One of the things that sets Abelana River Lodge apart is its amazing food, thanks to head chef Juan Louis Kruger, known affectionately as “JL”. Born in Germiston and raised in Boksburg on Johannesburg’s busy East Rand, 28-year-old JL fell in love with food aged 12 when he used to help his mum in the kitchen, preparing recipes handed down by his German grandmother.
“I developed an absolute passion for it, and knew it was something I wanted to be involved with when I left school,” JL recalls. “My whole family loves food and I have some of my grandmother’s old recipes from her cookbook which I translated from German,” he says.
After completing his matric he attended renowned chef school Capsicum Culinary Studio, where he studied for two years, receiving his international diploma and coming top in his class. From there, JL walked into his first job as a professional chef, working at a local conference and event centre where he spent the first two years of his career learning all aspects of working in a kitchen.
“I was then invited to join the team at King’s Camp in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve as a commis chef and jumped at the opportunity,” he says. “It was a drastic change moving from the urban jungle to the bush, but I loved it on sight and enjoyed being in such a beautiful environment, surrounded by wildlife,” adds JL.
After three years he had worked his way up to sous chef and then got the opportunity to move to the Western Cape to work at top Stellenbosch restaurants Overture and Mont Marie, before moving back to the Lowveld to join the team at Zest restaurant in Nelspruit as head chef.
“Then, at the start of this year, I was approached to come and join the team here at Abelana River Lodge,” says JL. “I arrived towards the end of the construction process at the start of February 2020 and began to put everything together in the kitchen, which was one of the first things to be operational at Abelana River Lodge. It was amazing to be able to have the opportunity to work in a new kitchen with all new equipment.
“We put everything together from scratch and we’ve created an amazing kitchen here. It’s definitely one of the best kitchens I have ever worked in. It’s large and well-designed, with enough space for the whole team to work. All of the equipment is brand new and top-of-the-range,” says JL.
“There’s still a lot of equipment we haven’t had the chance to use yet, so we can’t wait to re-open and start creating magic in here for our guests! We’ve also got amazing pots and pans, like my personal favourites – a range of Le Creuset enamelled cast iron casseroles, which I absolutely love.”
JL has used lockdown as an opportunity to hone and refine his skills and develop a great team. “I have a wonderful sous chef in Thabiso Luthuli who is quickly becoming my right-hand (and left-hand) man,” he laughs. “We work closely with the local Mashishimale community here at Abelana Game Reserve and around 70% of my kitchen staff come from the community as a result,” he adds. “I am training them and it’s great to be giving back,” he says. “For some, this is their first job, so it’s a privilege to be able to teach them from the ground up.”
JL believes in the philosophy of encouraging local businesses and entrepreneurs so is also working closely with local suppliers, like butchers and citrus farmers. “We get all of our citrus from a citrus farm in the area, and at the moment have amazing grapefruit from them, which is wonderful,” he says.
“I take a lot of inspiration from the old times,” says JL. “My gran taught me how to make my own cornflour, which I still do to this day, hand grinding it in a mortar and pestle. I prefer to make things myself where I can rather than buy them in. I am teaching my team to make things from fresh, like croissants, pastries and breads, because the fresher it is, the better it is. I am going to start my own herb garden soon and we are going to be sourcing vegetables and other fresh produce from the local community, helping them with starting up gardening tunnels,” he adds.
Apart from his gran, JL’s foodie heroes are British chefs and restaurateurs Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. “I love watching their cooking shows and seeing how they create amazing dishes, although I will NEVER speak to my team the way they do,” he laughs.
“I love the pressure in a busy kitchen and the adrenaline it provides. It’s what keeps me on the top of my game.” Does JL have a signature dish? “Absolutely,” he smiles. “Pork belly – marinated and slow braised, with the fat scored and salted so it gets nice and crispy,” he says. “I also love cooking lamb shank, but pork belly is my best! I’m very creative and give recipes my own twist. I encourage my team to do the same, after all, when it comes to food, you have to love what you do and lead by example.”