Things were looking bright for Dutch born chef Margot Janse just before disaster struck. Two years ago she decided to quit her job and focus on building her charity which she had set up as part of her work at one of most well known fine-dining restaurants in South Africa, The Tasting Room at the Le Quartier Francais.
A change in the ownership of the hotel which housed her restaurant made her adjust her priorities in life. “I stayed to work for another year but then realised this was was no longer my world. It was time for change but the question I had was what would I do about the children I had been feeding through the charity. I thought that the new owners would keep the charity which was connected to the hotel but given my name was so closely associated with it, I feared they might change the emphasis of the project. So I decided to take it with me and started to think what I could do, how I could handle the logistics of serving 200 meals a day from a domestic kitchen and with a domestic fridge.”
She gave herself six months to figure it out. “I had a garage at home which gave me some possibilities, like having a kitchen and I thought I could cook from the garage. I had connections with people in the Netherlands who could cover the costs of turning the garage into a kitchen. But then I found a company in Cape Town that focused on making food for schools and decided to turn the garage into a storeroom rather than have a kitchen in the house. Instead I bought a large freezer so once a week I would get food for all the kids and then every morning I would deliver it. All the milk and the egg was delivered to my garage,” she told Food and Wine Gazette.
But, just one month into her journey, her life was turned upside down. Just as things seemed to be going according to plan, a large oak tree near her house split in two and tumbled onto Margot’s house destroying it in the process. “Our life changed in that moment. We no longer had a house, I no longer had a job. Luckily, no one was injured in the incident and the garage was still intact but we had to leave the house,” she said.
Thanks to her determination to make Isabelo Charity work, with this new purpose to not betray the children she had been feeding since 2009 she persevered. Today, she has created a structure for the charity that started at The Tasting Room with the intention of feeding school children a muffin every Friday.
The Dutch chef had it all. She was the most famous chef in South Africa, the first ever female chef to make it to the World’s 50 Best, international recognition but she said she was confronted with a daily reality. “We lived so close to poverty, with high unemployment rates and we were confronted with poverty on a daily basis. We would take people without diplomas coming straight out of school and we created a training programme.”
After three years of doing this in-house training they started to organise cooking classes for guests. “Guests at the hotel would arrive in this beautiful country but they would pass through shacks and through really poor places. It was uncomfortable to arrive in a country that had so many problems,” she said.
With tourism being a very important for the economy in South Africa, the Dutch chef was organising cooking classes when one day she decided to work together with a dietician on creating a muffin that was nutritious for a four year old child. “We started this on a Friday. We would write to the hotel guests and ask them whether they would help us to make and deliver 70 muffins to school children. Our guests liked it and sometimes on Friday’s we would gather all the kids who were in the hotel and they would help grate the carrots and mash the bananas,” she said.
A guest asked how much the project cost. We had not really worked it out. He gave us 3,000 dollars so we could feed children on another day of the week. he wanted to remain anonymous so we called him Mr Tuesday. Within six months we had all the days of the week covered.
“On one of these sessions someone asked us how much does this cost for a year. We had never really worked it out because it was a way for us to help these children in our idle time. He gave us 3,000 dollars so we could feed children on another day of the week. He wanted to remain anonymous so we named him Mr Tuesday. On Tuesdays, we managed to feed children drumsticks because it was something that they could hold in their hands. We would give them milk in a carton and a banana since there were no chairs so children needed to be able to walk and eat,” she said.
“Someone told us they wanted to take care of Wednesday, another Thursday. Within six months, we had all the week covered,” Margot said.
This was in 2009 and through the restaurant kitchen she was feeding 70 children at school.
With funds pouring in, they were able to add another school and add a boiled egg, a banana and milk to the muffin. “It was important for us to choose the schools that had a proper education system in place and also the right teachers. Early learning is essential for children,” she said.
It continued to grow and in 2011, a Dutch furniture company she knew proposed to turn their shop into a restaurant for a fund raiser. During that event, they collected money to be financially sustainable for three years. “We raised three times more money than we needed and had to decide what to do with the money,” she said.
“I started to ask myself what do we do with this money. We were a hotel that was feeding children, using our spare resources. We were not a charity at the time. We found a charity in town that was focused on children and early learning and asked whether they would house and take care of the funds which they did. We were then able to feed porridge to two primary school children. We also needed to add something to this breakfast because it was not nutritionally strong enough as kids need protein to develop their brain. The boiled egg is a perfect bomb of protein but for large numbers it is not cheap so we needed to raise more funds so we could start feeding the children eggs for breakfast. One egg a week is a lot of eggs to feed all those children but we now we had funds for three times a week and the kids loved the egg,” she said.
Today Isabelo Charity is feeding around 200 pre-school children and 1,300 primary school children for breakfast. “The primary school children get breakfast every morning. In each school we have women who volunteer to serve the breakfast or lunch and I pay the women for four hours so they have a basic income. The government provides a lunch but that is not enough. Many of the children don’t have breakfast at home or dinner in the evening so if they are school on time they can get breakfast,” she said.
At the Le Quartier only dinner was served so Margot was able to make use of a fantastic kitchen in the morning. A member of her team would work to prepare a hot meal in the morning between 8am and 10am for the 200 pre-school children under the age of 5. She said they had to be very creative because the food needed to be wholesome and nutritious adding that they learnt by experience.
Going back to basics
“In the beginning it was a bit funny because we were serving ‘white food’ and not what they were used to at home. I remember that when we made the muffin for the first time and we wanted it to be wholesome. It was chunky big, it had oats and raisin inside. When the children saw it they were very excited but one child cried because he was afraid to put it in his mount. It was healthy but the children did not like it. We learnt that we had to go back to basics. It was too big and the children did not like chunky bits in their mouths. We had to remember that children did not like texture like adults,” she said
Margot did not want to put sugar in the muffin but if it was not sweet the children would not eat it. “We found a compromise. What we did was soak the oats with the raisons in orange juice overnight and we pureed it so it looked like a cake but it still has great nutritional value for the children,” she said.
The garage today serves as a logistic centre. And Margot collaborates on menu development and advising companies on equipment, how to set it up so that it can grow. “For the first time last month, I received food from the new kitchen which is up and running. There is also a delivery system in place for delivering the food to school which means I no longer need to pick up the food and deliver. The cost to do this runs into EUR 5,000 to EUR 6,000 per month on average.
“The aim for me is to grow but I want to be sure that we grow carefully. I cannot decide to add a school and then cannot sustain it the following week because I could not raise funds,” she said.
Margot has registered an NGO and the charity has a new website and bank account where people can donate. “I want to grow it and I want to organise events to raise funds and awareness.”
“I think the bottom line is that we cannot have this extravagant business of fine dining which is soulless and it is just about what a good chef you are. We need to need better humans and we need to take care of what is around us, whatever it is.”
Margot believes that the charity has also given her a lot personally. “I was not born in South Africa but I’ve had a really great life in South Africa. We are privileged. I worked hard for it but lived a privileged life. Every wealthy person is living a privileged life. If you have a house and a car and food then you are privileged. I think we as chefs need to keep your feet on the ground. I am a woman, I have a child and I think that this has helped not just me but also my son.” She said his gratitude levels are very solid and he understands what life is about, the hardships that people face and this is something that the children she helps are not necessarily aware of.
She tries to connect with the children and gives them a present for Christmas every December. “For many it is the only present they get in the whole year. Their parents don’t have money for a birthday or Christmas present. This is the only non-food thing I do with the funds,” she said.
Margot knows there are many needs but she sees kids as the future leaders and South Africa needs better leaders. “We need a better education and children need to eat. That’s my focus and that is why I am also a trustee for another project which is to start an early learning school,” she said.
The focus remains food and education with both being essential pillars for a child’s growth.
You can donate to the Isabelo Charity on the link here.