Meet Chef Jonathan Van Der Merwe, whose journey from a childhood fascination with food to overseeing six successful restaurant locations is a testament to his passion and dedication.

Growing up in a household where cooking was a cherished family tradition, Chef Jonathan discovered early on the joy of bringing people together through food. His formal culinary education and early career in South Africa laid a solid foundation, but it was his insatiable curiosity and global experiences that truly defined his distinctive style.

Today, as a key figure in tashas cafe, Chef Jonathan upholds the brand’s high standards and unique identity, ensuring excellence across all their UAE locations.

In this exclusive interview, Chef Jonathan shares his most memorable career moments, the influence of his grandparents’ kitchen on his professional philosophy, and the challenges of transitioning to a leadership role.

Tell us about your culinary journey and what first evoked your interest in food?

My interest in the culinary arts sparked during my childhood. I’d often help my grandparents prepare various dishes and it felt so rewarding to bring happiness to people through food. Throughout my teenage years, I sought every opportunity to cook and worked part-time jobs as a student. Whether it was serving, preparation, or even getting to cook some of the dishes, I was happy to do it. I had caught the hospitality thrill! I took part in a two-year culinary arts diploma program after high school and during this time, I gained valuable experience through internships at renowned South African establishments such as Sun City and Roots Forum Homini. My final position in South Africa was a junior sous chef in a well-known Italian restaurant. After some time, I realised that I needed to expand my skill set and gain more knowledge. I found an opportunity to travel internationally and joined an airline as a chef – which gave me discounted tickets and more time off than what is typically offered in the hospitality industry. I took advantage of these benefits by travelling extensively, enrolling in cooking classes, and participating in working stages in various parts of the world whenever possible. After four years, I joined Tashas Group, where my knowledge and skills have grown significantly, and each day presents an opportunity for learning and personal development.


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As a chef, what has been the most memorable moment of your career?

A former scullery member of an establishment I had worked for messaged me after many years of no contact to express his gratitude for the time I spent training him. Because of that training, he pursued an education in the culinary arts and is now a successful chef. I didn’t realise at the time how significant that would be to him.

What according to you sets the food industry in the UAE apart from the rest of the world?

The rapid growth of the UAE has led to a highly competitive environment, encouraging establishments to continuously evolve and improve their offerings. The UAE is a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures, each of which contributes its unique knowledge and ingredients to the local cuisine. Finally, because of the country’s strategic location and access to ingredients from all over the world, it’s easier for chefs to experiment and create innovative dishes.

How do you ensure that the unique identity and high standards of tashas are maintained across all six UAE locations?

I am fortunate to have a dedicated team in each location who strive to maintain the high standards established by myself and our uncompromising culinary director. Our CEO and Founder, Natasha Sideris, has defined the essence of our brand. Our culinary philosophy revolves around timeless and classic dishes, emphasising the preparation of fresh-to-order meals using only the best ingredients, and I make sure to echo this ideology to our team. I ensure that all our locations have access to the best products available, and we continuously invest in training and development across all our locations.

By cultivating strong relationships with our suppliers, we receive the first choice of the highest quality products – the “cream of the crop,” as one might say. These are just a few examples of the daily systems we have in place to consistently meet our high standards. I also make it a point to personally conduct regular spot checks across our six locations to ensure that even the smallest details are not overlooked. Small details like ranging from the specific way we slice our tomatoes to how we handle delicate micro herbs.


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How have the culinary traditions and practices you observed in your grandparents’ kitchen influenced your professional cooking style and philosophy?

I frequently draw inspiration from the flavours and techniques of my childhood when creating dishes. Of course, I combine this knowledge with other culinary experiences I have gained over time, but the essence of my dishes and the inspiration behind them often stems from that. For example, a relish we serve on our hot dogs is actually a slightly modified recipe I learned from my grandparents. My grandfather was a very methodical person, and I believe I have inherited this trait from him and applied it in my culinary philosophy.

What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your stages at Michelin-starred restaurants like Nahm and your experiences in New York and South Korea?

In Nahm, I learned a great deal about balancing flavours and the versatility of ingredients. When we use an ingredient, we utilised every part of it. For instance, with coriander, the stem was used to create a stock for steaming fish, while the leaves were chopped or kept whole and incorporated into sauces, curries, or as a garnish. The roots were cleaned, ground, and used in curries and sauces – nothing went to waste.

While New York was an intensely competitive culinary landscape, it exposed me to contemporary techniques. South Korea introduced a plethora of novel flavours to my palate and ingredients I had previously perceived as exclusively savoury could be incorporated into certain sweets and desserts. I also acquired the art of fermentation and the skill of balancing dishes within complementary elements. For example, a pickled radish might be served alongside something spicy and sticky to counteract its richness.


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What was the most challenging aspect of transitioning from a sous chef to overseeing all six tashas locations in the UAE, and how did you overcome it?

It’s more convenient to manage operations when you are physically present at the store on a daily basis. However, overseeing six locations simultaneously made it challenging for me to personally supervise all the preparations and dishes at once. Being a perfectionist, I initially faced difficulties from the lack of control I had over certain aspects. However, I overcame this by improving myself, and my leadership abilities, and by empowering others to mirror my standards and utilise their unique skills – which collectively contributed to our overall improvement.

Can you share an example of a dish or menu item you developed that reflects both your personal culinary journey and the ethos of tashas?

Our prawn pasta is a unique and unconventional dish that deviates from traditional pasta preparations. It features a delightful balance of spicy and tangy flavours, complemented by the sweetness of stracciatella cheese that cuts through the richness and spice. The prawns are seasoned with a special blend of spices that impart a depth of flavour, and cooking them over high heat creates a textural contrast between the crispy exterior and juicy interior. The dish is enhanced by a lemon and herb crumb that adds layer of texture. Despite all of the flavours and textures, the dish harmonises well with five other tashas dishes on the table, staying true to our philosophy of using the finest ingredients to create dishes that are full of flavour.

How did your travels as an airline chef and your exploration of local markets around the world shape your palate and culinary repertoire?

It was an eye-opening experience, I was able to truly savour and appreciate the dishes and ingredients from different cultures. I was very curious to sample everything, which broadened my palate and enhanced my ability to achieve harmonious flavour combinations.

How does your fascination with space and physics influence your work as a chef, if at all, and do you find any parallels between the two fields?

Gastronomy is the scientific study of food. Understanding the impact of protein content in flour on the final product, calculating the necessary hydration levels, and recognizing the significance of the autolyse period in dough-making are all scientific processes. It’s primarily a combination of biology and chemistry. My curiosity helps me comprehend the processes that lead to the creation of a beautiful sourdough.

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