“ The Michelin star really helped us claw out of the deep pits of recession. It gave us the wind in our sails. It is very important and we cherish it but we're not stargazing.”
‘Let’s go disco’ is a phrase I won’t be forgetting since meeting Ireland-based Dutch chef Martijn Kajuiter. It is the title of his most recent cookbook and the mantra used in his kitchen for when it’s time to ‘knuckle down and get the job done’. It’s also the playful idiom that, for me, perfectly epitomises Martijn’s unassuming personality, which makes the culinary superiority of his castle on the cliff at The House restaurant at The Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Ireland, all the more captivating.
Martijn’s culinary CV boasts a number of industry-leading accolades, including a Gourmand Cookbook Award nomination, a Relais & Châteaux Rising Star Chef trophy, a Michelin star and, most recently, four AA Rosettes, which he picked up at the AA Hospitality Awards 2013. Yet, as I broach the subject of achievements, Martijn eagerly tells me about his relocation to the quaint fishing village of Ardmore, on the south coast of Ireland, in 2007, to launch The House Restaurant at The Cliff House Hotel, instead of shedding light on his culinary achievements. “When we opened [the restaurant] it was tough. But as soon as we started becoming successful, not only from recognition with awards, but when we were beginning to be financially healthy, that was a very proud moment for me,” he says.
When we do finally reach the topic of accolades, Martijn’s response is characteristically level-headed. He sees his Michelin star as more of a useful tool that’s added to the success of his restaurant, than a trophy to place on a mantle. Rather than waiting in anticipation for the next star, Martijn is happy revelling in the delight of his first. “The Michelin star really helped us claw out of the deep pits of recession. It gave us the wind in our sails. It is very important and we cherish it, but we’re not stargazing. Of course, it was a dream when we received it, but I never expected it. It wasn’t a goal. The goal was to have an interesting kitchen with local produce, working with local people. Having an identity was always what I was looking for.”
Much like Martijn, The House Restaurant bares no pretensions, something that guests of his restaurant will agree, make it all the more endearing. Fishermen knock on the kitchen door, daily, boasting, “I’ve got lobster, I’ve got clams,” Martijn tells me, putting his best impression of a thick Irish accent into practice, while the menu focuses on simple, rustic offerings with traditional Irish influences. “I tend to understate on the menu so that I can over deliver on the table,” Martijn explains, before telling me in a gratified tone. “When people eat here they eat a slice of Ireland.”
During his tenure at The Cliff House Hotel Martijn has spearheaded a unique initiative; a kitchen garden in the hotel’s grounds, where people with special needs from the nearby St Raphael’s Centre, in Youghal, grow vegetables, part supplying the hotel with produce.
Yet, life in the kitchen hasn’t always been as picturesque as a lush Irish landscape for Martijn. The 39-year-old has attributed 24 years of loyal service to the industry, worked 90-hour weeks and uprooted himself and his young family several times to fulfil his dream of becoming an award-winning chef.
Growing up in Holland, with a mother and father who owned a restaurant, bistro and café, Martijn began work helping in the kitchen and was contaminated with what he describes as “the virus that is good food” at a very young age. His passion for cooking led him into a kitchen role in a hotel near his home in Groningen, Holland, at just 15. “It was actually illegal, because at 15 you’re allowed to work but not after 7pm,” Martijn jokes, once again revealing his whimsical sense of humour.
With his heart firmly set on working in an acclaimed kitchen and restaurant, Martijn made an early decision to leave his hometown and move to London, before heading to the Dutch capital. “In Amsterdam there are higher rated restaurants. It’s the same as in the UK. If you’re in the countryside there’s not much there, everything is scattered around. You go to London if you want to make it. So I did exactly the same. I chanced it. It was a very good step because suddenly I was entering the big league.”
Relocating to London in 1995, Martijn began moving in esteemed culinary circles, working with Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire in Royal Hospital Road, John Burton Race at L’Ortolan and Marco Pierre White at his eponymous restaurant, before moving to Amsterdam in 1998.
2007 was the year that Martijn decided to pack up his family and move to Ireland, focusing on his new project as executive chef of The Cliff House Hotel. It was his way, he explains, of escaping the sometimes monotonous life that comes with the territory of being a chef and fulfilling his dream of being at the helm of his own restaurant. “I wanted to escape the haunted life that I had in Holland and in London. It is a haunted life wanting to be the best in your game. It’s tough working 16 or 17 hours a day. I was driving from outside of Amsterdam every day for 50 to 60 minutes if I was lucky—two hours if I was stuck in a traffic jam. After several years of doing that—going up and down—you go bananas. I tried to juggle being a good husband, being social, spending time with the family [while] also working 80 or 90 hours a week. I wanted to have a different frequency of life but also I wanted to be in control, be in control of myself.”
When Martijn first arrived in Ireland he decided he wanted a kitchen that was filled with as much of Ireland’s lovely green landscape as possible. Almost all of the produce found on the menu is from the hotel’s kitchen garden, or foraged from the coastline, fields and forests that surround the hotel. Yet, and this is something which clearly manifests itself in Martijn’s menu and the way he manages his team, he hasn’t lost sight of his Dutch roots along the way, either. “I have the Dutch salad on the menu. Dutch salad is something I learned in catering college and it’s something that I had to make every week as a commis chef. I can repeat the ingredients now: potato, celeriac, carrot, brunoise, gherkin, parsley, onion, oil, vinegar and powdered sea vegetables for a twist. It’s a recipe I can dream and the guys here can dream, too. The kitchen is very witty which I like to think is down to my Dutch influence—we aren’t afraid to make jokes.”
To emphasise his point, Martijn points a light-hearted finger at Sergio Herman’s restaurant Oud Sluis, and the silicone molds used to create drama and humour in his elaborate dishes. “I’m not the silicone master. Once upon a time everyone had those silicone molds and I even ordered the silicone compounds and said, look, I’m going to do it. Seven years later, they’re still sitting on the shelf.”
Unlike his silicone molds, Martijn certainly doesn’t seem like he’s ready to slow down and hang up his chef whites any time soon. The sacrifice he makes to continue cooking real and exceptionally well-curated food at The House Restaurant would be inconceivable, for some. While he is firmly planted in Ireland, his family has moved, along with three-month-old Aiden—a new addition to the Kajuiter clan—back to Holland. “I work really, really hard five days a week and on Sunday morning I step on the plane to be home with my family. I am always going back and forth. Am I strange? Yea, I don’t think I am a typical chef from that point of view.”
And from my point of view? Martijn is a chef whose talents deserve a trophy-cupboard full of culinary awards, which, whether he’s driven by them or not, will arrive in due course. It’s merely down to a question of time. And, perhaps, a little luck of the Irish…
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Shane O’Neill and Martin Morrell