Holding three Michelin stars at De Librije since 2004, Jonnie Boer is undeniably one of the Netherlands’ most renowned chefs. He’s created culinary magic at the famed Dutch institution since the age of 23, and it was here that he became the country’s youngest two-Michelin- starred chef in 1999 – an impressive feat for a cook who hadn’t always imagined a career in the culinary arts.
“Cooking was not included in my career prospects. However, this changed after starting culinary school when I was 17 years old. Over time, my passion and interests regarding this industry grew.
“One of my role models throughout the years has to be Cas Spijkers. He definitely is, and was, one of the foremost chefs our country has known. He is the one who introduced the world to ‘culinair Nederland’. I have had the privilege to learn from him, as well as many other big names these days.”
Before assuming the reigns of De Librije in 1989, Jonnie attended a private chef course in Groningen and then went on to gain experience at the Lido and now-closed, Michelin-starred De Boerderij, both in Amsterdam. It was at De Boerderij – a classic restaurant both in presence and in food preparation – where he gained his most formative cooking experience, learning the classical basics of cooking that he still uses in his kitchen to this day.
When news came to Boer that there was a restaurant in Zwolle with a focus on using regional products, he simply couldn’t resist writing to the owners to ask for a job. Thus, Jonnie left the Dutch capital to begin his new journey as trainee chef at De Librije. After a year, he was named head chef, and after a few more years, he and his now-wife, Thérèse, purchased the restaurant.
Sourcing locally and using nature as his inspiration have always been the key elements that underpin Jonnie’s cooking philosophy. For more than three decades, the chef has used nature as his muse to craft wildly impressive dishes that are well-deserving of their endless stream of awards.
“Nature has always been a big part of my life, as well as within my cooking. It has so much to offer for us; nearly everything can be used. In addition, all products offered can be turned into different ingredients that can be used in a dish. Nature will always be a source of inspiration. For me, regional, local and nature’s products are key elements for my cooking.
“As I grew up around water and went fishing often, fish is one of my favourite ingredients to use. It shows many opportunities and is a wonderful product to cook with. In addition, vegetables remain a main ingredient.
« The variety which our country and nature has to offer is limitless, so we try to optimise this as much as possible.
“Anything that I think can be useful for a dish, I write down and look back at later on. I have a notebook in which I write down all my wild ideas. After writing these down, they become a little less wild and more tangible. They are then transformed into drawings, which I share with my right-hand, Thérèse. Then these tangible and workable ideas are shared and discussed with my chefs. The next step is to work these out, see what is possible when flavours are brought together, and then it is decided upon. After this, we see if it is possible for the dish to be brought to life.
“The menu is based on our region, and includes nature’s aspects. These remain the main sources and thread throughout every menu that we create. All our producers are based locally or regionally. It is important to us to support the local farmers and producers as well. Besides giving them a bigger platform to distribute their products to, we appreciate local produce. It is of importance to us to show good food and products that do not have to come from far away. Additionally, we source locally for environmental reasons, as well as showing people that every part of a product can be used. This increases the opportunity to be creative with cooking and dishes.”
We have had many signature dishes during the past 30 years at De Librije, none of which is more special than another. We continue to look for ways to create new dishes and be innovative with these. None of them stay around for too long.”
What is unique at De Librije is the diner’s ability to select their own plates according to preferences, and create a bespoke menu tailored to their own tastes. As the chef explains, it was a decision based on the kind of experience he wanted to impart on guests, allowing them to create their own, standalone culinary odyssey. It also gives Boer and his team the opportunity and freedom to experiment with a variety of menu designs that suit each individual guest’s wishes.
This thoughtful, all-encompassing approach is something that Jonnie and Thérèse aim to incorporate throughout the restaurant. From the food to the music and the aesthetic, everything is carefully considered to ensure their guests have the most enjoyable dining experience.
“We aim to create a relaxed ambience for our guests. They are here to enjoy and experience De Librije, and some time off from reality. This is done through many different aspects. Our staff taking care of everything, making sure guests do not worry. They serve you even before you realise you need something new.
“In terms of our decor, it’s bold and robust with elements of nature incorporated. De Librije is situated in a former prison, and throughout the restaurant and in the hotel you will find small details that resemble its past. The style is classic but different, with wood and leather and a spacious setting.
“Our music is relaxed – some old-school, some new. It is a nice mixture of music that relaxes, yet gives a lounge-like feeling as well. It is music tailored to a pleasurable dinner evening. We want our diners to leave with a feeling of satisfaction, relaxation and an experience that they will never forget.
“I have always aimed for the diner’s enjoyment, this is one of the most important things of running a restaurant. We aim to please our guests. Awards are nice additions to running the restaurant – however, not a main aiming point. I get to share my passion with others, and this will remain one of the great joys of running a restaurant. Leaving guests with satisfaction and enjoyment is one of the pleasures that make me thrive to continue – as well as creating new menus and seeing what different products have to offer, and later on be turned into dishes.
“For us, we truly do and show what we love. Our passion lays within the hospitality industry and guest satisfaction. By keeping these as a main and current focus, it shows in the product that we deliver. Everything we do is with passion and honesty, which reflects into our work.
“It feels really good, and quite normal, to run a restaurant of this calibre after doing so for over 30 years. We are mainly very happy and satisfied to always be able to give our guests the experience that we want, and that we can leave them with a good impression and a great smile.
“During the years in this industry, many moments have happened that were amazing. Those that would stand out for me would be receiving my first and third Michelin star for De Librije. The first star was rather soon after we bought and started running De Librije, so this achievement was rather thrilling. Receiving the third star, and being only the second restaurant in the Netherlands to do so, is indescribable. Three Michelin stars is more or less the icing on the cake in this industry – it is the highest reward possible.”
As expected, the success and joys of owning a restaurant are also met with difficulties, and for Jonnie and Thérèse, staffing has been one of their biggest challenges. The fellow chefs and the front-of-house staff are integral to the overall De Librije experience, and ensuring they remain to the duo’s high standard is no easy feat.
“Staff might be one of the key challenges. We try to make sure everyone is on the same page before opening. In addition, it remains a challenge to keep up the current level at which we are. However, through true passion and communication these challenges are overcome.”
A more recent challenge that the restaurant industry – and the world–has had to face is the corona virus pandemic.
In Jonnie and Thérèse’s case, along with the stress and uncertainty felt by all, the lockdown did have a silver lining for them and their family.
“It has been a rather unique experience. For the first time in 30 years, Thérèse and I have had a period in which we were at home every day. We took this time to be with our family and to relax as needed. As for De Librije, this was rather unique as well. We did not do much during the first lockdown. However, we were able to have four amazing months after the reopening. Due to the partial lockdown later on, we had to think of new ideas to keep on thriving. Crazy times call for creative solutions, which we have done together with our Librije’s atelier by organising online live cooking classes and online wine tastings.
“In my opinion, Covid-19 has made people become more aware of food and where to get it, and think more locally. We have always been doing this with regards to De Librije. We get our products from local suppliers, and regional products. I believe that especially now, people have become more aware and can see that good food does not have to come from far away. In addition, I believe more restaurants will focus on proper hygiene as this is a crucial aspect in general, and definitely over the last few years.”
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Images by Pieter D’Hoop