Jannis Brevet is the head chef of the top restaurant Inter Scaldes. His menu is characterised by influences from the Zeeland waters.
Sweet sprouts, hard work and cocaine in the kitchen: Jannis and Claudia Brevet, chef and host of Inter Scaldes, the country's most renowned restaurant, spoke openly with Frénk van der Linden during the Volkskrant theatre tour.
There was once a customer in a produce section who turned his back to the staff and rather nervously overturned a box of raspberries, only to fill it again sneakily with the very best fruit which he picked out from twelve other boxes.
'That was my husband', says Claudia Brevet. 'That's how it was with everything Jannis bought. That was the first and last time I went shopping with him at the wholesalers. I admired his fanaticism, but I was just so embarrassed at the same time.'
The stage of the Schouwburg Middelburg theatre has been transformed into a replica of the restaurant owned by Jannis and Claudia Brevet, Inter Scaldes ('Between the Scheldts'). A table with white damask, designer glasses, simple round plates and avante-garde cutlery.
The owners of the country's most renowned food temple (no. 1 in Lekker, no. 1 in the Gault Millau guide, two Michelin stars) are sitting on plain chairs with cream leather upholstery. To the side behind them, you can see the Buddha heads which take pride of place in a display case when you enter the restaurant run by this chef and his wife (and host) in the Zeeland village of Kruiningen.
The theatre audience are sipping glasses of Crémant d'Alsace, a sparkling white wine served by ex-magician Koen van der Plas who, at the tender age of 22 and with more than a passing resemblance to Stan Laurel, is regarded as the leading talent among Dutch sommeliers.
By way of amuse bouche, the first in a series of quotes uttered by other top chefs appears on the rear wall of the stage. 'Even if I'm boiling an egg, I want to give the impression that this is my work.'
Your own culinary signature is impossible 'if you go along with the standardisation of flavour among the general public', responds Jannis. 'These days, consumers want everything to taste sweet. It's awful.' Claudia: 'Nowadays you have to really search for bitter-tasting sprouts! You can only get them from special suppliers.'
“'I've never eaten anything better than mashed potato.'”Jannis Brevet
Brevet mans the stove with a less is more philosophy. 'As far as I'm concerned, you don't need more than three or four components on a plate. No, I don't do these meaningless dishes based on smoke and mirrors.'
For example, for the past ten years or so his menu has featured 'simple scallops with black truffle and salt crust'. 'They are cooked in the shell', explains Claudia. 'The art is in timing it down to the nearest second in the oven: the scallops must still come out looking slightly glassy. Jannis has calculated that a scallop weighing a certain number of grams needs precisely so many minutes at a particular temperature. Imagine that fifteen scallops are going into the oven: they each get their own number and Jannis will set fifteen timers accordingly. 'Cooking isn't something you can just do from your heart.'
The evening touches upon kitchen secrets, exquisite ingredients, a pinch of salt too much or too little and much more, and even upon chefs who swear until they're blue in the face. Jannis: 'Things have been pretty fierce in restaurant kitchens for years, it's almost medieval. When I was learning the trade in Munich with Eckart Witzigmann, who had three Michelin stars, I was regularly summoned for a good telling off. All I could do was look at the floor and study the tips of my shoes. Orders were orders. But I've thrown the odd pan at people too, you know.'
The conversation turns to sauces. Jannis: 'Nothing is harder than making sauces. A steak is a steak and a trout is a trout, you can't change those. My signature lies in the sauce, the emotion which I put into the sauce – it's like a part of me is in that sauce.'
We're talking about the universally acclaimed molecular kitchen initiated by Ferran Adrià of the restaurant El Bulli. Jannis: 'Frills, gels, sweet and savoury this or that. A kitchen of emulsifiers and gelatin. Turning a piece of meat into a mousse. It's innovative, sure, but eating in a place like that will give me stomach problems in the morning and two people can easily spend 1,000 euros there.'
Then we talk about truffles. Jannis is 'crazy about' them, well aware that in the eyes of his fellow chefs, truffles represent sex. Claudia winks. 'Jannis eats a lot of truffles. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach.'
In the meantime, Koen van der Plas is serving a white Beaujolais by 'an extremely headstrong Frenchman who completely disregards all the appellation rules and mixes grapes from different years, something you would never normally do.' And red wine from Germany 'does indeed taste a bit like dung, but nice dung', as this Spätburgunder from Baden is grown on clay and loamy soil.
The audience are also served Gillardeau oysters with caramelised onions. And raw langoustines with Granny Smith and beach bananas. According to an audience member: 'The taste is unbelievable.'
'After I lost my brother, my dishes were extremely austere and sombre. Gerard's death was evident on the plates.' 'I can quite imagine', says Claudia. 'Whatever is going on in your personal life is automatically reflected in your kitchen.'
“[missing translation]”Claudia Brevet
'The only things we had left were the clothes on our backs', says Jannis with the suppressed emotions of a true Zeelander.
Claudia: 'The next morning we just started again, almost without saying anything to each other. Carry on, carry on. Once the restaurant was rebuilt, Jannis developed an even more minimalist cooking style. We had new staff, we had to get used to each other and we decided that true mastery is revealed in restraint.'
'On the evening we reopened, a Michelin inspector came along to check how we were doing. How could they do something like that? Is that even human?'
Buddha knew it, they say: it's all about the journey, not the destination. You get knocked down and you get up again, you learn from it. Jannis explains that one of the wooden heads of the philosopher, purchased during their umpteenth trip through Asia, has cracks which the Chinese had been inserting notes with their wishes into for over 400 years.
'What it really comes down to', says Claudia, 'is that negative experiences enhance you, you can gain something positive from them. After the fire, Jannis simply cooked his way back to his Michelin stars. He got even better as a result.'
Then it's time for the composer Tom America, who plays his digital magic box on stage. He plays a song in which he has worked old quotes by Jannis into the lyrics. In essence: cooking is an addiction, the purpose of holidays is to make you long for your next day back at work, when the restaurant is buzzing again. That's why chefs do it, working 80 to 90 hours a week.
Claudia is well aware that people regularly take cocaine in the restaurant world to help them cope. 'I'm really against that. I always say to our boys: 'If we catch you, you'll be seeing stars and flying out the door.'
'If I want three Michelin stars, I can do that. It's all in the circus elements: two doormen, a massively well-stocked wine cellar, a heliport for businessmen. It's a matter of finding a good financial backer.'
Dreaming about three Michelin stars out loud is practically taboo in top restaurants – as if it would jinx the chances of the French tyre manufacturer actually gracing you with them. However, these days the stars are almost regarded as holy.
'In Burgundy, a chef even committed suicide when he heard he was going to lose his star', says Jannis. 'I can't relate to that. I have Dutch colleagues who spend the entire day talking about stars. Those people cook for Michelin.'
'We don't cook for Michelin', says Claudia. 'We cook for the guests.' Over the years, the couple have visited almost every three-star restaurant in the world.
'I've never eaten anything better than a dish I was served at Robuchon in Paris', says Jannis, practically licking his lips at the thought. 'It was mashed potatoes. I'm serious: mashed potatoes, pure and simple. But of course it was made using the very best potatoes, the best milk. I can still taste it now.'
'It wasn't even such a great setting', says Claudia. 'The tables were really close together. I was sitting on a bench next to a lively and rather large man; every time he stood up, I bounced up with him. At a certain point, he started drumming his frogs' legs on the table. But my goodness, the food, the food. That bouillon with ravioli floating in it, stuffed with goose liver... Oh, oh, oh!'
As for themselves, they have had two stars for the past twelve years. 'We had more than a vague hope that we might get a third one this year', admits Claudia. 'If you get one, they call you the day before the official announcement. The phone didn't ring. We went to bed without saying a word. De Leest in Vaassen did get that third star. They deserved it, but in my opinion Jannis cooks just as well.'
Michelin's highest praise would have generated 25% or more extra turnover, say the duo. That would be very welcome, because you're never going to get rich from owning a top restaurant. 'We're certainly not poor', says Jannis, 'but I would have earned more if I had opened a chip shop.'
'Cooking is not just a craft, it is an art'. 'In my case, I think that's true', says Jannis thoughtfully. 'In our restaurant, you get flavours, textures and colours on your plate which together form a creative composition.'
Claudia: 'You enjoy it with all your senses.' On the table there is a prestigious cookbook by Brevet, with paintings and photos which he used as inspiration for his recipes. The meat, fish and vegetable dishes are portrayed just as pontifically as the works of art.
Next to the close-up of a pregnant woman's belly by photographer Eric Kellerman, the home cook will encounter a dessert by Jannis: Bal Masqué. This shiny ball of sugar is filled with delights such as vanilla cream, pineapple with basil and champagne curry ice-cream. 'We blow up that ball using a special pump', says Brevet. 'It's extremely precise work.'
How far can you go? According to the British culture critic Steven Poole, food 'has grown into a status symbol in the industrialised Western civilisation'. He recently published an essay in which he said that the 'obsessive focus' on food in our culture 'represents a kind of perversity or decadence'. 'Anyone who can't join in the endless conversation about food, right down to the smallest details, is written off as a barbarian. (...) Wouldn't we be better off thinking about how to fill the space between our ears rather than our stomachs?'
Jannis Brevet tenses. 'Listen', says Claudia, 'over the past hundred years, we have all moved off the land. We don't just eat mashed potatoes and hunks of meat anymore. We have moved on and the Netherlands has developed a fantastic culinary culture. When you are abroad, you hear everyone talking about the fabulous Dutch chefs, about the level here. In the old days, they used to ask if we even had restaurants! Now it's 'wow' and 'wow' again. Is that something we should be ashamed of?'
Finally, as a journalistic dessert, a question of conscience. What would you enjoy more: a dinner with fabulous dishes and OK company, or an evening with OK dishes and fabulous company?
The chef has had enough of these kinds of questions. 'I think that food helps to make the difference', he says briskly. No, the question was: would you choose one or the other? Claudia takes hold of her husband's arm and looks at him while she answers. 'The people I end up sitting with at the table can be a bit boring sometimes. But when I am served dishes made by Jannis, I don't let that distract me.' – Written by Frénk van der Linden for the Volkskrant.
In 2018, Inter Scaldes was awarded its third Michelin star.