It feels as though Chef Jenny Ward is living her best life. She opened her restaurant CHEFS late last year, and has created a space that’s quite different to anything you’ll find in SA at the moment. It’s all cooked from scratch with a lot of slow-cooking, beautiful sauces and relishes, and freshly baked breads – seemingly simple food, without flounces, that’s layered with flavour and never takes itself too seriously. Basically, the type of food we all want to eat. Delicious food.  We chatted to the chef about how she got started, her inspiration and about her restaurant and its concept.

The beginning

Joburg-born, cheffing first caught Jenny’s eye while she was working as a waitress. She moved down to Cape Town to study at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stelllenbsoch, and from there she worked in a number of different establishments, using her training in all sorts of operations – first, she worked with Chef Vanie Padayachee at Fushi, immersing herself in the world of Asian fusion. Next up, she worked at By Word of Mouth, tackling large-scale catering, before moving on to Par Avion which handles catering for private jets, villas and the like. Her next stop, and where she spent 4 ½ years, was at Bizerca Bistro. Here she worked together with Chef Laurent Deslandes, someone whom she considers a mentor. Her next plan was to head off to Australia but, at the last step of the process, her visa fell through so she headed into private cheffing for a while. Luckily, she managed to spend 6 months in Australia working at friends’ restaurants. “It was inspiring to see these young chefs creating tiny pop-ups in awkward spaces, at the back of other restaurants, serving just two tables,” says Jenny.

Finding the space

“Every chef wants their own restaurant!” says Jenny. Together with her business partner who she met while working at Par Avion, they began a 2 ½ year search to find the perfect space, even looking up in Johannesburg for what she’d envisioned. She wanted a restaurant on a corner, an open space, with lots of parking available. Then, after finding the restaurant’s current location, on St John Street, new challenges cropped up – as it used to be an office, they had to organise air pollution licences, and the building is in a heritage area, so when they renovated, they had to keep the façade, with its large, rounded-square windows intact.

The restaurant now

Standing in CHEFS, though, those challenges wouldn’t cross your mind. “I wanted guests to feel as though they were sitting with in the kitchen,” says Jenny. “The front of house is like the back of house.” The restaurant is relaxed and unpretentious, decked out in white tiles with the open kitchen dominating the space. Unlike many open kitchens, it’s clearly a working kitchen, with function chosen over design.  You can see the chefs seamlessly doing their thing during service and, as the name suggests, chefs are at the heart of this entire operation. So much so, that your food is brought to you by chefs, not waiters. And it’s brought to you on specially-made stainless steel trays, which evoke a cool hipster canteen vibe.

The menu

The menu for lunch and supper changes daily, offering a meat, seafood or veggie main with one dessert option. Jenny finds that changing the menu everyday keeps the energy up in the kitchen. In the morning, the pictures of the dishes that are available that day go up onto the website and when guests enter the restaurant, they order straight from the counter with dishes again displayed on a screen for them to take a good, hard look at what they’d like to put in their bellies. There’s a small selection of handpicked wines, but the homemade cordials are hard to beat – I tried the strawberry, lime and hibiscus and it was delicious.

The food

All of the food is made from scratch with seasonal ingredients that are sourced weekly from Epping Market and, most awesomely, the food is mostly cooked in a wood-fired oven. Jenny learnt how to use a wood-fired oven while she was working as a private chef, and not only does it reach an incredibly high heat, but it imparts a beautiful flavour to the food and breads, and is fuel efficient and sustainable. When it comes to the actual food, it’s no wonder that CHEFS has built up a regular clientele. I tried the fantastically seasoned and beautifully balanced steak tartare, which was made with hand-cut grass fed Angus fillet, cornichons and a slug of Jack Daniels, with a drizzle of homemade chilli and rosemary oil. Served alongside it was a salad with soft boiled eggs, chunky onion rings and a bowl of melba toast made from ciabatta.

Visit CHEFS for more information

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Farrel HirschRadisson RED