'Jan' director shares behind-the-scenes secrets of the award-winning show

Director Carien Loubser and Michelin-star chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen. (Photo supplied)
Director Carien Loubser and Michelin-star chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen. (Photo supplied)

Carien Loubser, the owner of the TV production company Brainwave Productions in Cape Town, didn't just create JAN - she's also the director and edited the series in which cameras follow South Africa's Michelin-star chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen in France and across Europe for two seasons.

Channel24 caught up with her to find out more about the spectacular second season which is as close to visually perfect television art as you can get.

Carien shares some of the production challenges and joys of filming this season, how the show's dynamic soundtrack including Edith Piaf in Zulu came to be, getting Jan to open up more in a more personable way, and how she had to come up with a brand-new season finale.

The second season is incredible. How did the conceptualisation come about, moving away from the restaurant and theme episodes around different foods and drinks?

I wanted to create a format that is not remotely close to anything else on TV.

There are so many copies of copies. The thing that interested me most about Jan, was the fact that he came from a farm in Middelburg, and became the first South African to receive a Michelin-star for his restaurant in France – France, the food capital of the world and the country where the restaurant as we know it today, originated from.

So for me, I already knew before we even started filming, that I want to capture that level of creativity in a TV show. So in a way, we also challenged Jan. Instead of doing a cooking show, even if we could do it in his restaurant, we decided to travel with him to ordinary places and cool destinations. At the end of the day, he has to create a dish from something he saw or experienced on that day.

The second season begins with Jan's life that came to a standstill in 2019 with the loss of his father, and his beloved Granny who instilled in him a love for cooking. He opened a new restaurant in her name. We then set the course to retrace his steps, arriving in Paris from South Africa 10 years ago, and we follow his journey from there to opening restaurant JAN in Nice in 2013.

This basically determined where we went – for instance, Paris, Champagne, Monaco, Nice and then the Piedmonte region of Italy. All of these places have played a huge role in his life and on his journey.

The series is also documenting his life in a certain way.

The second season ends with him arriving back in South Africa, opening an Innovation studio in Cape Town and setting plans in place for a new restaurant in the Kalahari, called Klein Jan.

When was it filmed? An episode about the Notre Dame cathedral alludes to it being filmed literally a week or so before the devastating fire in 2019. Can you talk a bit about the crew who worked on this on location?

Yes, we filmed the series in sections. The second season we filmed over a period of 14 months – on and off, of course. We were in Paris literally a few weeks before the fire in the Notre Dame.

Our crew is small. We have to travel through Europe with a Rand-budget, so it's quite a bit of a challenge to do the number crunching. Every crew member literally works twice as hard as we usually do on set. But we all knew that we wanted to create something beautiful. It's not often that we get to film in these incredible locations. It was tough – the language, the exchange rate, long hours.

But it's amazing when everyone on the team shares the same vision. We all have been working together for many years, so it was great to travel together. Our camera equipment took almost nine airport trolleys, so it was quite a mission travelling with that.

In Paris, we moved around with Uber shuttles, but it happened several times that we'd order an Uber and would wait for 45 minutes for a shuttle because they're not as plentiful as Uber cars. When the shuttle eventually stopped, and the driver saw the equipment, he would just drive past us.

We were deserted a few times on the sidewalks. Just to check-in at the airport took us about 5 hours just to clear customs.

The JAN soundtrack is astounding. Every episode is sound art. Who is responsible for the songs, the selection, the sound mixing and editing, and where did this idea come from to layer sound as almost a separate "sound story" over the visual story?

When we started with season one, I knew that I wanted to compile a soundtrack for this series. Usually, music would be a secondary element, but I wanted to make it a primary element of the show.

The music has to bring the pictures to life, and do justice to Jan's dishes – each one an artwork.  So instead of just having music in the background, we brought the music forward and made it play as important a part of the show as the visuals and storytelling.

With all the elements in creating this series, we pushed the limits. Jan takes our traditional South African food and incorporates that into French fine dining. I wanted to do something similar with the music. The theme song is a classic French song (Edith Piaf's No Regrets) which we translated into Zulu, and it's sung by Thembeka Mnguni. We used traditional Afrikaans songs, which is performed in French, for instance.

The people profiled are amazing – from someone explaining in a cellar the origin of a champagne, to braaing along the Seine, a pasta matriarch, shop owners – even a chocolatier. Which were difficult to arrange and how was it done, for instance, location scouts or personal contacts of Jan?

Because we followed Jan's journey in France, it led us to people he already knew or admired. 

We shoot reality-style, and a lot of what happens is impromptu. For instance, Betty in her bar in VilleFranche, Mado, who made him croissants at her café next to the Notre Dame. That wasn't planned at all. We literally stopped there to grab a coffee for the crew; it was early in the morning and quite nippy.  She was so great opening her doors – offering us croissants and coffee on the house. We also look for experiences and places that are authentic and off the beaten track.

How is the food filming done – the actual dishes and preparation in the end segments? How long did this take and how many takes? How difficult or challenging is it to arrange, set up and capture these amazing food shots?

Once again, this is done reality-style, so we don't have second takes. It's not like there's a set recipe – Jan creates new dishes, we film it. 

His dishes are like artworks, for instance, the chocolate mousse sculpture, inspired by the Louvre. It's 15 cm tall and filled with Kaapsche jongens (hanepoot grapes) inside. When he sets it alight, it melts, and the grapes inside are revealed. We only have that one shot.

Our cinematographer Chris Lotz is amazing with this, he really has a good eye and impeccable taste, and I guess the fact that he has done many food shows and knows his way around a kitchen is a huge bonus.

We also want to leave room for Jan to be creative in, so we can't kill the creative process with a strict shot list. We literally get everything that he does in the kitchen and then create a story around it in post-production. The cooking segment is where everything comes together – the travelling, the people he met and the places he's been to. 

Let's talk about the cinematography. Who is responsible for this? In terms of framing, there are several "picturesque" images of Jan just standing, sitting, drinking wine or against walls or in gardens, with voice-over. It's beautifully captured. Can you speak about the style and how it was achieved?

My brief to the camera crew is exactly that – postcard-like frames and images, creating special moments in time with slow-motion shots, strategically used with beautiful music.

When you have a Michelin-star restaurant, you have to give attention to every detail – even how the toilet paper is folded in the bathrooms. We wanted to incorporate that in the way we capture and film this series. Basically, every single element to Jan's life as a chef we took and made it part of the format and style guide. 

The new season also reveals a lot more about Jan's personality, his mannerisms and personal background and history. Is that just an effect of being away from the restaurant and in his kitchen and interacting with other people, or was it an intentional decision to have the story intrude more into his story?

Absolutely. Like I said earlier – making jaw-droppingly beautiful food is one thing, and that's amazing.  But what interested me more was who Jan is as a person. To discover that – for me, that was the essence, and then to show viewers that.

I think in the beginning Jan thought I was crazy,

because who wants to see the off-camera stuff – but that's just the beautiful thing – people want to see realness, they sometimes appreciate it more than curated and polished one-liner scripts. From a directing point of view – that was the challenge – to still be able to film a beautifully polished programme, but also have the freedom to create as we go and capture Jan's personality in the process.

I think over a period of three years, we also developed a deep relationship of trust – where he knows that he can be vulnerable and true to himself, without us taking advantage of that. If you are a creative person, your personal life plays a huge part in your work.  So it's a no brainer that we should get to know Jan better as a person, in order to truly understands his food philosophy.

How long did the editing and post-production take and how much was filmed per episode that then had to be reduced to an hour episode? What was fun about this season, and what was challenging or exciting?

The post-production takes the longest. It takes about 5 to 6 weeks to put each episode together. We're based in Cape Town, and Jan is based in Nice. It takes careful planning to put everything together.

Some of the episodes can be 6 hours long! To edit it down to 50 minutes is quite challenging. The hardest part of it all is the stories and footage that we have to cut out. What people don't see on screen is how gracious and hospitable the people are behind-the-scenes – especially in Italy. Gemma, the nonna making pasta, literally served us nine courses. We could eat everything, and that was amazing to experience.

Our plan was to film the ending of the season in the Kalahari, but with the coronavirus at play, we weren't able to go, so I had to create a whole new ending for the season.


The box set of JAN season 2 is available on DStv Catch Up on DStv Now until 18 May 2020.

Box sets of JAN season 1 and season 2 are available on Showmax.

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