'Michelin was a lifelong dream, to get what we got was a dream'

The  Staff Canteen

Jean Delport is a Michelin-starred chef, based in Sussex who got himself in the guide with his restaurant, Interlude, just ten months after opening.

His dream as a young chef was to get a star, so what do you do once you’ve achieved your dream? Go for two stars of course!

“I don’t think we are far off on some aspects - ultimately we are competing with chefs who have been in this industry for 20/30 years. Sometimes I wish I had grown up here and cooked here so I could have gone to work for some of these chefs but we will stay true to ourselves, enjoy what we are doing and then accolades will come eventually.”

Originally from Cape Town, Jean says he is family orientated ‘so never wanted to move away’.

He explained: “When you fall into this industry you realise you have to broaden your horizons.”

Jean made up his mind age 16 that cooking was what he wanted to do, he was the first in his family to pursue it as a career and he found out the hard way ‘it’s not an easy job’.

“The more I started playing with the baking side of things the more scientific I realised it was and it really intrigued me.”

After chef school, he realised it was fine dining which he really enjoyed, after experiencing several placements including cooking at a game lodge in Namibia. Jean says the area he grew up is ‘ the food capital of South Africa’ so he had plenty of choice when it came to taking on a role – he went to work for Dan Evans who held a Michelin-star in the UK.

“He had so much food knowledge to offer and I absorbed what he knew and what he could do.” Leaving South Africa Despite saying he never wanted to move away, he came to the UK and opened Interlude two and a half years ago – although he does miss his family, sun and South African seafood!

“I grew up on heavier, meatier fish. Hake is like our equivalent of cod and we have yellowtail, it’s a darker gamier fish or a snook that’s massive in South Africa – we bbq it with apricot jam, butter and garlic. It cooks similar to mackerel but with chunkier flakes. They are the flavours we are used to, here in the UK, it’s daintier, more precision cooking.”

Jean explained that he moved because he couldn’t have the restaurant and do the food he’s doing here, back home.

“We weren’t in the right setting, and I had no following – it’s really hard to break through in South Africa.”

Michelin is not recognised in South Africa, they have The Eat Out Guide and Jean always made sure the restaurants he worked for were in the top ten list and he always aspired to be on that list.

“Michelin was a lifelong dream, I was open to moving to the UK because it was my dream to have a star. I get obsessive with things – it wasn’t something I had to do but it was something I wanted to do for myself. I just wanted to show I had accomplished something, and a star does have massive draw to customers.

“I followed a lot of the UK’s biggest named chefs for a long time so moving here and to get what we got was a dream.”

Restaurant Interlude

Jean wants to create a destination restaurant, and says the building has the bones and the structure to do that. During the second lockdown they renovated the upstairs and they now have ten beautifully designed and finished rooms to compliment the stunning dining room. But what about the food?

“In South Africa the demand was more for al a carte, so bigger portions, and for me that wasn’t a natural fit as I really love fine dining and tasting menus. Coming here allowed me to do a long, set tasting menu – I wanted to be able to change when I wanted, keep things on or adapt if we needed to.

“We started off doing 24 courses but I’ve had to reign it in because people were either getting too full or not understanding how much we are doing. We are now at 18 – I wanted to create a story, the story starts as soon as you come in and it takes you on a journey around Leonardslee Gardens.

“The ethos is that on each course there is something from the gardens and that is intertwined with our South African influences and British, classical, French cooking."

The Michelin Guide UK

Interlude entered the Michelin Guide 2020 much to the surprise of Jean and his team.

“I had a two year plan in my head,” said Jean. “But Michelin came within the first six months of us opening. To get the star, after working so hard for so long, it was a bit of a relief to get some recognition.”

He added: “Attending the Michelin event, for me, was a real moment of ‘we’ve arrived’. I was in a room full of all of my food heroes.

“Our bookings quadrupled over the next year with the star, it puts you out there and back then literally no one knew about us.”

However, he has found that with notoriety comes criticism.

“People can be really mean sometimes! We put ourselves out there and I’ve learned in the UK you have to have a much thicker skin – people really tell you what they think here. It’s a big learning curve.

“Since we got the star people have become a lot more judgemental, the expectation is a lot more – we want to still be true to ourselves, but we have had to adapt and fine tune what we do. We’ve gone for slightly bigger, prettier plates to please more palettes – I can still get my story and passion across, and we still throw in lots of fun small things in between. It’s ever evolving, and I don’t want a set structure. We want to have fun with what we do, and seasonality also determines how much we can do. South African food The dishes on the menu are created using ingredients from the estate first, then local producers and then South African influences.

“We want to showcase our heritage, ideas and processes which go on rather than ingredients from South Africa as the philosophy of the restaurant is to keep it as local as possible. So, for example we do a Slaphakskeentjies, it’s a traditional onion salad, that’s very South African because it has a mustard base – it’s sweet and sour and includes vinegar and sugar. We add roasted onions, shredded bbq lamb and a leek mayonnaise – that emulates a bite of South African cuisine in one.”

He added: “That is traditional from where I am from but there are many cuisines and traditions in South Africa.”

Jean has a lot of plans for the future, he’d love to do more open coal cooking when he has the opportunity to rebuild the kitchen and as he already mentioned he intends to keep pushing and developing his menu and hopefully gain that second star.

Getting creative with British ingredients he says has been one of ‘the biggest learning curves’.

He said: “It was a completely different larder – in South Africa we may have looked at them online but we didn’t have them. It’s been fun getting things in, playing with them and tasting them.”

Staffing

Jean appears to be creating his own little corner of South Africa in Sussex, with many of his team all originally coming from his home country.

“The way people work here is a lot different,” he said. “Casual contracts are quite normal here but in South Africa people want permanent employment. So, to have people here who only wanted to do certain hours and also work in other places for me I found that difficult. We take it very seriously, so we want full time staff and they’re main focus when they are here is the restaurant. Over time we’re working on getting a permanent team and brought a lot from South Africa -obviously my wife who runs front of house, my head chef, a couple of guys in the kitchen and two wine guys.

“It was the easiest way for us to solve the problem – people come over on visas and then I have a guaranteed team for two or three years to build on. I hate standing still.”

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th January 2022

'Michelin was a lifelong dream, to get what we got was a dream'