25 Apr Waterproef. The art of wine and food pairing
This week we went to a very special place on Scheveningen’s small harbour.
We wanted to find a little bit more about the intriguing Waterproef, a high-end restaurant that has been among the top restaurants of The Hague for a few years now.
I had a really interesting chat with Yves van Westreenen, the owner, and Bob Staal the young chef who is climbing his way up to the summit of best chefs in Holland.
We talked about wine and food pairing, what makes an excellent sommelier and the impact of the ever-increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in the hospitality business, among other interesting topics.
This year the restaurant earned for the first time a very well deserved position number 97 in the list with the top 100 restaurants in The Netherlands.
The Michelin guide says about them “A great place to be along the quayside: up to 100 guests can be served in this beautiful mix of old and modern. The kitchen is up to date and the service is relaxed. The real eye catcher is the wine list, which is spectacular because of its offer and concept”.
Elena: Yves, this is the first time that the restaurant is included in this prestigious list. Has this event put the restaurant even more in the spotlight?
Yves: Certainly, we notice that old customers that hadn’t come for a while are coming back. People like the fact that we are still on top of the game. Many places struggle after 6, 7 years but we keep reinventing ourselves with the changes of time. And of course, the good thing is that it isn’t us saying it, it’s other people praising our work here. That’s what’s most important for us.
Elena: Do you also work here as a maître, right?
Yves: Yes since I opened the restaurant in 2007 I’m at the front, welcoming our customers and making sure they have a very special experience. I still love my work, for me it’s my life too.
Elena: What was the idea when you opened the restaurant?
Yves: Back in 2007 this area was starting to develop, it wasn’t the best place in town, it was quite scruffy but I knew it was going to become a hip place so it was a good moment to invest, and I was right.
Elena: Why did you choose a high-end restaurant?
Yves: In this area and on the beach most of the restaurants are medium range and we wanted to do something more special so customers that wanted to enjoy a different kind of food and wine experience could have the opportunity to do so.
The seaside always attracts all kinds of people and there must be options for all of them. At the time most of the other places offered a very basic cuisine and we wanted to offer the possibility to enjoy a more elaborated cuisine with delicacies like lobster, crab, scallops, etc.
Elena: Do you think things have changed since then?
Yves: Of course, now there are many more restaurants in this area, also other kinds of kitchens from different nationalities and specialities, like, Italian, Asian, etc.
Elena: How do you define Waterproef’ concept?
Yves: I cannot define a concept. I’m a food and wine lover and I opened Waterproef as the place I would like to eat myself.
Elena: What’s so spectacular about the wine for Michelin to have highlighted it on their review?
Yves: It took us a long time to grow an outstanding wine list, you need money and time to taste and travel to different locations. Then selling the wine is also a delicate process, you need to have people with a certain degree of knowledge and then a level of cuisine that matches the excellence of the wines.
You need to be exceptional at food and wine pairing, and this is what distinguishes us in the food scene of The Netherlands.
However, Waterproef is not only popular for this high level of knowledge in food and wine pairing, but also for our wide range of choices.
You can have a Gruner Veltliner for 35 € that is fantastic and it can be your absolute favourite, but you can also have an Italian 30-year-old Tuscan for 500 €. Everything in between is here, everything.
Elena: Who is your sommelier?
Yves: Priscilla van der Voort. She is very knowledgeable and is continuing with the great work that our previous sommelier carried out during more than 10 years. She is finishing level 4 at WSET which is the top level, it takes around two years to complete.
This qualification is recognised at an international level which is very important in order to speak the same language within the wine world.
Elena: This must be even more important nowadays. Do you also think that customers are now more knowledgeable than ever before?
Yves: Absolutely, the internet has played a big role here but also the wide range of options we have now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. This is good because if you always wanted to offer only the best quality, customers will recognise it, but it also makes things more challenging of course, because you will have to constantly set the bar higher.
For example, before we served crab and people were happy to try something special, now when they see crab on the menu they ask you, “What kind of crab is it? Is it sea crab, king crab, snow crab? Where is it from? Canada?” They know everything.
You can find a lot of information on the Internet. This is great for chefs also, because now you can find out about a special herb that you didn’t even know existed before.
Elena: Where do the ingredients you use come from?
Yves: We have local suppliers specially for fresh fish or meat. But sometimes we need special ingredients that can only be found in Thailand for example. Nowadays you can also find local suppliers for other kind of kitchens like Asian or Mexican.
However our kitchen is not fusion. When we make a dish, it is either from one place or from another but we don’t like to mix regions or too far away flavours. No funky stuff (laughs). The base is a French traditional haute cuisine with influences from other cuisines around the globe.
Elena: Are there other restaurants in The Hague similar to Waterproef?
Yves: Lemongrass has also an excellent wine list, they were the pioneers in building a superb wine list, people from all around Holland used to come to Lemongrass only for the wine. I was a fan of that place when I was younger, I used to go a lot.
So for me it was an inspiration, when I opened Waterproef I wanted to build a wine list as good as theirs or even better. The difference now is that we have built a reputation for food and wine pairing, our cuisine is more on the high-end.
The combination is our strong point.
Elena: I guess you have to do a lot of tasting with the new dishes in the menu.
Yves: Indeed, Priscilla, Bob and me and sometimes also other members of the staff will try all the combinations. We can spend up to a couple of days tasting different combinations until we find The One.
I remember that time that it took us several days to find the one, we were not satisfied. So it depends, sometimes it works very good and we find it in half an hour and sometimes we need more time and testing. It can be complicated, if you have a white wine for the fish and then a red with the meat, in the same meal, it has to be 2 winners, otherwise it’s a failure.
Elena: Do you have students in the kitchen as well?
Yves: Yes we always have a couple helping and learning.
Elena: Which school do you think is the best in the Netherlands?
Yves: Horeca Accademie. It’s a private school and the students have to pay a higher fee than in the public school but this is why I think they are better prepared because they take it very seriously and are very motivated.
They also have better equipment since I guess the institution has more money so they have more tools and more diversity of ingredients to work with. Students who come from this academy really know a lot and not only the theory. I think the learning concept is very good in this school, they cook, practice, you know, they are hands on.
Elena: And the best school to become a sommelier?
Yves: I don’t want to offend anyone but for me it’s without a doubt the Wine Spirit Education Trust, it’s a worldwide association based in London. All the exams are sent to London to be checked by 2 top level sommeliers, and there’s no grey areas, it’s truly about understanding the wine. Tasting is analytic and all the theory is about understanding the process, understanding a glass of wine.
Elena: What do you think makes a person a good sommelier?
Yves: Some people are very good at tasting, it’s something innate in them. But of course you can also learn and grow there. It’s passion and education.
Elena: What’s the feeling you want your customers to take away with them when they leave your restaurant?
Yves: I want them to have lived one of their best wine and food experiences of their lives. I want them to taste something they never tasted before or savour a wine they already knew but in a better way. For instance, at a different temperature, or with glass work, a totally new experience.
Some people have known Chablis for many years but then they try one here and they feel it’s different. We serve a white Jurançon (it’s near Bordeaux) at the moment with mackerel and the intense flavour of the fish with the delicacy of the wine is just something amazing.
Sometimes the flavour of one ingredient comes up or they blend together, I don´t know, for me it’s like magic.
Elena: You also organise wine tastings, tell us, how does it work?
Yves: Sometimes we do a theme, like Burgundy. But then we start with sparkling, or you can do 3 types of the same wine but different years, there are so many options, you can also do by country, or by region themes, Peru, Argentina, Spain, or you can do a certain vintage.
There are plenty of options to choose from. We are organising a sparkling tasting soon. People think that sparkling is only about Champagne but I have Cavas that are incredible, Cavas that can cost 150 € and are better that the best Champagne you ever had.
Elena: You know a lot about wines!
Yves: I started working when I was 14, the love for food and wine has been always part of my life. Fresh ingredients, smells, the magic in the kitchen, this can really take your heart, making things with your hands, like homemade pasta, ice-cream.
I got interested in wine also since a very young age and I have studied a lot, I went to France, Italy, to learn more and I also got a 3 WSET level. It’s my passion really. It’s been always about food and wine in my life.
Elena: Do you think a good sommelier can be a vegetarian?
Yves: Yes. I think if you really cook proper vegetarian food you can reach at least the same level as with a “normal” dish.
Elena: Do you also notice that there is an increasing number of vegetarians and vegans? What does this mean for your kitchen?
Yves: Yes of course there are many more than a few years ago. This is something positive because it has forced chefs and restaurants to adapt and be more creative with vegan ingredients. You can see it as an opportunity to discover a whole new world cooking with other ingredients.
I watched this video ages ago from Jonny Boer, you know, the famous Dutch chef, where he said:
“You know, vegetarians are coming, what are you waiting for?”
Some restaurants are not ready, they always try to improvise something when a customer tells them he is vegetarian and then it cannot be good. You have to be ready because it’s a trend that will only grow, there’s no going back.
All food critiques nowadays always order a vegetarian dish to see if the level is as good as the other options. You need to prepare vegetarian dishes with the same amount of love you prepare all the rest. Don’t offer just a quick pasta or a goat cheese salad with honey and nuts, people want to taste real food, they want the same amount of love in their plates.
Elena: So you don’t think this is just a fad?
Yves: Not at all. Everybody is online and are well informed. They want to take care of themselves and the environment and they know that now you cannot eat meat every day.
Elena: What other changes or trends do you see in the hospitality business?
Yves: People don’t want to spend so much time anymore eating as they used to before. They want to stay 2 or 3 hours maximum. In the past people could stay easily 6 hours enjoying a tasting menu. Everything is just faster. Even in top level restaurants, everybody has seen a lot, so people want more experiences in less time.
There is also the element of surprise which is disappearing with Instagram. People want to see photos of the place, of the dishes before they go to a restaurant. I mean this is a good marketing tool for us but at the same time it eliminates the element of surprise that used to be there before the social media era.
Also, young people prefer the concept of small dishes and more variety and they are the future customers. I think we’ll see less and less the traditional 5 course menu.
There are many changes but this is good because it keeps you sharp, you need to quickly adapt to the new times.
I left Yves after thanking him for the interesting conversation and went over to the kitchen to talk with Bob, the chef, I was very curious to get to know him a little bit better.
Elena: Hey Bob, thank you for letting me talk to you, I know you are busy. Tell me, how long you’ve been working at Waterproef?
Bob: I started in the kitchen 12 years ago when I was a student and for the past 3 years I’ve been the chef.
Elena: Where do you get your inspiration?
Bob: From everywhere really, my eyes and nose are always open in search of new ideas, it can be in a restaurant or in the supermarket. I like to be original, I know that almost everything already exists in the kitchen so I try new flavours and combinations. I like to do research in biological stores for special ingredients, in China Town as well, I have a lot of inspiration there.
Elena: Is there a chef that you admire in a special way?
Bob: Yes, Anthony Bourdain. He wrote this book Kitchen Confidential in the 80s and became very famous. He travelled around the world trying almost everything he came across. He passed away last year and I decided to do a tattoo as an homage to him, this illustration is from one of his books.
I admired him a lot because he wanted to make people happy with food, he introduced many international recipes in the western world and travelled often to discover new flavours.
I like that too. I now have this lamb dish for instance based on a recipe from the Middle East, with spices and pomegranate. Sometimes I cook Asian or Dutch, but I always try to stay in the country with flavours and textures, I don’t like fusion.
I always do my own mix of spices and I love to work as well with local fresh fish.
Elena: Is there a special dish you are very proud of?
Bob: Yes, I have a dish with the neck of the lamb that I’m really happy with. I cook the meat slowly for 32 hours with gravy and vinegar, then I cook it again so it’s crispy and I add spices, some wild mushrooms and Dutch vegetables.
People like it a lot and I’m proud of it because it has my signature on it, it comes from my own experience. I like as well the fact that I use a part of the animal that people normally haven’t tried before, this makes it even more interesting. Because it’s a muscle I had to try different temperatures and ways of cooking it until I found the perfect way.
The lamb comes from Holland, I also have a picanha steak now on the menu that comes from North America, it depends what I want to do and the preparation I’m planning, then I have more than one meat supplier to choose from. I always test a lot.
I now have a student who comes originally from Thailand working with me and I’m enjoying it a lot because she is bringing these recipes from her grandma, like this dessert that is now in the menu and is being very successful. If someone in the kitchen has an idea we always try it together, and when it’s good then we go for it.
I enjoy very much working with people that love this profession.
Waterproef is open for lunch, dinner and special events.