Top chef Margot Janse is feeding hungry minds in Franschhoek
Isabelo started as a feeding scheme run from the kitchen of one of the world’s best fine-dining restaurants, The Tasting Room, under world-renowned chef Margot Janse. For a decade it has provided hundreds of meals to schools in Franschhoek where inequality persists despite the town’s growth. Janse wants to feed more children, with more funders and more buy-in from chefs. She just needs to find a bigger kitchen first.
Every morning the junior sous chef, Annalize Louw, would boil 200 eggs. Waitresses would help peel eggs as the kitchen crew picked the roast chickens or beef shin. At 10am the hotel’s drivers would deliver the meals to five township schools in Franschhoek.
Only then could the prep for the evening’s shift begin at one of the world’s best fine-dining restaurants, The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek.
For the past decade, award-winning chef Margot Janse has been running Isabelo to “feed hungry minds” in the creches and schools of Franschhoek. They began by baking nutritious muffins at The Tasting Room every Friday for 70 children. Today, she serves 1,500 children every school day.
Her mission is to feed more children as soon as possible. She is pursuing more fundraisers. She wants to get more chefs to put meals where their mouths are.
She’s out to burst bubbles.
Janse emigrated to South Africa when she was 20 years old after growing up and studying acting in Holland. She ran “social documentary photography” courses for David Goldblatt but realised she wanted to be a chef. A few years later she was at the helm of The Tasting Room. During her 22 years as Executive Chef, the restaurant featured regularly on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
She witnessed the town grow from strength to strength as it gained its reputation as a culinary hub. Yet, inequality and food insecurity persisted.
“Franschhoek is a condensed picture of South Africa. There’s so much wealth. How is it possible, how is it possible that a kilometre down the road there is such poverty? How? Are people genuinely happy to live in a bubble like that?” she probes.
‘They have so much flippin’ money. People do give back but why can’t we make this a sustainable village? Why can’t we make this a valley for everybody? I think it’s a huge issue, but I’d love to chip away at it a little more and create more awareness.”
At the end of that kilometre, schoolteachers in neighbourhoods like Groendal saw the impact of hunger and food insecurity in their classrooms.
One Friday, a young scholar ate 15 hard-boiled eggs in one sitting at his school, the Kusasa Project Early Learning Centre in Groendal. The principal, Marie-Louise Raymond, struggled to get him to stop. He said he couldn’t because his next meal would only be on Monday morning.
Most of their scholars rely on the school for meals during the week and during holidays they are sent home with food parcels.
They are not alone in this. The principal of Little Dolphins Creche, Evelyn Visser, would cook meals at home to feed those who could not afford to bring lunch. She has observed that some lunchboxes were full but were not nutritious.
“We had such a privileged life, cooking in a utopia of amazing ingredients but a kilometre down the road there’s nothing,” Janse says. “Maybe it is because I didn’t grow up here… In Holland, especially when I grew up, it was all about equality.
“It doesn’t sit well in your stomach. I started in 1995 at Le Quartier Français and we always uplifted and took in people straight from school. We were always doing something. Then we said why can’t we do something with food?”
When they introduced cooking classes to the hotel in 2009, Janse saw an opportunity. “With Le Quartier Français being five-star, we attracted high-flying people that would come in on a beautiful holiday and who felt a bit uncomfortable when they landed and went straight past all the shacks and townships on the highway to go and have a good time… So, we wanted to create a vehicle where they could give back.”
Janse consulted a dietician and they developed a recipe for a protein-packed, nutritious muffin. Guests were invited to join the Thursday cooking class to bake for a local creche. If no guests pitched, they’d always bake anyway.
However, the muffin was not to everybody’s taste. “So we made this amazing muffin and it was huge. But the kids didn’t like it. I remember the first time we went they were so excited because they were getting something and it was like a party,” she recounts.
“This one kid had never seen anything like it and he just started crying. We had to teach him that he could eat it. They kind of ate it, but over time the teachers said they are not really liking it.”
And so a process of consultation between Janse and the kids began. The raisins were soaked and pureed. Carrots were grated as finely as possible. The oats soaked in a mixture of blended berries. Soon the kids couldn’t wait for Fridays.
During one of the first baking sessions, a guest asked Janse how much it cost to run the project for a year. She hadn’t quite worked that out yet – it was a natural part of the kitchen’s daily expenses.
Nonetheless, they donated $3,000 so that the children could be fed another day of the week. Shortly, each weekday was sponsored by a guest.
Isabelo soon had donors from beyond the hotel. In 2011 Janse hosted a dinner in Holland where the guests donated R1-million to make the project sustainable for three years.
“We were amazed. We weren’t even a registered charity – it was something we were doing next to what we did every day working in the funny world of fine dining where every carrot must look the same… We focus on all this stuff, yet if you go over there they don’t even have a carrot,” says Janse.
The expansion was exponential. By 2012, Isabelo catered for three creches and two primary schools. Janse returned to Holland in 2013 and raised another million. She ran the Cape Town Marathon in 2014 to fund the renovation of two schools’ kitchens.
But in 2017 Janse decided to leave The Tasting Room. Luckily, she was able to take Isabelo with her.
She runs her garage as a food distribution centre while still cooking overseas on invitation: “If I paid someone a salary to do it, it would literally be food out of kids’ mouths.” Now she receives logistical support from The Kusasa Project and works with the Pebbles Kitchen to design and cook the warm meals.
Janse’s links with international chefs have given Isabelo a global reach. JAN in Nice donates €1 for every customer. A Dutch honest kids’ snack, which Janse helped to develop, donates a breakfast for every box sold. Valrhona chocolate donates €2 for every kilogram of Isabelo chocolate sold.
In February 2019, 25 of the world’s top chefs cooked for 200 customers across three venues in Brussels at the same time. This was just a few days before they all headed to the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards.
The meals and donations made in Brussels, and in other parts of the world, make the Isabelo breakfasts and lunches in Franschhoek possible.
Little Dolphin and the Kusasa Project Early Learning Centre, both supported by Isabelo, have found that the consistent, healthy food is a drawcard for new learners and that parents want to be updated regularly about what the kids eat.
“I can say it [Isabelo] is for me a wow project because to think of how much you pay for a plate of food in a restaurant and now we get this food, which is very nutritious, for the children,” says Visser.
“You can go to bed at night with a happy heart because you know the child has had a plate of food. You can go and look now in the rural area how the kids walk around with no food across their lips. For me it is very important that the children are here, because they learn from one another, from Margot and people in their environment who can make a difference in their lives.”
The children have strong opinions about what they like and expect in their meals and Janse takes the feedback seriously. “There wasn’t always such variety in the menu, but they got bored and would say: ‘Oh no, it’s fish cake Tuesday!’ Now, they love the variety in the menu. They are very honest about their opinion, so I will tell Margot that they say you mustn’t cook the pasta so long,” Raymond chuckles.
The teachers have also seen how the kids adore Janse – they rush to help her carry food, knock her over with hugs and wait to each have a quiet chat with her. In 10 years, she has seen them grow up right before her as she visited them almost daily. For Janse, this care is what sharing food is actually all about: “It’s to say: I see you and you are cared for.”
The meals are also used as a way to create understanding between kids from different backgrounds. ‘The children who can afford food don’t always want to eat it because they can maybe get something at home, but we have a rule that everybody eats because for the child next to you it might be the only bowl of food for today,” explains Raymond.
The meals help the teachers to manage energy levels and concentration in the classroom. “They have a lot of energy and the nutritious food that Margot sends makes them strong,” says Visser. “They concentrate a bit better and you can see they want to put in more than what they usually do.”
The work of Isabelo has also had an impact on the chefs who are part of it. Not every day is full of smiles and good food though.
“It’s hard work. Some kids come into the creche and you can see they are hungry. They are just so excited that they’ll get something to eat,” says Louw. “It touches a person’s heart. You never get used to their excitement and their emotions. They are just so grateful and happy that something is coming their way.”
“You must have a passion for it and really care for and love children because parts of Franschhoek are very poor and there are many children who suffer, like in Groendal where I come from,” she says.
“You must be in, or close to, those circumstances to understand what it’s about and then realise you can do something for those children,” she says.
“It’s not about taking a selfie and saying I am feeding the hungry children. No no, it must really come from your heart and you must mean what you are doing for those children.”
Janse hopes that Isabelo will one day grow to become a community effort to feed even more children.
“I feel that people need a kick under their backsides. Come on! Come on, stop living this privileged life and do something… whatever it is! Some people are doing something, but why can’t the village actually get itself together to look after the whole village? That’s my small mission.”
She says that each day the chefs help others, but they could be stronger if they banded together like they did when an enormous fire erupted near Franschhoek in February. Firemen needed feeding, and who better to call than the town’s chefs?
“I watched on the chefs chat group as the incredible team effort happened in Franschhoek to feed these firemen. It was incredible,” she recounts.
“And that’s when I came back [from Brussels] and said: we can do it for a crisis. But listen, there’s a crisis there every single day. Why can’t we do it on a daily basis? But it takes someone to organise it. So we sat around and spoke about how to join forces and make a bigger difference. I realised it takes someone to do that and create a platform.”
In the meantime, Isabelo is here to stay. As Janse has said, not one child has missed an Isabelo meal and that’s not going to change under her watch. DM
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