High up on the 23rd floor of Hotel Okura Amsterdam, there is something truly unique happening. Aside from the spectacular view of the city that can be seen from the panoramic windows, you can also and Ciel Bleu, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant from Onno Kokmeijer.
Not always known as a destination for high-end gastronomy, Amsterdam has recently witnessed a surge in talented Dutch chefs who have helped to put the vibrant city on the culinary map. Now boasting 19 Michelin starred restaurants in the capital, Onno Kokmeijer is considered one of the pioneers of Amsterdam’s growing gastronomic renaissance. It is no surprise that Onno has led the way with his fine-dining cuisine when this has been his chosen career path ever since he was young. “When I was nine years old I already knew I wanted to be a cook. My father was also an inspiration. He loves cooking at home and especially at the weekend, so at that time I helped him in the kitchen and he taught me a lot about ingredients and cooking.
“Then when I was 12 I went straight to culinary school in the north part of Holland. After two years you have to make a choice whether you want to pursue cooking and serving, or bakery and pâtisserie. For me it was easy, I chose to go further with cooking and serving.”
The culinary journey of Onno Kokmeijer at Ciel Bleu restaurant started in 2003. Onno was asked to lead the restaurant, and he immediately knew that he wanted to create something truly special for the Dutch capital and all those who came to visit.
“In 2003 we had the opportunity to start in Ciel Bleu, and at that time the general manager very clearly said to me, ‘Onno I want stars in my restaurant’. A few hotels at that time had restaurants with one star but Ciel Bleu had none, so it was very important for Ciel Bleu to achieve this.
We started with a team of six boys and girls in the kitchen, and now we are 20 chefs. Two years later, in 2005, we were awarded our first Michelin star – and it was a very exciting moment, as you can imagine.”
“The unique thing was that the General Manager had always said to me, ‘Onno, the restaurant is part of the Okura, but see it as your restaurant.’ In this way we had a carte blanche, which I think encouraged the success of the restaurant. Over the next few years, the desires of the hotel’s international guests became the basis of the chef ’s kitchen. Even though they still had a menu that was largely inspired by classic French cuisine, they realised that their main clientele were in desperate need of a high-end restaurant offering great local produce with worldwide flavours.
“When we started in 2003 at the Okura it still wasn’t really a gastronomic capital for international travellers, or Dutch people for that matter.
“Then during 2006/2007, Dutch people also began to realise that food was more than just casual sustenance. At that time there were also lot of cooking programmes on television. With more than 12 different shows, this was definitely the rise of the celebrity chef in Holland. Dutch customers began seeing what we were doing, in terms of innovation and creativity, which created a real interest in the culinary arts for both high-end and regular chefs.”
Success for Ciel Bleu continued, as did its constant search for the best ingredients and methods of preparation, and the restaurant was awarded its second star in 2007.
Having given the culinary concept a boost by letting go of some classic techniques and dishes, the chefs were able to introduce a more inventive way of cooking. “We are always trying to be innovative with our use of classic and contemporary dishes. For example, we have a couple of excellent dishes that make use of North Sea crab and turbot. We are very proud of these ingredients when they are in season’ because they are of exceptional quality. We combine these with international flavours such as ras el hanout and tom yam-style.
“So, for example, the crab with the classic white-wine sauce, but we make an ice cream from it.”
Now in 2017, the restaurant has retained its two-star status, which is a massive achievement because at the time, Ciel Bleu was the only restaurant in Amsterdam with the title.
“It is very important for our guests, especially for our Japanese guests, and us, as we are the only Okura hotel in Europe. So a lot of Japanese guests that stay in our hotel and visit one of the four restaurants in the hotel, they like the two-star award. Because many other international guests also find their way up to Ciel Bleu, Onno has made sure that he keeps track of culinary developments happening outside of The Netherlands as well. “Lots of young chefs over the last 10 years or so have been learning abroad and then bringing their concepts back to Holland. It has created a diverse gastronomic landscape in the city, and has given way to a whole new generation of chefs with their own independent restaurants.”
Therefore, to stay ahead of his game, Onno samples many different cuisines and get inspiration from travelling to other countries, including England, Spain, France, Italy, Japan, China and the United States.
“We made a big move in 2013. We saw a lot of chefs coming from outside of Amsterdam moving into the city, because they saw that there was a lot of potential to grow the restaurant scene.
“So we changed the menu and concept even more to compliment the international audience.”
The approach of Chef Kokmeijer is highly practical: he and his right-hand man, Arjan Speelman, make sure that any dish can be prepared every night, even when the restaurant is fully booked. Onno refines the recipes and focuses on the visual aspects – the arrangement on the plate, the type of tableware and the method of serving.
“It is important that guests like the dishes and the way we serve them. It is also important for us in the kitchen that the guests can recognise a part of menu that may be from their country in a positive way. We have respect for the flavours, so we hope that this comes through in the food.
The nature of dining out now is that the feedback is so instant. They can share everything with you and the world via digital media, so their opinion about service, food and ambience is visible to the world instantly. ”
Since its refurbishment last year, guests can also now watch the ambitious kitchen team in action via the new open-plan kitchen.
“We offer a nine-course menu, which we like to try and serve within three hours, all of which can be seen by the guests. They are small dishes, which have international flavours. My favourite dishes are those with fish and seafood and usually the main ‘dish’ we serve is a meat dish. So beef when it is in season, or lamb from the UK when it is at its best. The quality is very important, so we really try to find the right supplier to ensure that the produce is consistent.”
Designed by architect Bert Verwey, the addition of subtle colour tones, indirect lighting and a comfortable dining ambience now aptly reflects the cosmopolitan character that Amsterdam is known for. “Our service is so open-minded, just like the city. Guests feel warm and welcome, and we take time to explain and answer any questions they have.
“We like to get information from the guests in order to improve the service and the kitchen.
They are everything to us. They are the ones who make it successful. We have to listen to want they want and where they come from in order to create the best dining experience for them.”
As the culinary borders between the individual countries are becoming increasingly blurred, so are the roles of guest and chef. Perhaps the key to Onno’s continued success is his gratitude towards the diner and the appreciation that the culinary world is constantly evolving, and therefore so must the chef.
“A lot of chefs feel that they are the most important person and the guest comes second, but this has definitely changed in recent years. I think that the age in which we live has helped this because the digital world allows guests to communicate everything instantly.
“Especially the young generation – they are eating with one hand and busy on their mobile phone in the other. They are telling the whole world what they think about every element of the meal. It means you must pay attention to the guests.”
It seems clear that since Onno’s inception, cuisine that is surprising and innovating, plus an eye for perfection, have been the basis of Ciel Bleu and will continue to be in the future. With quiet ambition, Kokmeijer states, “of course, once you have one you then need to work even harder to get two. The first star helps you learn a lot and also changes the way you look at things around you in order to continue the same success. For us this learning worked, and in 2007 we were awarded the second star. Now we will just have to work on the third…”
Find out more about Ciel Bleu at the Hotel Okura Amsterdam here | www.okura.nl