Dutch Chef Margot Janse has been nominated several times as the best chef in South Africa for her work in the gastronomic cuisines of the French Quarter and Tasting Room. She has been the first woman to enter the international World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list.
As no one can learn with an empty stomach, Margot has been feeding for 10 years 1500 children every schoolday through her association “Isabelo-Feeding Hungry Minds”, so they can go to school and to educate themselves properly.
Next Saturday 16 February in Brussels, we will organize a collective event to support her cause: the Belgian chefs Pascal Devalkeneer from CHALET DE LA FORÊT (Michelin **, 17.5 / 20 Gault Millau), Christophe Hardiquest from BON BON (Michelin **, 19.5 / 20 Gault Millau) and Karen Torosyan of the BOZAR RESTAURANT (Michelin *, 16.5 / 20 Gault Millau) will open their kitchens to 22 chefs coming from all around the world to cook together a 10-course tasting menu.
Through the dinner, each chef will create an original dish including a South African indigenous
ingredient such as Hottentot Figs, Honeybush Tea, Baobab Powder, Sorgo or Samp to form men. All benefits of the dinner will go to the association.
« In South Africa, Ubuntu means « I am because we are ». Isabelo project is about humanity, empathy, and sharing, realizing that alone, we are nothing.».
In 2009, Margot Janse created the charity project “Isabelo, Feeding Hungry Minds” which provides nutritious meals to needy children in the Franschhoek Valley outside Capetown.
I wanted to share with you the amazing career and beautiful voice of the chef Margot Janse, driven by empathy and the goal to help the others:
« Since I was 5 years old, my dream was to become an artist. When I applied in Theatre schools in Maastricht and Amsterdam, I was told that I was too young, and that I should go and see the world. At the age of 20, I was working as a freelance journalist and photographer in Zimbabwe and Zambia, before moving to Johannesburg with my boyfriend who was a political journalist in exile… »
Margot had always been passionated by food. One could say the kitchen was calling her. She started her career in a buzzy Italian restaurant of the city, expressing her creativity in the dishes she prepared.
A few years later, she was offered to become a chef at Le Quartier Français in the winelands village of Franschhoek.
« When the owner Susan Huxter – a divorced woman with kids like me – asked me to be the chef, I was only 27 with 3 years of experience as a cook. She believed in my skills, and immediately said: I will support you. We have been working together for the next 20 years… »
In the fine dining place, Margot built a reputation for her creative cuisine, highlighting southern African flavors and vegetables from the garden, nicely paired with local wines.
Together with Susan and the general manager Linda Coltart, the three women travelled the world together.
« Gathering our feminine visions made us able to break boundaries and follow our intuition, in order to build a unique project », says Margot.
Climbing up the International World’s 50 Best restaurants and the UK Restaurant Magazine’s lists, the press impact brought them quickly at the front of the international cooking scene:
« In 2005, we decided to fly to London to attend the World’s 50 best Ceremony for 3 days only. It was unbelievable and completely crazy! All my heroes were there: Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal… Paul Bocuse even kissed me on stage when we received the award! We forged there incredible friendships…»
Living right next to poverty on a daily basis, Margot never forgot the inequality she was witnessing on a daily basis:
“Guests were travelling from everywhere in the world to experience an extraordinary fine dining experience at Le Quartier Français, right next to human poverty. So the question was quite evident: how could we create a programme where we could give back something to the local community?”
Isabelo project, which Margot named after an expression in Xhosa language ‘sharing is caring’, was born in 2009.
First, she selected a local playschool, which looked after 70 children under the age of five. As the kids were suffering from hunger and feeding themselves mainly with carbohydrates, Margot noticed proteins were missing to develop themselves properly.
Together with a dietician, she created a breakfast muffin that would provide the kids with the nutrients they needed, soaking the raisins and oats in orange juice, then puréed them before adding to the dough and baking.
Every Friday morning, the restaurant’s guests were invited into the kitchen to help the staff to prepare the cakes, and deliver them personally to the children.
“It’s all about getting a message across the beautiful food in our industry. We, as chefs, need to make a difference”, says Margot.
« I remember an American couple, says the chef. The lady was very involved in the preparation of the cakes, while her husband kept asking me questions about logistics and costs. The man donated $ 3,000, and we were able to give to the kids every Tuesday for one year, 2 drumsticks of chicken legs, with a milk carton and a banana. As the man wanted to remain anonymous, we called him Mister Tuesday… Within 6 months, we had found Mister Monday to Friday, to help us to feed the kids through food! »
While Isabelo was growing, preparing the meals for the children became part of the daily restaurant’s routine, with one person of the staff cooking everyday 200 warm meals from 8 to 10 am.
Instead of places where kids would only hang out and play, Margot chose preschools were real education was taking place, in order to encourage children to study and get qualitative diplomas.
Further on, Margot realized: « In the primary schools, lunches provided by the government were never quite enough. The children were enormously hungry and only fed at noon. As most of the time, they didn’t get any food the night before – or had to share their meal with their brothers and sisters – they needed a breakfast to concentrate earlier in the morning. Those kids are experiencing a level of poverty and hunger we can’t imagine…»
Isabelo then took over the breakfasts of those schools, preparing porridge with boiled eggs – one of the most brilliant source of proteins – to motivate the kids to be on time at school.
Every school day, Isabelo project provides breakfast to 1300 primary school children, breakfasts and lunches to 200 pre-school children, and supports financially 5 ladies to prepare food for 20 hours a week.
« In Capetown, I found a company from which I buy food that I freeze, says Margot. The meals are then delivered to each school, where they are warmed up. We serve dishes such as rice cooked with tumeric – the kids love the orange colour! – and beef stew with tomato. »
The various meals include proteins differently, through porridges, chicken pies or « Bobouiti », a South African minced meat dish with spices, baked in oven and topped with a layer of omelette.
Since Margot left Le Quartier Français in 2017, the new owner has been helping her to make muffins every Friday.
This year, Margot is taking part of the « Eat out awards » jury in South Africa. The rest of the time, she works as a consultant and organizes human scale events.
From her own private house destroyed by an oak tree which fell during a storm, Margot is rebuilding a project named « Villa Isabelo » where she will organize human scale food events, from which a part of the revenues will go to the charity.
« I have always loved kids. I love their honesty and the way they speak through their mind. I like the way they run to me for a hug. The way they tell me their mother had another baby. The way they tell me how much they really liked the food they ate. And the way they touch my hair because it is so different from their own…(laughes). It’s all about that human connection. »
« I was raised by a mother who looked after our neighbors and who was feeding other people. Working in this industry taught me also a lot about generosity. Finally, by living in this country, seeing a corrupted Government and a poor and undereducated population, it was impossible for me not give back… I feel privileged to have been able to make such a career and have a good life for my son (Thomas, 14). I don’t want to put blinkers on.
I’m just one drop in the ocean. But at least it’s a drop. If this drop can inspire other people to do similar things, or get people to think differently, then I believe it’s a worthy drop in the ocean…»