‘Young chefs know there is an alternative’

Chef Emile van der Staak of De Nieuwe Winkel opens a bottle to celebrate the Michelin stars for his restaurant.Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

‘Never before has Michelin rewarded our kind of restaurants so generously. We are practically vegan. That is the course for the future. And I see that Michelin endorses that. There is no other way. The big issues of our time come together on the board.’

Emile van der Staak (45), chef of the Nijmegen restaurant De Nieuwe Winkel, does not shy away from big words in Amsterdam’s DeLaMar Theater on Monday. But that’s not strange. A year after receiving his first Michelin star, the most influential restaurant recommendation, he will receive his second this afternoon.

Chefs from all over the country have swapped their chef jackets for chic jackets with pocket squares, shirts and summer loafers for the occasion. They are accompanied by the matre or the dressed up wife or girlfriend, because a top chef turns out to be a man almost without exception.

Competing restaurants are visited by Michelin inspectors several times throughout the year, always unannounced. In addition, in order to assess as accurately as possible, inspectors from several countries are exchanged. No surprises at the absolute top on Monday: the Librije (Zwolle) and Inter Scaldes (Kruiningen) remain the only restaurants in the Netherlands with three stars. They join the 137 establishments that according to Michelin are among the best restaurants in the world.

It is mainly the subtop that demands attention. Van der Staak (45) of De Nieuwe Winkel calls his second star incredibly important. ‘I come from a time when luxury restaurants served an endangered eel, or foie gras: a goose that was force-fed. Whoever served the largest langoustines received the most Michelin stars. That time is over. When you grow up as a young chef now, you know there is an alternative.’

food forest

The chef uses the slogan ‘less animals, more plants’. De Nieuwe Winkel gets about four hundred plants from a so-called food forest: a piece of land where some plants are carefully planted close to each other. If done correctly, you as a farmer can sit back and let nature do its job. Farming companies ‘without pesticides and by weeding nothing’, is what Van der Staak calls this.

Then making tasty food out of it is a challenge. ‘If you bake a steak, you have a great result within five minutes. But to get the same layered taste with plants, you have to put in a lot more effort.’ Since the opening in 2011, Van der Staak has been experimenting with, among other things, the fermentation process. Taking into account the Michelin stars, the chef now seems to be doing quite well.

De Nieuwe Winkel is not the only one to win the prize. Also an outlier is restaurant Flore from Amsterdam. It has been open for less than a year and immediately gets two stars. Cheering, chef Bas van Kranen (32) and colleagues storm the stage. Van Kranen immersed himself in the food chain during the pandemic and was shocked. ‘Overfishing, farmers exhausting the soil with their crops: I’ve been cooking for 17 years and I didn’t know that at all.’

Van Kranen made a radical choice under the name Flore. ‘Biodynamic cultivation’ became the magic word, whereby a certain crop is grown as little as possible on the same plot of land. Thanks to this diversity of crops, the soil becomes stronger and more fertile. Good for nature, but a challenge in the kitchen.

‘We cannot do such agriculture on a gigantic scale, so we have to cook with smaller quantities.’ To overcome this shortcoming, they devised a fifteen-course menu, with smaller dishes. ‘We get twenty portions from one cauliflower or fifty portions from a lamb.’

‘steady evolution’

Michelin’s chief inspector Werner Loens (60) calls Van der Staak’s preparation a phenomenon ‘which is being discussed all over Europe’, and which will soon be imitated ‘at world level’. He is also full of praise for Van Kranen’s concept. Yet he does not want to speak of a revolution among star restaurants, but of a ‘steady evolution’. ‘We see that more and more chefs are doing their best to compete for our ‘green star’, the designation whereby we put the spotlight on chefs who are developing gastronomy for the future.’

Loens expects the culinary landscape to look very different in ten to fifteen years. ‘When you interview young people, you see that sustainability is super important. Hotel schools are also fully engaged in it.’ Yet we must take into account ingrained habits. ‘My 21-year-old son encourages me to eat less meat. But I don’t know if I’ll ever go vegan. That’s not how I was raised.’

Van der Staak is also under no illusions. ‘We are dealing with a conservative world with accomplished chefs. They have their own style that they don’t just abandon. But draw the line and you will see that we are replacing fish and meat with alternatives that are just as tasty. That is what it will simply be about. We can talk endlessly about difficult topics such as biodiversity or sustainable agriculture. But in the future we also just want good food.’

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