Geert Elzinga, of Essen Restaurant, has been serving super-sized schnitzels and potato rosti to Sydneysiders for years. We chat with the Holland-born chef about pork knuckles, food challenges and why he turns to Gordon Ramsay.
April Smallwood

16 Jun 2014 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2015 - 9:19 AM

Are you a breakfast man? Not really. If I do a workout, it’s a protein shake and a toastie; ham and cheese on wholemeal. If I don’t have a workout, it’s just a toastie. My second breakfast is around 10am, usually yoghurt. When you're at the restaurant, are you in the kitchen? Not a lot, I got kicked out. Too temperamental, apparently. What do you look for when hiring staff? If they are punctual, efficient; those are more important than if they can cook.

Essen now does food challenges. Where'd you get the idea? My brother-in-law is a big eater and he was watching Man v. Food. I saw it and thought, “That’s just wrong. That is so American”. And my brother in law says, “You gotta do that. You gotta put a big schnitzel challenge on”. I said, "No, it’s unethical, I’m not gonna do it. I haven’t been trained to go do something like that”. And he just kept pushing, so eventually I said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot”. Was it a success? It was, and we marketed it well. First we did Jurassic Pork, which we brined, marinated, cooked ourselves – we had almost 600 people try it. It's still on the menu as a small burger. Then Schnitzilla was a stack of two and a half kilos of schnitzel. That was a real hit. How do you get those schnitzels so incredibly big? A sharp knife and a big hammer.

What are the factors that dictate your menu? The food needs to be Northern European, I’ll even go to the north of Italy for some stuff. For example, like I’m not scared of using polenta or balsamic or something like that. It has to fit in with the northern European style of food, so we use Danish, Dutch, German obviously, Austrian. It's also Swedish, so we’ve got meatballs... 

Three years ago, your most popular menu item was Dutch croquettes. What’s it now? These days our most popular is the pork knuckles. I outsourced the brining of the knuckles to a new butcher; he pre-cooks them for me overnight and they’re unbelievable. I just roast them off and serve them.

Have you had a stand-out Sydney food experience recently? Yeah, I really like Sixpenny in Stanmore. Young guys. One of them came from Oscillate Wildly, and they've got talent. They’ve opened up a nice corner shop with Scandinavian interiors and the food is really out there. They’re experimental. Any gripes with the Sydney scene? I think a lot more top restaurants should move west. If I have a night off, I don’t wanna do the city; I just came from there. If I go out to dinner, I want fine dining; I wanna see the latest techniques, combinations. I really like that. It’s entertainment.

You’ve been in the business a while now. What continues to excite you about your job? I just really like cooking – a lot more now than 15 years ago. It's become a lot more popular and it’s all over TV. There’s a lot more information out there. Every top chef has their own app. I’m using a Gordon Ramsay app now. When I get home and can’t get any inspiration, I’ll have a look.

If you were to throw it all in one day, what would you do? I'd go into real estate; make some real money.


Check out Geert's SBS Food podcast for Kitchen Conversations, featuring Dutch recipes.

Experience Geert's menu at Essen Restaurant & Beer Cafe in Sydney.