Female Chefs In South Africa: Protégé’s Head Chef Jess van Dyk & Sous Chef Roxy Mudie

Words: Katrina Rose Wind

It’s Women’s Month and given that we love food, we want to celebrate the powerful female chefs of South Africa. These women represent what it means to rank their own needs second or even third by facing obstacles under high pressure, working long hours, and getting a few cuts and burns that comes with working in a kitchen. We want to thank these female chefs for continuing to push their restaurants to top-tier status and for sharing their passion for food with us.

Celebrating Women In The Food Industry- Jess van Dyk

Jess
Jess

In our third instalment of our Women’s month series, we speak to Jess van Dyk, Head Chef at Protégé Restaurant in Franschhoek and her sous chef, Roxy. Jess grew up with a natural love for cooking and food. At a young age Jess started helping her grandmother skim simmering pots of jam in the kitchen, or would fight her mom for the wooden spoons to help stir and cook the family meals. She would later enrol in Silwood School of Cookery and that is where she learned of South African restaurants and chefs who had made the world ranks and lists like La Colombe and Le Quartier Français.

‘I didn’t even know South Africa had restaurants of that calibre and I knew instantly that I wanted to work at these restaurants. Silwood offered me a foot in the door at all of these.’

Jess chose La Colombe as her first ‘in-service block’ and after completing her third year Grande Diploma at La Colombe, honing her skills under the guidance of Scot Kirton, she stayed on and climbed the ranks to Chef Tournant within the year. La Colombe relocated to Silvermist Wine Estate in 2014, and Jess led the team as Sous Chef. In December 2015, after being with the La Colombe team for four years, she decided to leave and pursue some new ventures in the food industry. After a couple of years, James Gaag asked Jess to come back as Head Chef of La Colombe. Now, Jess is Head Chef at the critically acclaimed Protégé.

Jess

Interview with Chef Jess van Dyk

Why did you become a chef?

I always found myself in the kitchen alongside my mother or Ouma stirring a pot or doing whatever I could to be involved with the preparation of a meal. It was only around the age of 12 that I was introduced to BBC Food and chefs who spoke of ‘Crème fraîche, truffles and ‘julienne” that the cooking bug really bit. There was no going back from that and I knew all through high school that I would end up behind the pass someday.

When are you happiest at work?

When my people are happy and proud of their work. When your team shares your ‘why’ and have the same passion and love for what they do and take the same amount of pride in their job as you do, the food/restaurant comes alive. I enjoy having fun while working hard, and when that balance is achieved you can see your team ‘glowing’.

What’s the most valuable attribute of being a great chef?

Persistence. To be great or try to achieve some sort of greatness you need to always be pushing to be better, faster and more perfect. Improving your skills, whether that be knife skills, the finer details of plating or working with people, these things needs to be a daily practice.

What has been your most meaningful, memorable meal?

I have been very fortunate to have travelled and dined at some of the world’s most renowned establishments and my favourite of the lot must be The Restaurant at Meadowwood in Napa Valley, USA. We dined there last year (2019) and from the moment we stepped foot on the premises we were in awe of the service, the food and the beautiful restaurant.

But my most memorable food memory must be eating Duck Ragu Pappardelle in this very quaint eatery in the heart of Florence with my mom. It was movie-like!

How does your personal heritage feature in your food?

I grew up in a very Afrikaans ‘world’, and although my food and cooking isn’t noticeably “Afrikaans’, there are some small things that relate. I love sweet/savoury combinations, something that is also very prominent in Malay and Asian cooking, which comes through in my food and a sense of comfort, as I enjoy delicious food done in a ‘pretty’ way.

What’s the most valuable thing you have learnt in the kitchen that translates into your life outside of the kitchen?

I find this to be such a hard question because as a chef your work and life is all one. I always find being a chef is engraved in us, and everything we do is done with a ‘chef mindset’. But I think what I’ve learned most is quick reactions and being able to do damage control in unplanned situations, like when a hard service hits out of nowhere.

What has been your experience during lockdown and how have you had to evolve your business/kitchen.

I was fortunate to spend lockdown with my parents in their West Coast home, away from all the chaos. The first weeks were amazing because as chefs we never get to be ‘off’ with our people and loved ones, and lockdown gave us this opportunity, and it was great. But when we passed the 6 weeks of being ‘off’ and away from our work families and teams, I think we all started realising the truth and severity of it all.

We are so happy to be back and trading, even if that means working with face masks, having only 30% of our staff per shift, taking extra time to sanitise everything, educating the staff on new protocols all the time and trying to make our guests feel as comfortable as possible in such uncertain times.

There are a lot of differing opinions about “Best Female Chef” awards versus awards that recognise achievements in the industry with no gender attached, with good arguments for both sides – do you have an opinion on this?

I think female awards have their place, as for many years we weren’t seen as competitors in this male-driven industry – this is making way for us. There are some very bad-ass female chefs out there, and if I get listed with only some of them, I would see it as a massive achievement and not a slap in the face because I’m not listed with the men. We will get there, our society and industry are evolving and I think it’s only a matter of time before we, as ‘girls’, get listed with the big boys.

Why is it important to have women in the field?

I think we bring a sense of family to a kitchen. We are maternal and emotional beings, and we run a kitchen with those instincts which makes it more comforting knowing someone might understand your ‘off days’ and emotions.

What is the future for female chefs in SA?

Bright and beautiful, haha! I have never felt that because I am a woman in this industry, I am inferior in any way. I grafted the same way my fellow male chefs did – carried heavy stockpots, sweated and cooked behind the gas flat tops and vented silently in the walk-in after bad services. If you put in the work and dedication, you will reap the rewards.

Interview with Sous Chef Roxy Mudie

Why did you become a chef?

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount when I was growing up, and seeing the different cuisines and food cultures in different countries completely fascinated me. From then on I started taking casual cooking classes with my dad and got hooked! So when it came time for me to choose a career path, becoming a chef seemed like an obvious choice.

When are you happiest at work?

There’s nothing quite like the feeling after a hectic service when you’ve just stopped spinning and the adrenaline is still pumping. I always feel the happiest in that moment, that rush always makes me realise why I love what I do.

What has been your most meaningful, memorable meal?

I can confidently say it was my first time eating at La Colombe when I was about 15 years old. It was my first time experiencing that level of food/service and it’s undoubtedly what kickstarted my love and passion for fine dining.

Who inspires you and why?

There are so many talented and inspiring chefs in SA alone that it’s hard to pick just a few. Each chef has their own style and flair they put on their food – being able to take inspiration from so many sources has a great influence on the way I think about dishes and create my own style of food.

What’s the most valuable thing you have learnt in the kitchen that translates in your life outside of the kitchen?

Definitely that the more willing you are to step outside of your comfort zone the more you’ll be able to grow. Being a chef throws you in tough situations every day but jumping in headfirst to those challenges only makes you stronger and helps you to become a better chef. I believe that applies in all aspects of life, not just in the kitchen.

What motivates you?

Watching how the culinary world is constantly changing and evolving really motivates me to find my place in such a special industry. The opportunity for growth is endless and that’s incredibly exciting.

What is your ultimate goal for yourself in your career?

The goal is to continue to work in a space that allows me to learn and develop my skill set every day. I’d like to travel a lot more and learn more in-depth about food from all over the world, and then eventually I’d like to own my own small restaurant one day.

Best piece of advice for your females wanting to get into this industry?

In my experience, I haven’t ever felt that being a female in this industry holds you back in any way. I think the time where males predominantly dominated the industry is fading, and I’m so happy to see many more female chefs being recognised for the hard work that they are doing. I would encourage any women that are interested in becoming a part of this industry to go for it!

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