We Chat to La Colombe Head Chef Jess Van Dyk

Words: Tam Selley

We chat to Jess Van Dyk about her transition from a small-town farm girl in the Northern Cape to Head Chef at award-winning La Colombe.

Jess’s passion for food stems from a combined inspiration from her Grandmother’s cooking and edgy BBC Food programmes growing up. She completed her Silwood Cordons Bleus Grande Diploma at La Colombe in 2012 and, at just 23,  she had already climbed the industry-ladder to Sous Chef in 2014.

Her passion for the food industry drove her to travel overseas as a private chef before returning to La Colombe to take up the position of Head Chef in 2019.

Jess Van Dyk

We Chat to La Colombe Head Chef Jess Van Dyk

Do you have a specific food memory or experience that inspired you to become a chef?

I wish I had a cool story like eating an oyster for the first time and having a revelation. But mine started at the age of twelve, on my couch when I was exposed to BBC FOOD for the first time. It was the time when Ainsley Harriott presented ‘Ready Steady Cook’ and chefs like James Martin were cooking.

I was fascinated by the ingredients that the chefs used, their knowledge and the dishes they managed to whip up in a jiffy. I was hooked.

Have you ever had any other career aspirations? Or have you always been set on being a chef?

I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was younger. I’ve always loved cooking but it wasn’t until a later stage that I really knew I wanted to make a life of it.

New Menu at La Colombe

Who has been the greatest inspiration/mentor in your culinary journey and why?

Definitely, my Ouma/grandmother while I was growing up; she was an amazing cook and people still talk about her feasts to this day. But ever since I’ve been in the industry, it would have to be Scot Kirton and James Gaag who have influenced me the most.

They have taken me under their wings, guided me and helped me grow as a person and chef. I’ve worked with them for close to 7 years and they still teach and surprise me every day with their knowledge and creativity.

A lot of people don’t really know the process behind closed doors and the journey their food takes before it arrives on their plate. Can you walk us through a day in the kitchen at La Colombe and the processes you go through?

The easiest way to explain it is with a list, as that is the way we work through it. This is a day at La Colombe according to Jess Van Dyk…

  1. Flat tops, ovens and inductions on
  2. Coffee ON! (very important).
  3. Stocks get strained.
  4. Veloute & sauce bases are sweated.
  5. Pureés on the go.
  6. Proteins get cleaned: filleting fish, cleaning prawns, breaking down tuna, or whatever other proteins are needed.
  7. Bread mixes on the go and start getting shaped.
  8. Mousses, gels, mayonnaise and/or espuma mixes are made.
  9. Container/veg prep while waiting for purees/sauces to finish.
  10. 10 am: Sauces get strained, purees are blended and passed.
  11. Service garnish is prepped: blanching, fondants, crisps/tuilles.
  12. Set up, tester plates, herb garnish, filling of bottles etc.
  13. Quick breather/entjie while floors are mopped.

We know that kitchens can be super stressful. How do you keep things running smoothly?

I think it’s important to keep a happy but well-focused kitchen. We all know what has to be done and have fun getting it done. La Colombe is known for being a tight-knit team and having a happy working environment, which makes everyone excited to come to work.

Bone Studio La Colombe

How was your experience working on the yachts as a private chef; any crazy stories to share?

I loved it. I was fortunate enough to find a job with an amazing crew, and if it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have lasted on that boat. My boss was very demanding and very unpredictable. I had a lot of crazy days or guest encounters, but the funniest day/moment was after a morning shopping trip when both I and the second engineer fell off the tender trying to get onto the yacht during a heavy swell.

I had to swim to the aft of the boat and walk past the guests, drenched, while they were having their morning coffee.

If you told 18-year-old Jess Van Dyk that she would be the head chef at La Colombe now, would she be doing flick flacks?

The Jess that arrived at Silwood in 2010 didn’t even know that restaurants like La Colombe existed in our country. Once I knew about La Colombe, my biggest goal was to be able to say that I had worked there.

Heading up a kitchen like La Colombe is a dream come true, never did I think I would be here 9 years ago.

If you had the opportunity to dine anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?

Any of Dominique Crenn’s restaurants! She is the epitome of what I would like to be and achieve someday. She’s badass without seeming too intimidating and she seems humble even though she has every right not to be.

What are the 3 ingredients you couldn’t live without?

Butter, garlic, lemon/a good vinegar.

What advice would you give to young chefs starting out their careers?

It’s a difficult industry, don’t think it isn’t. Arrive with a smile every day, be enthusiastic, be nice to everyone (especially the scullers) and work hard.

Go the extra mile, take initiative and steal with your eyes.

New Menu at La Colombe

Quickfire Questions for Jess Van Dyk

Morning or evening person? Morning

Dream holiday destination? A tropical Island – Bali, Philippines, Sri-Lanka (top of my list at the moment).

Your last meal on earth would be? Italian – pizza or pasta.

You have to live without one: cheese or wine? Wine.

Would you rather have everyone in the world hear your thoughts, or hear everyone else’s thoughts in the world? Hear everyone else’s…

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