The restaurant appears out of nowhere. One moment you’re driving in a safari vehicle, scanning the scrubby, red-earth landscape of South Africa’s Kalahari Desert for aardvarks, pangolins, and wild dogs. The next, a chalky-white building appears under a boscia tree. A terrace juts out from the 100-year-old farmhouse, with tables draped in pressed white cloths and waiters with crystal glasses on silver trays. It’s as though you’ve stumbled upon a movie set.
This near-mirage is the first of many surprises that await diners at Klein Jan, which opened last summer at Tswalu, a privately owned game reserve near the Botswana border that’s also home to two safari camps. No one would have thought a star chef would open a restaurant in such a remote setting — not even the chef himself.
Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen grew up on a farm in Mpumalanga Province, east of Johannesburg, but moved to France after graduating college, opening his first restaurant, Jan, in Nice in 2013. It took him less than three years to become the first South African chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and while he is still based primarily in France, he sees the opening of Klein Jan as a homecoming.
The menu is a celebration of his Afrikaans grandmother’s Dutch-influenced farm cooking: new versions of humble favorites like mieliepap (corn porridge), here in the form of fritters, and bobotie, a curried minced-meat dish made vegetarian by substituting lentils. The menu also features lesser-known South African ingredients like wild, bitter tsama melons and hyperregional homemade cheeses, all sourced nearby — a tall order in this arid landscape.
But a meal at Klein Jan isn’t just about the food. It’s also about the journey to the table: diners begin on the patio for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, then move through the old one-room farmhouse, with its antique chairs and decorative dangling tumbleweeds, before heading down a spiral staircase to an underground brick cellar stocked with honey, produce, and various pickles. Finally, you emerge into the lofty dining room, which is cut into the hillside and looks out onto a landscape so still it seems like a painting. “Creating this experience,” van der Westhuizen says, “is my style of storytelling.”
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Back on the Farm.