We chat to Geert about why he became a chef, the dishes that remind him of home, and what his family has taught him about food.
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What sparked your interest in becoming a chef?
As a young kid, I always wanted to work in hospitality; my father was a sales rep for a brewery and I fell in love with the hospitality when my dad would take me on his rounds to all the pubs and restaurant in our province. So, at the age of 12, I enrolled into hospitality and bakery school, as you can in the Netherlands.
You’ve introduced many Australians to the cuisine of your homeland, Holland. When you first moved here, was there a huge interest in the food?
Not really, except from the Dutch community and businesses wanting a young Dutch chef to cook classic and traditional food. When people heard that there was a good Dutch chef at the InterContinental Hotel [in Sydney], it was soon decided that we had to have all kinds of Dutch promotions and parties, which I catered for. This must have introduced quite a few Australians to our cuisine; the promos we did in the InterContinental were really big
What’s the best selling dish at your restaurant? Have you altered it over the years?
Without a doubt, the Dutch croquettes. The only thing I’ve changed is that I outsource the production of it; we used to spend a day and a half every month to cook and roll croquettes.
What’s the greatest obstacle in Australia embracing Dutch food? Is it the weather?
The things that we are known for, like German food, is the all the winter foods which are a hard sell in Australian summers, but we make some great seafood as the Netherlands have a huge coastline. The fish that we eat most is herring, salted, frozen onboard and defrosted once it comes to shore. We eat it raw with raw onions; an absolute delicacy that’s available here in Australia.
What’s a dish you would encourage someone who’s never eaten Dutch, to make at home?
In winter, you can get curly kale from a Victorian producer at Flemington. You braise the cabbage leaves with onions and speck for about an hour and a half, and then mix it with mashed potato and serve with a smoked boiled sausage (knackwurst) and gravy.
This is called boerenkool met worst – I grew up on this stuff, it’s actually considered a superfood because of the high nutritional value in the kale.
What has your family taught you about food?
My mum always cooked something different and fresh every day of the week. And always very seasonal, obviously she had to because there was no other option (no big imports and we bought from local markets).
Give us some examples of dishes that are considered 'fast food" in Holland?
Croquettes, frikandellen (deep-fried fine minced sausage); satay (Indonesian influence), which is chicken or pork in a sweet spicy peanut sauce.
Your restaurant serves up a lot of home-style meals, such as deep-fried camembert, potato rosti, slow-roasted pork knuckle. Do diners more readily flock towards this food during winter?
Yes, winter is definitely a busier period for us.
How has Holland’s cuisine changed since you were a child?
More international influences, immigration and imports, less seasonal thanks to imports.
European food from this region (Germany, Austria, Holland) is often described as hearty, homely, rich, or even heavy. Do you think this is accurate? How would you describe it?
The hearty ones are the most popular, and classic, and yes most of the time rich and heavy. There are enough lighter foods, but they’re just not well known.
How do you get those schnitzels so incredibly big?
A sharp knife and a big hammer.
Essen Restaurant and Beer Cafe features German and Austrian influences. Are these very similar to Dutch?
Through the whole of north Europe, you’ll see sauerkraut, sausages potato dishes, cabbage dishes, marinated fish and braised meats. There are just minor differences in seasoning or cuts.
Which meat cuts are used extensively in your cooking?
Beef blade, pork chops, minces (sausages and rissoles).
Desserts play a big role in the cuisine. What sweets do you remember eating as a young boy?
Apple tart with cream; semolina custard puddings; and rhubarb as dessert with custard or yoghurt. We ate yoghurt or custard every day after our main meal.
When you feel homesick, what’s a traditional dish that takes you right back?
Curly kale or hutspot (carrot onion potato mash). My kids love it.