant

Words: Jess Spiro

You’ve heard about the delicious food at Thali, now get to know the man behind it. Chef John van Zyl, Liam Tomlin’s man on the ground at Thali, heads up the formidable kitchen. We sit down with him to find out just what makes him tick.

Can you give us a quick introduction?

Chef John Van Zyl: I spent most of my childhood in Somerset West. My interest and love for food started as a toddler. I remember spending most of my time in the kitchen with my mom, licking the bowls after she had made cookies or a cake. At about age seven, I finally got my hands dirty with my Ouma teaching me how to make pancakes, cakes and brownies. Cooking omelettes for my family at the weekends was also great fun.

After school, I completed a chef diploma at the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) in Stellenbosch. After finishing culinary school, I had an eye-opening experience at Round House restaurant, where I learned what being a chef is really about. After working there for 6 months, I found myself at the doors of Chef’s Warehouse – where my real food journey started.

Did you always know this was something you wanted to do?

I didn’t really think that I would end up being a chef, but I always knew that I would end up doing something in the hospitality trade.

Chef John van Zyl of Thali Restaurant
Thali Restaurant in cape town

What has it been like heading up a restaurant like Thali?

Chef John Van Zyl: Opening Thali has been the most exciting project I’ve taken on to date. Running it day-to-day has been fairly streamlined for me as I have a great team to back me and my vision.

With Indian food being such a specific cuisine, how did you come to know so much about it?

When Liam offered me the job I honestly didn’t know a thing about Indian cuisine besides the fact that I liked eating it. I had two months to get prepared before the opening of Thali, which was pretty daunting but I took on the challenge. I spent days and days doing research on the country and it’s different food regions. I am hopefully going to India in October to get more insight into the cuisine.

How do you keep things fresh and yourself inspired?

I think having time off and time to yourself is essential in this industry – to enable yourself to breathe and to allow your mind to rest. I usually do something active on my off days like surfing or hiking. When I get back into the kitchen with a fresh mind, the ideas start flowing.

Do you have a favourite dish on the current menu at Thali?

The fish taco.

Fish Taco by Chef John van Zyl of Thali Restaurant

What is it like working with Liam Tomlin?

When I started working with Liam in a one-on-one environment I realised that the only way to attain his knowledge was to start a completely new canvas. If I think back now, I realise that he has taught me everything I know except for a handful of things I picked up here and there. He is truly an amazing chef with great attention to detail and perfectionism. He taught me the true meaning of what it is to be a professional. I am truly blessed to have Liam Tomlin as my mentor and can only hope to be the chef he is one day.

Quickfire Questions

Favourite drink after a long day? Devils Peak IPA
Dog or cat person? Dog
Your perfect comfort food dish? Pizza
Bucket list travel destination? Mexico

We visit Thali HERE.

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