Emile van der Staak
Emile van der Staak is the chef of ‘De Nieuwe Winkel’ in Nijmegen.
Awesome: the second place in the top 100 of best vegetable restaurants in the world! Ever had dinner at the winner?
‘On the night of the awardshow in Luxembourg I sat down with René Mathieu from ‘La Distellerie’. That was a special experience; his restaurants is so innovative. You have dinner inside of a castle, as if that’s not special enough. Everything you can expect from a two star restaurant was present: the cutlery, the linnen, the crystal. Even the classic dishes, except that they are almost fully vegan. That was hard to put together in my head. I associate vegetable preparations in top gastronomy with innovation; this is a completely different style. But I have to say: eating with him has broadened my outlook on it.’
De Nieuwe Winkel has a ‘regular’ and ‘green’ Michelin star: do you have more foreign guests now?
“Not that, but maybe that’s because of the pandemic and the restrictions in place. I do notice that there is more attention for us, that those stars are a catalyst. This year, for example, I was invited to an event with green star chefs in the Dolomites. At an altitude of 2275 metres, we cooked in a restaurant with a 180-degree view on the theme of sustainability.’
You pick in organic gardens and in the Ketelbroek food forest in Groesbeek. Does initiator/botanist Wouter van Eck always come along?
“Wouter is indispensable. To determine whether something is safe to eat, but also to focus. He is of decisive value. Ketelbroek is not a fairytale forest where you go picking; Walter decides where you can go. Together we make a trip and harvest what is available at that time. Of course I know much more than I used to – I am constantly gaining new insights – but it remains a separate profession, that of a botanist.’
Why Rungis? For products from afar?
Rungis complements the garden. We work together with three organic gardens. If the supply stops, a crate of fennel from another Dutch grower or from Italy is also fine. For our non-alcoholic arrangement we use, for example, aronia berries. When they run out, Rungis can help with their producer JanisFarm. The condition is that we collect products that grow in our climate; that is what our kitchen focuses on. Wouter’s Food Forest alone contains more than 400 different species of perennial edible plants from all over the world. We live in climate zone seven. He was looking for what, in theory, can grow here that grows elsewhere. Everything is planted in relation to each other, as in a natural forest. Japanese ginger does well, as do Japanese walnut and Mongolian lemons. It is a treasure trove of flavours.”
How do you make time avaiable to experiment?
“We have grown enormously. Since two years we have a new location in Nijmegen, a former orphanage. In every way, also in terms of staff. It was necessary to organize everything differently; not to try things out between normal work, but in a separate test kitchen. Moreover, we are always closed for a week when a menu is changed.’
Your ‘roulade’ of eight different beans – with cream from the leaves of the mahogany tree from the Food Forest – has been much praised…
‘We are now proud of our no-chocolate mousse that we discovered by chance. We left out the cocoa beans once and replaced them with chestnuts. The taste is reminiscent of chocolate with notes of mocha and caramel. Fortunately, Rungis also has chestnuts in its range; this year’s 150 kilos turned out not to be enough.’
“Almost everything we make fails, what does succeed is wonderful,” you say. Are you good at failing?
“Yes, because it’s the only way forward. We are always looking for different perspectives. They are not necessarily revolutionary, but we always find just the right hook or combination of new applications. Sometimes we even choose very specifically for failure: then you want to find out what is happening, for example. This way you unintentionally learn things that you can use again later. You feel that it is excruciatingly slow, but when I look back, we have experienced a great evolution in ten years.’
How do you keep up with this labour-intensive way of working?
“You must be a little silly. The first windmills in the 1970’s were still laughed at. Now this way of generating energy is economically viable. For seven years I have been inspired every week in the Food Forest. Wouter and I are also trying to get this form of food supply on the political table; to contribute to the discussion about sustainability and future-proof farming, together with nature, instead of against it. That takes time and energy, but people need to worry about this. The single most important thing you can do to save this planet is to eat a lot less meat. That is why we are constantly looking for new edible plants for our menu.’
What brought you to the path of botanical gastronomy?
‘The interest in less meat and more plants came about gradually, although I did have a talent. In primary school I already gave a lecture about acid rain; I found that fascinating. After studying civil engineering, I entered the cooking profession and asked myself more and more often: why are we doing this? How is it possible that we eat endangered species like eel and bluefin tuna? When that realization grows, you adjust your behavior.’
What is your favourite fruit or vegetable?
“It depends on my mood. At the moment I am fascinated by paw paw, a tree that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. It produces the only tropical fruit that grows in this climate zone. The filling resembles custard and the fruit tastes like mango and banana.”
What are you looking forward to in December, what is available?
“Even though there is snow and frost in December, there is always something to eat. Fortunately, there are still the last medlars and in January the flower buds of the large Japanese butterbur. In Japan that is a delicacy. The buttons, the size of tennis balls, are fried in tempura batter. They are eaten to celebrate the end of winter. And when the wild garlic is back, the coldest time is behind us, especially with the Solomon seal in early spring.’