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Bringing Nature to the Table with Bas Wiegel

Words by
October 17, 2016
Not long ago we had the honour of sitting down with Bas Wiegel, chef de cuisine at Restaurant De Kas in Amsterdam to discuss his relationship with cooking, growing and eating. De Kas, which in English translates to “greenhouse,” is indeed a former greenhouse of the municipality of Amsterdam. It is also a unique restaurant. It has its own greenhouses and a garden on-site where vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown. In addition, a large field about 20 kilometres from the city is home to seasonal vegetables that are frequently featured on the De Kas menu. Here’s a glimpse inside of this exciting establishment through the eyes of Bas.

How do you manage to plan your menu on a daily or weekly base? How do you know what can you get from the crops and forecast the menu?

Bas: You can never forecast it completely because we work with nature. In the kitchen we get an email every week from my boss [Gert-Jan Hageman, De Kas founder and owner, now in charge of the nursery] about what will be ready from the fields over the next couple of weeks. If it is sunny then it will take a week but if there’s rain it will take a little longer. Since we work with nature, nature decides the menu. Our menu is based primarily on vegetables. We start with a baseline flavour, and then we are free to add more flavours or a protein. The challenge is to keep it simple, fresh and understandable, but still full of flavour.
Bringing Nature to the Table with Bas Wiegel at De Kas restaurant
photo © Bas Wiegel
Since we work with nature, nature decides the menu. The challenge is to keep it simple, fresh and understandable, but still full of flavour.”
In summer, for example mid-August, how many different crops would you have in the fields?

Bas: Typically we would have around twenty different crops. The entire cultivation system has been set up by Gert-Jan. Some varieties are there for a few weeks, then they disappear for a couple of weeks or months, and then they come back again. We always have something new growing in the field, even in the winter.

It is like a circle here at De Kas. We grow things from seed, and then when the plants are big enough they go to the field, and once they are ready to harvest they come back to the kitchen. Our fields are situated in Midden-Beemster, a twenty-minute ride North of the restaurant. We order things at night and then my boss and two other people harvest the next morning. This way the produce can get to the kitchen around 10 a.m. We have the luxury of knowing how many guests we have each day because we are always fully booked. I know exactly how much I need of everything because the menu we offer to our guests is fixed, apart from exceptions, and in that case, we have something else ready.

How much time do you dedicate to investigating new ways of cooking produce? And how do you decide when one recipe is ready to be served in the restaurant?

Bas: It’s continual. While doing the daily preparation before every service you’re always trying to imagine new ways of doing things. If for example, you are working with tomatoes, you might think, ‘Can I do something on the barbeque’, or ‘Can I make a powder and use it in a dessert?’. While cooking you think of new ways of processing what you handle.

If you as a chef at De Kas want to make a new dish, you are free to experiment. When somebody makes something in the kitchen (because everybody is constantly trying new things), then whoever is working at that moment gets to be taste-tester. This makes everyone in the kitchen a little bit nervous because there are a lot of people tasting and everybody wants to go further. Once tasted, if it fits the philosophy of De Kas, and if it respects the vegetable or the fruit, and the flavour is a good match, then it fits in the menu as well. And the season of course. If it is not the right season, it doesn’t work!

Bringing Nature to the Table with Bas Wiegel at De Kas restaurant

What’s your favourite season and your favourite crop?

Bas: My favourite season is winter because it’s more challenging. Everything is harder in terms of flavours and texture, and therefore more challenging to make it enjoyable to eat in regards to flavour. And the challenge of getting colours in the dishes is also more exciting for me. In summer I love tomatoes, each variety has a different flavour! But everything has a distinct flavour: zucchini has one, aubergines another, then all the fruit. Those few months in summer are a real luxury and you can keep things pretty simple. In winter you need to think more about what you are going do with the vegetable: if you are going to roast it, or marinate it, how you are going to cook it to keep the most flavour.

Bringing Nature to the Table with Bas Wiegel at De Kas restaurant
photo © Bas Wiegel

Did you like vegetables when you were a child?

Bas: Yes, I think so! I always ate my vegetables... at least that is what my parents say. Green beans were “green fries” my mum said, and we ate them. I always like the vegetable part in all restaurants I have worked in. I don’t know exactly why but I had more of a connection with vegetables than with meat or fish. To cook vegetables perfectly, well, that’s a challenge I like.

How did you start cooking and end up as a chef of cuisine?

Bas: At first I thought I wanted to be a baker, and I got my baking degree. Then I would have liked to do something with pastry but I needed a different degree —a higher degree in Dutch, English, Economy—and I had to go to a night school. At that time I was around fifteen or sixteen years old and my mum did not want me at home during the day because she said it was not good for young kids. “Why don’t you do something like cook during the day?” she asked me, “and during the night you can take your other classes.” So I did that. I worked in a bakery as well but I didn’t like getting up at 2 a.m. in the night and getting home at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, always being tired. But at the same time, I started loving cooking more and more.
Bringing Nature to the Table with Bas Wiegel at De Kas restaurant
photo © Bas Wiegel
How did you get to De Kas?

Bas: I was born in Delft. I lived there for 11 years and then moved to Zeewolde which is a small village in the middle of the Netherlands. Nothing around it and nothing to do. Moving from a big city to a village was strange. People thought I was strange because of my accent. I lived there until I was 23 and then I moved to Amsterdam. I had worked in various restaurants and hotels before I moved to Amsterdam. My last job I was working in a hotel, trying to help the kitchen to get to a higher level, but after six months it just wasn’t working out well for me in the kitchen.

Then a friend of mine told me about this restaurant called De Kas. It was something very new for me, I had never heard of it, so I applied. I went there for the job interview and it was immediately mind blowing. The interview lasted an hour and a half! It was very long, with a tough but talented chef, Ronald Kunis. I have a big mouth and I said I was able to do everything, and if not, I could learn. And then he hired me, almost nine years ago. I started helping him as a sous chef and now I’m the chef de cuisine. Very fortunate, I was. Chef Ronald believed in me and made me into the chef de cuisine that I am now.

You are not only lucky, but also talented!

Bas: I’m a little bit too polite to say that I have a talent. I know what I can do, but I’m not as outgoing as other chefs are. I like to keep things close to me and do more what I want to do. You see my food, the food I make, and what I do is good for me and the guest. I don’t think I have to say to other people, ‘Hey, I’m really good at this’. Sometimes I feel things go really smoothly for me. I have a great team around me that makes things easy. And fortunately, my boss is always sending me to different restaurants in Europe to taste and experience. So I can go out for dinner every month to see how other restaurants are doing, and I learn a lot from that.

Which are your top three restaurants in Europe?

Bas: I went to Noma and really enjoyed it, but I also have some favourite spots that don't see as much of the spotlight, but have a similar approach to cuisine. For example, I like the In de Wulf in Belgium run by Kobe Desramaults. He’s a real farmer. He opened the restaurant and hotel in his family’s old farm and then he took a little bit of a Nordic cuisine approach. I like Nordic cuisine. It has a good way of using produce. I also like restaurant AS just around the corner here in Amsterdam. There is another restaurant in Amsterdam called Bak which is doing very well in my opinion. The guy is one of the most outgoing chefs here in Amsterdam. He is rock’n’roll and he cooks very well. But the list is very long!
How is it being a Dutch chef? Do you feel constrained by what you find here?

Bas: It is difficult to describe the Dutch cuisine. I think “Dutch cuisine” is everything that grows here. Some chefs forget about what you can get here in the Netherlands. So why buy things from France or Spain? Produce that comes from so far away is not even fresh. If you drive 20 minutes from here you might meet a small farmer who has the best fruit or the best leeks or the best chickens. Farmers today face a tough choice: whether to remain small and supply restaurants and markets, or to go big scale and address to the large distributors. If you are a restaurant and you are so lucky to find a good farmer, that is fantastic! Because those farmers put a lot of passion into their job. And there is more and more of this kind of thing. There are small farmers that stay small and local because there is enough of a market here. You get more and more people recognising the importance of this, especially here in Amsterdam where people like healthy things and things that come ten minutes away from where you are going to eat it.

Farmers today face a tough choice: whether to remain small and supply restaurants and markets, or to go big scale and address to the large distributors. If you are a restaurant and you are so lucky to find a good farmer, that is fantastic! Because those farmers put a lot of passion into their job.”
Are you vegetarian?

Bas: No, but I do like vegetables! Together with my girlfriend we are paying attention to what we eat. Trying to make it healthy and good. What you eat it should make you feel good and energetic.

What do you think about the “foodie” and “gourmet” movement?

Bas: We call it a little bit of a hipster thing, but it makes people more aware of food and that’s the good part. People today understand and are interested in food more and more and this is good. They try out more things. They are looking up recipes more, exploring healthy food and they experiment more at home.

Did your work change in the last ten years with more people paying attention to food? Do people ask for new things at the restaurant?

Bas: We are getting a bit of a hype at the restaurant. Our guests are a lot of young people in their twenties and thirties—a lot of groups of friends. A lot of new business as well, of course. But we have noticed a change in our guests. This is why, in terms of cooking, we try to make it less complex. We just keep it simple and more relatable. I think this is also part of our job. Proving that you can do something great with only four ingredients is important for us and an interesting and suggestive topic for our guests as well. And showing that you don’t need the most expensive products or ten different flavours to make something very good, that’s key.