I was so focused on winning Michelin stars; and it was fantastic when I received them!
There is a general consensus among chefs that to excel inside the kitchen you need a certain mentality. Coping with long hours in a stressful and heated environment is not for the faint hearted, nor is the near constant striving for perfection. Therefore, you need to be a little bit crazy. And Sergio Herman, well, he is a little crazier than most.
The famed Dutch chef shocked the culinary world back in 2013 when he decided to close the doors of his renowned restaurant Oud Sluis. Having worked for decades to put it on the map, gained three Michelin stars and a place on the San Pellegrino’s prestigious World 50 Best Restaurants list, Herman suddenly decided that a change was needed. “No one could talk me out of it,” he exclaims. “I was working for 25 years in Oud Sluis and I had reached everything. I had the three stars and the recognition but it was a combination of a small space and too many people. “I didn’t feel the growth anymore and I knew that I needed more free time for myself in order to discover the world. I didn’t see life outside of the kitchen. “I was so focused on winning the stars and it was fantastic when I received them. That is not part of my life anymore, I am free of it. Also, I don’t have the ego anymore to want it again. I am happier now than I was before because working for that long in that small kitchen brought me nothing. “Yes, it brought me more as a chef and I was able to grow and work to perfection, but it brought me nothing else in my life. I missed a lot in those 25 years.”
Now Herman finds himself in Dubai preparing an eight-course menu at At.mosphere, the restaurant located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. It is the type of project he can now undertake thanks to the freedom that came with closing Oud Sluis. Yet the 47-year-old is far from content. He believes he moved too quickly in opening The Jane, his contemporary restaurant in Antwerp. Housed in a former chapel of a military hospital, it has already been awarded two Michelin stars and delivers mind-blowing flavours that are both simple and sophisticated. But Herman appears to once again be ready for a major change. “I closed Oud Sluis and I went immediately into The Jane, and I missed my family during that period,” he says. “I went immediately 200 kilometres an hour into the next project and that wasn’t good. “I have only realised now that is wasn’t a good thing and that I should have just taken a breath and had six months or a year where I could just wake up a little bit. “Now I want to go back to a very small restaurant, something very special where I cook a couple of days a week. I want to do a minimum of covers with a small team. So something with spirit and 100 per cent Sergio. “I have something in mind and I want to do something close to nature and nearby where I live. You need to have a dream and you need something new, always. Yes, I think I will go for it.”
Clearly Herman is extremely head strong, but the closure of Oud Sluis still had a major effect on him. The restaurant had been almost all he knew, having grown up in the kitchen while his dad worked as head chef and his mother looked after the front of house. So many of his memories are tied into his former restaurant and even today he is driven by the words of his father. “He always told me to work hard and keep my two feet on the ground,” says Herman. “I think he saw I had potential very quickly but he never told me to my face. He was very strict, but at the same time he was great to work with and we never fought in the kitchen. “My dad taught me all the basics and he is definitely me mentor. But he had a hard life and I saw my parents work extremely hard so I wasn’t always sure I would follow in his footsteps. “But I had a moment of clarity when working at a two Michelin star restaurant in Holland. They were very happy with me and in that moment I realised I wanted to go for it.”
It is now close to 30 years since Herman chose to become a chef and still now he believes he has much to learn. While previously he would travel and almost exclusively dine in the finest restaurants, now he enjoys nothing more than sampling street food and discovering locations rich with character. A recent trip to Mexico saw him fall in love with food from street vendors and while in Dubai he has vowed to discover ‘real Arabic food’. “For sure I have changed a lot because if you are older you cook less for show and focus more on the product and the taste,” he declares. “My focus was always on fine dining but I am a little bit over that now. “Of course when I travel I know a lot of chefs and I will always visit them, but only maybe one time. The rest I go more for street food and find restaurants with a nice vibe. “I do think classic food will always be a winner but you have to refresh it a little bit and give it a special touch. It’s now less important to show off and instead focus on producing something that is pure and very special.”
Fortunately, throughout his career Herman has been able to produce dishes that are unique and original. Despite training in restaurants across the Netherlands and working so closely with his father, he has been able carve out his own niche. It is something that Herman is extremely proud of, but at the same time he worries that those entering the culinary business will struggle to fully understand the importance of being unique. “I always say that I am extremely lucky that I didn’t have the signature of another chef. I was always cooking my own style,” says Herman. “In those days you didn’t have television programmes with food or social media. You had books and you went to restaurants, that was it. “I had to search things out and learn from my experiences. And I was lucky that my parents would take me to the top restaurants in France and Belgium so food was always in my DNA.
“But the most important thing for a chef is to do their own thing. They must put their telephones away and not focus so much on Instagram You see all these young chefs, a lot of them are making things just for pictures. But taste is the most important thing.”
Passing on his knowledge to the next generation of chefs is vitally important to Herman and it was one of the reasons he agreed to let a film crew follow him for close to two years following his decision to close Oud Sluis. The documentary was promoted as a ‘revealing story about perfection, ambition and sacrifices’, but Herman also believes it can serve as inspiration for young chefs who have a goal and are determined to achieve them. “I enjoyed the documentary as it was very natural, they just followed me and everything was real,” he says. “But I do think it is good for young chefs to see as it shows that if you believe in something and truly focus yourself, then you will be paid back in full.” Herman also has another life lesson for those just starting out in the kitchen, and that is to find the right balance between work and family. While at Oud Sluis he rarely disconnected from the restaurant, with any spare time spent dreaming up new dishes and doing all he could to achieve three Michelin stars.
He never truly felt relaxed in his own house and could not dedicate enough time to his four children. A fact that has only hit home in recent years. “It is necessary to realise that you have another life outside of the kitchen. And I am enjoying that much more now but it took me a couple of years to realise that home is a place that can be enjoyed,” he admits. “Sitting there now it is a little unreal as previously I would always have had an anxious feeling as I would be thinking about the restaurant or a certain dish. Now I am more relaxed and I enjoy cooking for the kids on the weekends. “I think my youngest is even showing an interest in cooking, he has the character of a chef already. He is only six but he is eating everything and loves his food. It is very special.”
It is clear from the way that Herman speaks that moving on from his beloved Oud Sluis was the correct decision. He talks with great pride about his family and clearly enjoys being able to watch his oldest son play football. Now he can even join in the conversation with the fellow proud parents as his mind is no longer constantly occupied by thoughts of his restaurant. Yet it seems the story of Sergio Herman is not yet complete and as he sits more than 500 metres above downtown Dubai it is clear he is anxious to start another new chapter.
The Jane may be bringing yet more recognition and providing the Dutch master chef with the chance to spend more time with his family, but there is a part of Herman that craves a new challenge. And it seems a new project could soon be selected. “I have the feeling that there is an opportunity to start something special in another city,” he adds. “I am looking for a venue that reflects my character. I am not a bling bling guy and I prefer more pureness and a more raw style of architecture. “The building has to give me the right feeling and I have to be able to find the right staff. But as always, I will follow my gut. I know no other way.”