“My philosophy when it comes to cooking is to stay true to yourself – follow your own style and feeling. I have been doing this for 33 years now, and keep this as my mantra. This, for me, is the most important part of my life as a chef – to follow your gut feeling. This is what separates you from the rest and defines you. Create your own style and put yourself out there,” says Sergio passionately. And it’s exactly what the renowned Dutch cook and restaurateur has done ever since he embarked on his culinary career all those years ago.
Sergio grew up in a town in the Zeeland province of the Netherlands. He inherited not only a love of cooking from his father, but also the family restaurant Oud Sluis, which would eventually become his own and lead him to gain his first Michelin stars. Known for its abundance of high-quality produce from both land and sea, Zealand may no longer be Sergio’s main home. But it will always remain in his culinary heart and provide a wealth of inspiration for his cooking.
“If you are born there, you are born with the sea. I have grown up surrounded by fantastic local produce and using local suppliers, so for me, this is the most natural way of creating menus. We use fish and seafood from the North Sea and local meat and vegetables from the local area.
“For me, it’s just a normal way of thinking, and there is always something to create. I live by the seasons and use what we have at the moment, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be more than that – just cook with what you can get around you or find a local alternative. For example, for seaweeds and soy sauce in our Japanese-inspired dishes, we use local Dutch products. It’s not necessary to import anything – you just have to look around you and spend a little time researching. And, if you can’t find it, think differently.”
During his time at the helm of Oud Sluis, Sergio rose to fame by helping the world-renowned dining room gain three Michelin stars and a place on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. However, in December 2013, at the peak of its success, Sergio closed Oud Sluis to concentrate on his other restaurant concepts: Pure C in Cadzand, the Netherlands, and La Chapelle (now known as The Jane), the latter housed in the former chapel on the site of an old military hospital in Antwerp, Belgium.
The move to Antwerp was a very considered one, as Herman felt that it was time to open a new restaurant where he could get back to concentrating on cooking more impulsively, and for an international audience that would be receptive to his innovative cuisine.
“The cooking style of a chef will naturally change throughout the years, because your feelings change and you also get older. You will think differently and also you wish to eat and cook differently, and this is why I chose to close the Oud Sluis restaurant and move on to new creative projects.”
With its penchant for good food, good wine and generally eating out, Belgium remains a land of plenty for the creative chef, who soon garnered two Michelin stars for The Jane. But he didn’t stop there: Sergio then launched his ‘luxury chip shop’ Frites Atelier in 2016 to pay homage to one of his most beloved ingredients – the humble potato. In true Herman style, the process to create the final menu took more than 18 months of testing potato varieties and soil types, as well as the many other factors that go into creating the perfect French fry. With four locations in Belgium (The Hague, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp) and two in the Netherlands, Frites Atelier has become a must-visit for discerning chip eaters.
Simultaneously, the busy chef was extending his fine-dining portfolio in Cadzand with the opening of two new ventures; AIRrepublic in 2017 and Blueness in 2018. Both have a strong focus on the local terroir: AIRrepublic specialises in classic seafood dishes while at Blueness, Sergio uses his beloved Zealand produce to show what he can do with Japanese cuisine. These sensational restaurants are a testament to Sergio’s perfectionism and dedication to flavour. So much so that AIRrepublic quickly gained a Michelin star from the renowned guide.
“Flavour is the most important element, and will always be the number-one focus. Creating new dishes has everything to do with your feelings. I love art, design and music, and I am sensitive and receptive to beautiful objects. They influence my style but of course also my daily mood and the stages of my life.
“My style has definitely become more direct and pure as I have gotten older. I now concentrate on pureness, and it’s a brilliant step in my life. It’s less show on the plate and more focus on the product and trying to bring something honest, tasty and better – not just trying to show off. But again, that comes with time and experience.
“Pureness of product is the most important thing for me at the moment. Before there used to be a lot of things happening on the plate, but now it’s about elevating the tastes with accents in the most straightforward way.”
Some chefs would see this collection of restaurants – and the accompanying accolades – as enough to be getting on with. But Sergio is on a quest for attaining culinary excellence according to his ever-changing creative whims.
“I have a strong urge to get the best out of myself. I think it’s always nice to work and do what you love to do. When we open a new venue we get so much energy from it, so over the next few years, I want to continue to give the best of myself. “We feel that we have quite a lot of options at the moment, and are in talks about potential projects in London and the UAE. The next step in our company is to go international, so wherever it may be, that is the next step. It’s good to have a dream in life, so never stop dreaming.”
Sergio’s most recent project, Le Pristine, is a reflection of where he is as a chef today – at least for now. The fine-casual dining concept is described by Herman as an ‘ode to Italian cuisine, flair, class, purity and beauty’ in combination with his native Zeeland terroir.
“All the restaurants are unique. Le Pristine is not more unique than any of the other restaurants; they are just different, and each offers something special to guests. “We always start with the seaside as a base for all my restaurant concepts, because that is me. That’s the heart of my cooking. My partner for Le Pristine had a fashion brand in Milan, so the link with Italy was very immediate. I am also in love with Italian food and wanted to bring something more, so it goes beyond classic Italian to create something unique to the energy of us and Le Pristine. I call
it ‘new Italian’.”
Housed on the ground floor of a 1960s modernist building in Antwerp, the restaurant’s interiors are a nod to the city’s artistic and architectural heritage, and offer diners an impressive backdrop to their exceptional dining experience.
Stefan worked with Danish studio Space Copenhagen to create the stunning interiors, adorned with work from celebrated creatives such as Sabine Marcelis, Maarten Baas and Frederik Molenschot. Here he’s reunited with head chefs Chris Blom (formerly of Oud Sluis, The Jane and AIRrepublic) and Thomas D’Hooghe (Clandestino, Hemelrijk, Pure C) and working with some new faces, such as restaurant manager Willem van den Broeck. Willem worked at Noma in Copenhagen, Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum, and was awarded Best Sommelier of Belgium in 2010. Sergio shows diners his love for all forms of creativity and brings them together in an unparalleled display of talent and energy.
“Our working points are always food, fashion, design, art and music. So we always try to bring in those elements in every one of the restaurant concepts. At Le Pristine, the focus points are the flavours and ingredients from my roots combined with Italian flavours and flair. Working together with Space Copenhagen to create the overall interior concept, as well as incorporating local designers and artists from Belgium and The Netherlands, has been such a wonderful experience.”
Sergio’s creations are far greater than just plates of food. Just like the spaces that house his restaurants and the carefully selected produce seen on the menus, they are real works of art.
“It is all about the details. People feel this when they come in, that it is not only eating in a restaurant. It is so, so, so much more than that,” muses Sergio.
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 02.21 Edition.
Photography By Peter-Paul De Meijer, Chantal Arnts & Kris Vlegels