Celebrating women in the food industry — Jess van Dyk

Lately, women have been making waves in the South African food industry, and we’re totally here for it! We’ll be chatting to a few female chefs to see what they have to say about the industry in general, as well as to find out a bit more about what makes these wonderful women tick! First up, we approached award-winning chef Jess van Dyk from La Colombe to find out a bit more about her.

What unique attributes do you think female chefs (including yourself) bring to the table?

I think as women we pay attention to the smaller details in general which comes into play with things like kitchen cleanliness, organisation and emotional support/morale of staff.
Although a tough cookie (as all chefs have to be) I have a very sensitive side, call it motherly instinct, which helps when having to deal with a team who works in a high-pressure environment.

What are your thoughts on South Africa’s culinary scene at the moment?

It is BOOMING. Having travelled a fair bit in the past few years, I have come to realise how far ahead we are when it comes to the culinary scene in Cape Town or South Africa as a whole. It is very exciting knowing I am part of such an amazing industry that always evolves and changes with time. It keeps us all on our toes and frequently teaches us new things.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today?

Sacrifices. You will miss out on a lot of birthdays, weddings and friends or family gatherings. You will lose people and friends along the way, so you need to know that this is your dream. You also have the daily pressure of this industry. It is fast paced, highly driven and incredibly competitive. You need to be confident in yourself and your skill, which gets tough at times as it’s a dog-eat-dog kind of world.

You’ve worked as a sous chef, a head chef, on the yachts, as a private chef and a food stylist — what would you say has been your favourite?

It would have to be between being a sous chef and a yacht chef. I am such a gypsy and wanderer at heart and travelling the world while cooking with each country’s best produce was everything I dreamed it would be — I loved it! But my favourite was being a sous chef. You are the whole kitchen’s right-hand man, you get challenged daily while helping every section and being there for the whole team.

What have you learned from these other industries that you have brought over into your position as Head Chef at La Colombe?

I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to different industries, corporate, industrial kitchen as well as the international world of yachting. I think the most prominent thing I have learned is how to deal with different people, cultures as well as language and religious differences. To be a head chef I think it is important to be able to work with people, respect everyone’s differences while having a common goal.

Knowing what you know now, would you have changed anything, or done anything differently?

I have been very fortunate in my career and all the opportunities that have come my way, although I have worked hard, most things seemed to have happened at the right time and place for me. So far, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Would you consider cooking internationally or is there a foreign country whose cooking style you would love to learn or emulate?

Absolutely! If I had the opportunity, I’d love to work abroad at some of the top fine dining restaurants (especially if they are headed by female chefs). In this industry, I feel travelling and learning from other chefs or cultures is vital to grow as a chef.

What is your favourite ingredient to cook with?

Butter. It can turn the simplest of ingredients into a masterpiece.

What is your most essential kitchen item?

A good stand up blender for purees, emulsions, soups, marinades or curry pastes. You can cook anything if you have that.

Are there any female chefs who inspire you who you want to learn more about? Let us know in the comments and keep an eye out for our next interview in the series!

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