From the Tuesday after the bankruptcy is finalised, I will be cooking for a month. I have to change the whole menu right away. Not just because I think it could be better, but also to make sure we cook what I am good at. Early in the afternoon, I go upstairs and get an explanation of how the oven works. The oven, it turns out, is to a kitchen what a circular saw is to a workshop. Much of what goes on the plate has been prepared in advance and is heated for a few minutes. The oven is next to two large steel doors with a lifting beam that used to be used to lift raw materials and machinery upstairs. The alarm clocks we use are magnetic and stick against the steel doors. The same evening, there’s a lot of beeping and the oven is used as if I’ve never done anything else. The first few days always go by without things really going wrong. I think it is beginner’s luck and accept it without worrying about it.
Following the bankruptcy blog, dozens of friends have offered to help. Robert actually comes up with the best offer. He appends the dates on when he can come and help and it involves almost all Fridays and Saturdays of the coming month and he can come and work on other days too if necessary in consultation. He has a lot of experience in the professional kitchen (hence perhaps his hands-on approach). Robert is actually a friend of Steef’s; they studied at art school together. Since we make pâtés together, we are also friends. His biggest love is cooking and writing cooking stories. With those stories, he will be fine for the next month.
Besides the fact that I have not offered some of the staff a job, there are also some who no longer want to come to work. Doortje is ill and basically only Bram is still there. He is a Design Academy student and normally only works in the weekends, but since he just has a few months between studies, he can work full-time. Roos and Geertje mainly help in the kitchen and with serving. They actually always help me when I cook for large groups and know my dishes and way of cooking, which makes them immediately employable. I ask Linda (she worked with us during DDW, has a lot of experience and completed the Design Academy) to handle the service alongside and with Bram. The shop team, which I say I exploit for everything I just can’t figure out, also now fills the gaps in the schedule. The number of people wanting to come and help is huge, but in reality it is quite difficult to put in someone with no experience for just one evening. I find out, when I work with Arjo who has been with us for years but now only does lunch, through trial and error that even with experience it is almost impossible if you don’t know the menu to make yourself useful in the kitchen. When I am in the kitchen with Arjo and Marina, who is in this kitchen for the first time and still has to learn everything, I completely flunk out. Not because of understaffing, but because I hadn’t realised that you do have to know which dish goes on which plate, what the vegetables are for and that you can’t remember all that at once. It will be the most stressful evening in ages. Fortunately, I can say and think it’s due to my amateurism.
Arjo indicated almost immediately that he had applied for a job following the bankruptcy and was probably leaving. Unlike some of his colleagues, he will “just keep working” to start work somewhere else at the end of the month. It looks like it is going to be something of a resounding disaster; of all the kitchen staff, only Gabriel is left. You could also say, thank goodness Gaby is still around. He turns out to be hugely committed and promises to support me. Gaby is also a Design Academy student and I offered him a job as a favour, without ever having spoken to him, so that he can pay for his studies. Not exactly a procedure an HR manager would have prided himself on, but perhaps one of the best decisions of my career in terms of staffing.
Even help with the dishes does not prove too easy to fit in, as the dishwasher has a particular flaw. If the machine is not closed in one go, which happens when a handle or something else sticks out, the washing-up water sprays through the kitchen. You’d say, just pay attention, but people who haven’t experienced it once make this mistake especially when it’s busy and you can do without a water splashing. Helping cutting turns out to be no mean feat either, as I make demands for thickness, length and even taking into account how something grows! (which is why Roos and Geertje do get by).
Of all the offers for people to come and help, there are some that we might be able to do something with. Oddly enough, this is mainly about reputation, networking and whether the person who wants to help can also cook (something). We are organising a great evening with Joost van Bleiswijk where we are more than fully booked. Merlijn Amaro from restaurant Bitter in Rotterdam, a professional, is coming to cook for two evenings. I am in the kitchen together with Merlijn. He has prepared everything perfectly, so we have plenty of time to chat. We have all sorts of ideas, especially about a festival-style meal for the upcoming DDW. The Friday before, Joost, one of our best carpenters, makes pizzas (he spent two weeks in Napoli learning how to do that), and to conclude, Maarten Baas and Ezgi Turksoy come and cook. Robert helps out almost every night. The common denominator of the evenings is that we are fully booked and around the time it is supposed to start, things seem to go wrong, but then things work out fine. The evening with Roderick and Claire Vos and Marico and Quinta in the service goes as we did expect; as festive as it is chaotic. There is a lively atmosphere and I experience, not for the first time, that it works very well when you link the energy and network of others to your own or to your venue. The concept I have in mind of offering chef’s dinner in the Lobby Restaurant from the moment we open the Grand Café down the street could perhaps be extended to the idea of offering others the opportunity to cook with us. “Chef in residence” could also be possible, as we have created a beautiful studio adjacent to the restaurant in the Wonder Room. More and more, I am thinking about continuing to cook to interact with the team and guests. That would fit in perfectly with the concept of having different chefs cooking all the time.
The departure of Arjo, the last of the old crew, initially feels like an almost insurmountable problem, but it also offers the advantage of being able to put the past behind us and really change everything that needs changing. As it turns out, there are quite a few habits that I don’t agree with at all. There is excessive and overpriced ordering, a lot of waste, a lack of tidiness and organisation and a lot of time spent cooking for staff. Cooking separately for staff makes sense when there is a large team working as there used to be, but now with a compact team, the loss of time and also space on the cooker is counterproductive. Instead of changing it immediately, I discuss with Gaby that it is illogical, but wait for Arjo’s departure. For ordering, I follow the same path; I express my frustration at the over-stocking and waste to create awareness. The first week we tidy up the kitchen and the refrigerator and freezer, and from then on we constantly work on organising and cleaning better. The complaints about the limited space in the kitchen and that you couldn’t work there were mainly related, as I thought, to a lack of organisation and skill. I kept saying that there are restaurants with half such a kitchen that make more than double the number of covers, so it cannot be a problem. If you are short of space, there shouldn’t be stuff you don’t use and you shouldn’t make dishes with lots of ingredients! After a week or two we pretty much have the kitchen sorted out in terms of logistics, after that it only gets better.
Because of the attention and perhaps also because I started doing my own cooking, we are getting more job applicants than before. The team made up almost entirely of Design Academy students is attracting even more employees from the academy. The employees who are still there set the standard, so commitment is high and the atmosphere is good. We’re doing the same work with a third of the staff and what couldn’t be done before the bankruptcy turns out to be going very well. During off-peak hours, all kinds of organisational matters are also taken up. The main thing is that the people who are still there feel commitment and want to solve things. If there is a problem and we discuss it, it is then solved. A 100% difference from the way things were before the bankruptcy.
Doortje has been ill for several weeks now and has been unresponsive to phone calls and has not responded to e-mails. E-mailing is not really her thing anyway which I actually find a sympathetic and good trait, but not always useful. The team with Linda and Bram is starting to work out, actually it might be better if Doortje doesn’t come back. We agreed anyway that she wouldn’t get any more organisational tasks because they don’t make her happy, but now I doubt whether it would be wise to ask her to step up once more. It is nice and positive now, but it has always been that way and each time it has slowly but surely faltered. The thought of the old crew was with the old restaurant down the street, a kind of nostalgic feeling which perhaps got in the way of the development of the lobby restaurant. We now have to move forward with fresh energy and I don’t feel that Doortje is feeling well. She has not accepted the job I offered her after being laid off because of the bankruptcy and in fact has not responded at all. She is really sick, but by now I think she is hesitant and that is why she is not responding. I send her a message writing that I assume she is declining my offer because she is not responding, but that she can always talk to me about it. A few days later, I hear that she doesn’t actually want to abandon us and has indeed come to the conclusion that despite this, she can’t bring herself to do it all again. I am relieved that I judged my relationship with her and her feelings correctly. Over the past few years, I have asked too much of her and she has always been on her toes, but fortunately this has not led to any problems between us. Meanwhile, she is busy doing what she really likes. Working in the hospitality industry, like so many others, has almost organically evolved from side job to full-time job.
Doing my own cooking
The chef I am in contact with through Wouter is cancelling because he realises that Eindhoven is a long way away and he won’t see his boyfriend much when he joins us full time. Fortunately, we do get some applications for the kitchen, but they cannot start right away. So a month of cooking will be stretched, hoping to complete the whole process in 3 months. I enjoy it immensely and keep it up easily. That’s actually incorrectly worded; I enjoy it and get energy from it, the thought of persevering is mainly fuelled by concerns from people around me (especially friends) who think it’s all way too much. I experience a day with the transition from drawing and managing in the office in the morning to going upstairs to cook in the afternoon as a kind of half-day at work with a lot of intense exercise afterwards. And as with sports, you sometimes dread it, but it’s always nice afterwards. Meanwhile, it turns out that my worry about my right knee being worn out is unfounded. Instead of becoming increasingly painful, which I feared, it is actually getting better! The alternation of office work and standing and not walking too much is actually proving positive. And unlike at home where when I start cooking I open a bottle of wine to start, now I don’t drink anything. Whether that is necessarily healthy, I do not know, I have never been ill before and am not now, but I have lost a few kilos. Cooking is also new, something I can’t do and am not used to, so very challenging. After a week of cooking, I noticed that I keep having a queasy feeling in my stomach. At first I think it is due to a lack of food, but then I remember that when I was a kid, just before Sinterklaas, I felt the same way. Martien, our old chef, told me that before the evening begins, he still has that. It’s a kind of match stress, in other words.
Wouter on the phone
When I have been cooking for a few weeks and peace has returned, I have Wouter on the phone. He tells me that he was asked to contribute to a book on the occasion of a professor’s retirement and sent in my blog. The perspective of someone going bankrupt is not actually highlighted in the professional literature and he thinks it is well written. The piece has already been accepted and he is going to write a commentary to it before publication. The question is whether I give my permission for that and also whether I want to come and speak at a conference. My blog about the bankruptcy, which has become a kind of diary, creates a totally unexpected development. I give my permission and agree to come and speak, mainly because Wouter has helped me so much and because it’s a bit bizarre; speaking at a congress completely out of my comfort zone about something I know least of all about!
We are still discussing how unexpectedly positive the bankruptcy turned out to be; the costs were very limited due to the chosen trajectory. All debts are gone and the debts to my own companies are now deductible. Only the staff I want to continue with and those that want to continue with me are still working, we don’t have to pay a few months’ wage tax and pension and holiday pay and time, and the corona debts and related accountants’ fees are also gone. In addition, all suppliers are paid; there are actually hardly any victims.
The only thing I am not entirely happy about is that, due to the pace of the process, but perhaps also because it could hardly be any other way, not all the staff left satisfied. It’s a bitter thought that despite everyone trying so hard, it didn’t work out. Because hardly anyone functioned well, you could argue that it was down to the management. I did not manage to put together a well-functioning team, nor did I manage to complete the bankruptcy to everyone’s satisfaction.
The trustee’s investigation is yet to be completed. One of the remaining points is that administration is still being audited. Something can always transpire there, according to Wouter, because the companies are intertwined, but the accountant says everything is in order in that area too. The emotions that come up with the word “bankruptcy” determine how people react and what they think. I see it more as a way out when there are no more prospects. So that negative feeling is true, but it is actually about the period before bankruptcy. The open and positive way we communicate about the bankruptcy not only leads to us being offered a lot of help and more people than before wanting to come to work, but also leads to special requests. We are asked to collaborate on Foodtube, a channel that shows videos of chefs. I get a place among not the smallest cooks with my video “the rescuing octopus”.
Salone del Mobile 2023
My days start in the morning at the office. I draw and organise a lot and during the afternoon I go upstairs to prepare dinner. Fortunately, with the production company, which is the most extensive, we experienced an absolute low a few years ago and things are now better than ever (which is not to say that things are easy or good, by the way). Sales are good and production is reasonably good. Most importantly, there is a fairly widespread awareness that we are a production company and need to make sure we actually produce! That sounds logical, but it takes effort almost daily to get everyone’s noses in the same direction. Routine without urgency is like a spiral downwards. Since I have hardly been involved in sales for some time now – Nard and the shop do that – I actually have quite some time on my hands. I already drew the collection we are showing at the Salone about six months ago, even including the plans for the DDW at that time. So this year, for the first time, we started reasonably on time and my absence, because I am cooking, is not a problem. Gaby, with whom I have now spent so many hours in the kitchen and who is actually much more skilled and can also by now dream all the dishes, makes sure the kitchen just keeps running when I am in Milan! He even does more, as there is a group that I was actually supposed to show around and cook for that he now takes care of. As always, we are at Rossana Orlandi’s on the top floor. The place is hard to find, but as far as we are concerned the best in Milan. Despite the constant fears of crisis, it appears once again that there is no shortage of money in the world. Sales are good and there is a lot of interest in the unique pieces we show.
Over six months ago, I was approached to collaborate on a cookbook. Ico Rheenen had been on holiday in Mavaleix and because of the kitchen there, he concluded that I must like cooking and that it might be a nice idea to make a book together. This whole adventure might well influence the content and whether or not the book is published.
The week after the bankruptcy was very busy with sightseers, but after that it has not been very busy. The nights we organise something are very busy, but not very many people come to see me cooking the food myself. I doubt whether everyone likes it. In any case, a critic, of which there are quite a few, will think beforehand that my cooking performance won’t amount to much. After all, I am not a professional! We have some regular hotel guests who eat often and even invite people over, so they appreciate what we make. In recent weeks, we have started to develop new dishes and we use the guests as guinea pigs by giving them appetisers as an interlude. They are then allowed or required to give advice and comments.
It’s actually a great thing that we didn’t move to the Grand Café with the team that wasn’t up to it, because now I have the opportunity to work in the restaurant myself. The dishes are mine and I can guide the process and set the direction. Robert has already said several times that he thinks the simplicity of the dishes suits my work very well and that is very different from how dishes are usually cooked in restaurants, but that it is special and fits in a restaurant nonetheless. So contrary to what many people think, I experience this period as very positive. If we look back in a year or two, the conclusion may be that bankruptcy, but especially getting behind the cooker myself, proved to be essential for fully understanding and integrating gastronomy into the overall concept.
Cooking is energising and fun, but happens on all days of the week except Monday. My birthday falls on Saturday this year, ideal you would say, but since the cooking problem has not yet been solved, I am now cooking for the second month, I have to get behind the cooker on Saturday too! I am pondering a plan to celebrate my birthday anyway. Can it be on King’s Day or on Monday (when we are closed)? Steef doesn’t think either day is such a good idea, so I have to think of something else. I still have just under a week left and should get the invitations out by now. Last years, I sent out invitations a day or two in advance. That didn’t matter much, because during the now almost forgotten corona period no one had anything to do anyway and everyone was ready for a little fun in the spring. In bed at night, I had an idea; on my birthday I always cook for my friends, so why not just cook for the restaurant’s guests as well as my friends now, I’m cooking anyway. Actually, it is not compatible and will be chaos, but despite an endless series of possible problems, I like the thought. Then again, I need Robert’s help and fortunately he is able and willing.
I send a convoluted email (I do that every year) with the invitation. About 50 friends will come. We will make pasta with asparagus as our main course. I came up with this some time ago when a vegetarian friend came to have dinner with us. The dish is a pasta with an asparagus sauce and mashed egg (the classic and recognisable element). Very tasty and suitable for large groups. I actually want tasty tagliatelle so I text Dennis in Helmond late Friday night, he has been making the gnocchi and pasta for us for a few months now. In the morning, I see some deleted messages. I send a text message saying I’m sorry for ordering so late, but it’s my birthday and only at the last minute thought it would be great if we could serve his fresh pasta! He replies that he’s already made it!
Fortunately, there are not too many guests in the restaurant. Things mix up a bit, first Robert and I take care of the guests and then the friends. It will be another evening where you would expect problems beforehand and it goes almost flawlessly.
It was an intense day, because in the afternoon we had the funeral of Piet Bergman (he worked with us a long time ago and became Piet because I am older). He orchestrated his own funeral, it was phenomenal. Piet was or is a friend, he was special and did special things. For the first time I experienced a funeral in which I became fully aware in the moment of what I already knew and felt. Piet’s funeral was his last gift to us and life in general, his exceptional and bizarre quality became really clear almost for the first time and forever etched in my memory. In the evening, I have to give a speech (these days I am prodded to say something anyway). I talk briefly about the funeral, but am also inspired. Everyone may think, despite me proclaiming something completely different, that it is terrible that I have to start cooking because I am bankrupt, but I like it and have fun doing it. I ask the question Pietje asked in a recorded interview on cassette recorder; Maybe you better ask yourself first if you are doing what makes you happy!
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