Joris Bijdendijk wants to talk about madness.“So how about this for a paradox?” asks the 33-year-old chef as he sips an espresso in a brief respite before the lunchtime service at his Michelin-starred Amsterdam restaurant, Rijks. “Ninety-five per cent of our cockles are exported to Spain yet almost all of the cockles we use in the Netherlands are imported from Italy. It’s beyond crazy. Thank goodness it’s now beginning to change!”
Bijdendijk’s cockle issue is just one of many battles faced by a new generation of Dutch chefs, all trying to overturn decades of international, and often even domestic, indifference to the natural larder of the Netherlands.
Thanks to the likes of Instagram, which can turn a trend viral in seconds, and the ubiquity of street food markets in virtually every global city, our collective culinary vocabulary has expanded beyond all recognition in the past decade. Today, foodies across the world are just as familiar with Peruvian empanadas as Filipino adobo. Yet Dutch cuisine has remained remarkably resistant to the social media brigade.
This might just be all about to change. There’s no Williamsburg or Brixton-esque ’hoods chock full of neo-Dutch cooking as yet. But look hard in a few discreet corners of Amsterdam and beyond, and you’ll find a growing number of young food heroes who are striving to put Dutch food on the map. From Bolenius, with its brave attempt to create a menu with 80 per cent native vegetables and 20 per cent fish or meat, to De Kas, which is based in a former greenhouse in Amsterdam and where the menu is decided each day depending on what produce is ready to be picked from the ground, there’s a new focus on the best of Dutch produce. Scheepskameel, Bak and Reuring all follow this same mantra in a slightly different way, each offering their own interpretation of “new Dutch” cuisine.
“For so long we all thought top cuisine could only be French,” says Bijdendijk, “so I went there and was trained classically. It’s like going to a top music school to learn an instrument. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the problem was that Dutch chefs would get their produce from France as well. It’s crazy as we have so much in our rivers, seas and soil. Identity in terms of Dutch cuisine starts here for me, using what we have to create dishes.”
A large part of the culinary identity of the Netherlands comes from its colonial past. Having Indonesia as a territory for 150 years until 1949 means that it’s difficult to spend too long in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague without encountering restaurants serving up beef rendang and nasi goreng. Yet the seductive flavours of the former Dutch East Indies had an unexpected side-effect, namely they suppressed the development of European Dutch cuisine. But no more – as a visit to Bijdendijk’s truly remarkable Michelin-starred Rijks restaurant, a notably unfussy blond wood and black leather, buzzy and breezy space located in the Rijksmuseum, reveals.
The tasting menu experience is akin to being strapped into a sports car for a journey through the hairpin corners of native produce. Confit of pike perch served with cabbage salad, eel and smoked bell pepper is typically unctuous and the cauliflower with dashi, sourdough and smoked butter is a genuine game changer as to just what silky, resonant taste highs can be reached with such relatively humble ingredients. It’s a noticeable trend among the new wave of Dutch chefs: a resistance to using luxurious ingredients and an aversion to the world of molecular gastronomy with its concomitant fizzes, foams and dubious alchemy.
“Some of the chefs are becoming pop stars at the moment, but we’re Dutch so, of course, we don’t show off about it too much,” says Champ Bouwman, an ambassador for Dutch Food and Cuisine, an organisation set up by the Dutch government to begin the Herculean task of improving awareness of the food and drink of the Netherlands.
“There’s strong evidence to show that after the financial crisis began to abate, people started to eat out more, especially in the big Dutch cities,” explains Bouwman. “Alongside that, the Dutch are also more and more interested in the origin of products and the way chefs prepare these. We have ‘hobby chef’ TV programmes, one of which my partner and I competed in, and this combination of a little more money and a little more media can often be enough to begin the changes.”
These subtle shifts are a theme that intrigues 30-year-old Guillaume de Beer, chef and co-founder of Breda, one of a trio of Amsterdam restaurants he runs with his 29-year-old partner Freek van Noortwijk. “Maybe it’s something about our character that’s reflected in what we cook,” opines De Beer.
“Maybe it’s a lack of pretence,” adds Van Noortwijk. “I hate that device of putting 10 different luxury ingredients on a plate. Some chefs show off by using foie gras, truffles and caviar on dishes, and it just becomes a mess. Actually, relying on these ingredients can make for a really un-exciting experience. The luxury is not the choice of the products but the hands of the chef. If you have the right hands then who needs caviar? The potato will be enough.”
If you have the right hands then who needs caviar? The potato will be enough
The two friends are sitting with me inside the small, long, dining room of Breda, named after their hometown. We’re in the canal-, cobble- and bicycle-strewn centre of Amsterdam, but it would be easy to walk past the bijou entrance of the restaurant without having any clue as to what innovations are going on within.
“Dutch food was boring when I was growing up,” continues De Beer. “Potatoes, sausages and vegetables was about it. And it’s still like that in some restaurants. But the change is slowly coming. I love meat balls and gravy and veggies on the side. But there’s an appetite for more coming through. It’s not that easy to create an extra dimension to a potato. It’s easier to do it with some tuna imported from Sri Lanka. So you can’t be lazy to cook our way, you have to innovate.”
Dressed in T-shirt and jeans, and with a winning casualness that utterly belies the craft and labour behind the dishes, the duo brings out a steady stream of knock-out creations: Dutch mussels with wild fennel and cornflower. A deep and soulful soup of beef bone marrow with chervil and celery oil. And, most memorably, guinea fowl pickled in an oil of hay and orange, served with puffed pearl barley and garlic flowers.
The dining room, all rough-hewn woods, simple white tablecloths and large, canal-facing windows, has a spare conviviality to it which could have been lifted straight from a Vermeer street scene. As the duo remind me, the farm-to- table concept has always been part of Dutch cooking, and the ingredients are nothing novel.
“It’s more about reawakening,” says Van Noortwijk. “It’s realising that, after a long sleep, everything we need to make Dutch cuisine interesting was there all along.”
The land outside the major Dutch cities is undergoing changes that, while all but unknown to the outside world, are indicative of even more profound changes in the relationship between the Netherlands and its own soil. Driverless tractors, 70-hectare greenhouses, quadcopter drones are all regular sights on Dutch farms as, incredibly, this tiny country is the second-largest exporter of food in the world. A grouping of agricultural tech start-ups known as Food Valley, mixing economics and science, has resulted in Dutch farmers reducing their water consumption by up to 90 per cent and producing more tomatoes per hectare than anywhere else on the planet.
Wildly impressive as all this innovation is, how does it actually translate to dinner time outside the chic bistros of Amsterdam? A solid two-hour drive later and I’m sat inside Restaurant De Kromme Watergang in the miniscule village of Slijkplaat as the wind-blasted province of Zeeland gets all but eviscerated by the storm bellowing and raging outside. Edwin Vinke, head chef and founder of this restaurant on the Netherlands coast, has dealt with these turbulent conditions all his life.
For me the sea is so important that 90 per cent of our menu is built on it
“As a kid we grew up at the beach, always searching for crabs, wrinkles, shrimps, fishing on the coast. For me the sea is so important that 90 per cent of our menu is built on it. I remember when I was growing up, in the evening we took our catch of the day home and we sat around the table with the whole family. I was so proud of the product we caught that I didn’t taste the sand that was in the shells and scales.”
There’s certainly no sign of sand or scales in the dishes Vinke serves today in this former schoolhouse, now a beguiling retro retreat in hues of chocolate, cream and toffee with dining chairs as big as business class airline seats and waiters who have mastered the art of combining the discreet with the taciturn. It’s rare to taste food that feels so connected to the soil, the water and the air. Earthy without being frugal, the ingredients here, in the hands of Vinke, are allowed to sing, be they pigeon with sweet carrot puree, slow-cooked cod with marinated razor clams or slow-cooked tender weever fish served with cockles. Yep, cockles – those molluscs that so vex Bijdendijk back in Amsterdam.
“Of course, our cockles are local,” laughs the chef, stopping by our table as the storm outside begins to subside and watery sunshine fills the restaurant. “It’s really important that the food you make reflects your personality. I never look at another chef because I want to design my own dishes, put in my own rock and roll. The best compliment a chef can get is that customers tell you your food is good and has its own style.”
Vinke may not spend much time with his fellow new-wave chefs in his Michelin-starred outpost. But his words remind me of something Bijdendijk mentioned in passing back in Amsterdam. It was a remark that seemed to condense everything about how the Dutch character, humble, fun-loving yet unafraid of graft, has entwined itself, intentionally or not, in one of the least known, yet most exciting new food movements in Europe: “It’s not about me. It’s about Holland. I want Dutch people to be proud and for people beyond the borders to be impressed. This is my goal. Embrace the cheese and the herring but know we have so, so much more.”
Rob was a guest at Hotel De Hallen where doubles start from $100 per night