Two years ago, chef Kirk Westaway posted a picture on Instagram of a colleague eating lunch on a bucket in Jaan’s kitchen. It garnered close to 3,500 likes back then, but blew up again in May this year when fellow chef, Matthew Arezki, posted the same image on his Facebook page.
Arezki's post saw over 89,000 reactions and 75,000 shares, and has been circulated widely on platforms like Reddit. It sparked widespread debate on kitchen culture, with many cooks sharing how they have a sadomasochistic relationship with their jobs.
“This picture really hit home with me,” writes Arezki. “I cook over 1,000 plates a week for people to enjoy dinner with their families and friends and this is how I usually eat dinner – like this or hunched over a garbage can.”
Jaan by Kirk Westaway
It’s no secret that behind the glamorous illusion fine dining presents, chefs work 90-hour weeks, usually for low pay, and often face verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse from both their mentors and customers. Westaway's picture struck a cord and shows just how gruelling the life of a chef can be. He's no stranger to this lifestyle either. “In London, I was in the kitchen at 6am and left at 1am. The days were long and hard, then there’s a two-hour bus ride to get home.”
While these working conditions might sound like special kind of hell to the rest of us, chefs aren’t forced to put up with it. “It’s an addiction,” says Westaway. “You learn so much, so quickly. When I was 14 working at a pub in my hometown, I learned how to make fresh pasta, how to make hollandaise, how to cook meat and how to break down a hind quarter of beef.” He also used to work at his neighbourhood butcher for free to absorb as much information about food as he could. “This is what addiction means – like that guy who sat on the trashcan – it’s not because he was forced to, it’s because he wants to.”
White asparagus, a new dish on Jaan's Reinventing British spring menu
When he first took over Jaan back in 2015 – which used to be helmed by Julien Royer who now owns Odette – the pressure felt insurmountable. “Julien is an incredible French chef and he built Jaan to a very high level,” says Westaway. “Now, the boy from Devon is going to take over – English boy, good luck. He’s going to be a disaster. Jaan’s going to fail.” But he took that negativity in his stride. “When everyone’s expectations are for you to crash and burn, you have two choices: you either accept defeat and let them be right or you prove them all wrong.”
For the next six months, Westaway cut off all contact with the rest of the world and focused on work. “I didn’t see my friends, I lost my girlfriend, I didn’t talk to my family,” he recalls. “I slept under the table by the window with my chef’s jacket as a pillow. I’d be here all day, practising new dishes before sleeping for a couple of hours. Then, I’d wash my face and start again.”
Chef Kirk Westaway (middle) and his team
Today, Jaan is no longer a French restaurant. It is the only modern British restaurant in Asia and Westaway’s Reinventing British menu has earned the praise of diners and critics alike. It’s ranked 32nd on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 (up from 44th last year) and has a Michelin star. “The response has been above and beyond. I think it’s an obvious sign to everyone that if you believe in something, do it. Everyone’s still shocked, we get lots of French customers coming in and saying, ‘you’re good for an English’, and I say, ‘well, thanks very much’.”
The restaurant also officially changes its names on June 3 to Jaan by Kirk Westaway – a testament to the faith the Swissôtel The Stamford has in the 34-year-old chef. “For me it’s a natural evolution. I’ve been in the hotel for seven years now, which was never the plan. This what I want to do – I want to change the name, and grow and develop it more. I’ve already got my name on the door, but now it’s going be a bit more official.”