The Gannet Q&A

Gert-Jan Hageman

20th July 2017

Interview & photographs: Mónica R. Goya

gert-jan hageman de kas

Gert-Jan Hageman is the founder and head grower at De Kas, a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant and nursery in Amsterdam. Formerly a chef, he went on sabbatical after achieving a Michelin star at Vermeer restaurant in 1993 and came back determined not only to save a 1926 nursery in Amsterdam East from demolition, but also to launch one of the most successful restaurants in the city within its grounds. When he turned 50, he quit the kitchen to grow organic vegetables and has been working outdoors ever since.

How did you come up with the idea for De Kas?

It was like an epiphany, a stroke of lighting that hit me. My idea was to have extremely fresh and simple vegetables and build a restaurant around them. I knew exactly what I wanted: one menu with loads of vegetables that followed the seasons, using food grown in the city, and a simple wine list. I had a hard time at Michelin star restaurants, they expect a lot from you. Here, I wanted positive energy.
A few weeks later, I got a call from the Amsterdam council and they mentioned that they planned to demolish a greenhouse from the 1920s. The owner didn’t have the means to restore it and I really wanted to save that special building. In the summer of 2000 we managed to start reconstruction. We opened in 2001 and it was busy from day one. We have had over 180 nationalities eating at De Kas; last year we did over 51,000 covers. We still do the same thing: simple wine, one menu, our own vegetables.

What made you change from chef to grower?

I’d always worked as a chef and I knew I didn’t want to cook anymore. I like to be outside, and as a kid I got career advice and they suggested I should be a gardener. I hated the idea back then, but on the day I became 50, Walter [Abma, the previous head gardener] quit and at that moment that idea returned and I became the gardener. That was nine years ago.

It was like an epiphany, a stroke of lighting that hit me. My idea was to have extremely fresh and simple vegetables and build a restaurant around them

What were the challenges of moving from kitchen to garden?

Growing vegetables was a real struggle but I had some help. A man who sold us organic manure gave me an organic gardening book, and from that day on I stopped reading magazines and would read a piece of that book every day. I also found something called the Growing Calendar and that opened my eyes – I suddenly more or less knew how to do it. But believe me, it was a struggle.
One of the first things I ever planted were fava beans. They looked really nice in the soil. At the end of the day I came back to see how they were doing and I almost had a heart attack. All the small plants were pulled out. I thought, “My friends are teasing me, it’s a trick”, and I looked around but there was nobody there. And then, suddenly, I saw a few grouse at the end of the road – it was the grouse who picked all the vegetables out. That was my first encounter with growing vegetables, and it was a nightmare. After that it got better. You learn every day, every season.

De Kas restaurant

You don’t miss the kitchen?

No. Well, sometimes, there are these days when I go to the kitchen and I think, Why are they doing that? I know a better way. These are difficult moments because the last thing I want to do is going behind the back of the chef to say it’s not okay. It’s not easy, but normally I manage to leave them alone, and I also manage to make suggestions in a modest, honest and respectful way because I think that’s very important.

What’s been your most memorable restaurant meal?

The best meal I have ever had was at Asador Etxebarri, outside Bilbao. All my best meals have been in Spain. Every year we go with the management team for a culinary trip to learn, to reward ourselves after a hard year at work. Last year we went to Bilbao, a few years before we went to San Sebastián. Always what inspires us most are the simple restaurants. Etxebarri, although not simple, was the most impressive.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

My wife is a fan of Jamie Oliver, and I must confess I am too. The first year I took a sabbatical, in 1995, Jamie Oliver was becoming popular here in Holland. He had a television programme and it was so completely different from other cooking shows on television, where the cooks were measuring, stirring… This was lots of action, the use of the camera was different, it was very inspiring. So, I must confess Jamie Oliver’s books are still among my favourites.
I always use a very classic Dutch cookbook from a cooking school that’s been around for decades: Het Haagse Kookboek. There you find basic recipes for things like snowballs. Anything simple, I always go back to it. And of course, the books of Chez Panisse in California are always very inspiring.

Another thing we sprinkle on bread over here is a cookie called speculoos, with lots of Indonesian spices like cinnamon, cloves and star anise. Nobody else understands it, but we do and it’s very nice

Describe your perfect breakfast

A bowl of fresh fruits, lots of them, and a bowl of oatmeal but made with water, which feels a bit medieval, and a squeezed lemon with some more water – it’s terrible, I know! And lots of black tea. Also some good breads and some jam. We have a specialty here in Holland, we called it hagelslag. I think you call it chocolate sprinkles, you put them on bread. That is something I like a lot: bread, butter and chocolate sprinkles. Another thing we sprinkle on bread over here is a cookie called speculoos, with lots of Indonesian spices like cinnamon, cloves and star anise. Nobody else understands it, but we do and it’s very nice.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

An important movie about food and eating that I still remember is Babette’s Feast. It’s set around the end of the 18th century. Babette is a Parisian cook who has to escape from Paris for political reasons. She ends up in a real shithole somewhere in Denmark, completely remote, and very Christian. She stays there for a very long time, unable to do her thing, but in secret she plays the lottery. And then she wins the lottery, and with the money she thinks, well I am going to have a big party in this small village for all the people who are here. Old people still wearing black, with tights and high heads, no fun at all. And she starts to cook a very special meal: goose liver, quail and so on. Everybody at the meal starts off saying “It is not allowed by God, blah blah”, but in the end everybody is drunk and happy. I think it is the movie that shows the value of having good food together with friends.

What was your favourite food when you were a child?

I remember as a kid I always got apple sauce with everything I ate. At that time we ate macaroni, it was very exotic back then, with fried ground beef an some ketchup – and even then, I had my apple sauce. I still eat it sometimes. I never get rid of apple sauce.

Is there an ingredient or product you can’t live without?

I couldn’t do without French or Dutch cheeses. My cholesterol is a little too high, but I can’t stop eating cheese. That’s why I eat my oatmeal, because they say oatmeal that improves your cholesterol. Wine is another one, and chocolate of course would be very difficult to live without.

What do you value most in a restaurant?

Look around you [laughs]. When I started this, it was my idea of my perfect restaurant: quality, simple, friendly, not too expensive, lively, and a glass of champagne to start – that would be it. Not too posh, as when the waitress is standing behind you – that’s something I wouldn’t like here. When we go on our culinary trips, we go to the Michelin-star restaurant and we go to the simple one, and the one that always strikes us the most is the simple one and that can’t be a coincidence. Simple and good, always.

Posted 20th July 2017

In The Gannet Q&A

 

Interview & photographs: Mónica R. Goya

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