Cooking from the heart

17 Apr 2016
4 min read
He’s one half of the husband and wife team of De Librije, a destination restaurant in Holland, which has held three Michelin stars for 10 years. FOUR catches up with head chef and co-owner Jonnie Boer…

Jonnie and Thérèse Boer have been busy, not just in recent weeks or months, but over the past 21 years. In 1993, the husband and wife team took over Restaurant De Librije. Since then, they have acquired and retained the highest accolade in the culinary world: three Michelin stars. They’ve opened a Relais & Châteaux hotel (Jonnie is also a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef), second restaurant, cookery school, wine academy and a food and wine shop. They have also helped shape the face of new gastronomy in the Netherlands, which has been underlined by their food festival, now in its second year, called Chefs (R)Evolution. Held in the town of Zwolle—which, thanks to the Boers, has become known as a gastronomic mecca in recent years—in its short history has been attended by some of the world’s best chefs. This year’s festival, which took place at the time of going to print, was scheduled to include appearances by René Redzepi, Quique Dacosta, Massimo Bottura and Grant Achatz, among others.

It’s in this rural pocket, a town with a population of 125,000, where Jonnie and Thérèse’s ancient monastery turned Michelin-starred Restaurant De Librije attracts patrons from far and wide. In 2008, they opened Librije’s Hotel—a former women’s prison which has been transformed into the Netherlands’ smallest five-star hotel. With 19 guest rooms, each one has been respectfully refurbished while maintaining key features, such as the cell doors and bars on the windows. “It took considerable daring to convert a prison dating back to 1739 into a prestigious hotel,” says Rob van Duijn, maître de maison of Librije’s Hotel.

In the same year as the hotel’s launch, Jonnie and Thérèse opened restaurant Librije’s Zusje [which translates to Librije’s Sister]. Fast on the heels of De Librije, Librije’s Zusje has two Michelin stars, retained since 2011.

“Restaurant De Librije is doing very well,” says Jonnie, reflecting on his first-born restaurant. “We have a great team and everybody is working with passion, whether it is in the kitchen of Restaurant De Librije, in Librije’s Hotel, Librije’s Zusje, our cooking school Librije’s Atelier or in Librije’s shop.”

At the heart of Jonnie’s cooking is the produce, the single most important factor of any dish. In recent years, Jonnie acknowledges there has been a shift in attitude, with far more Dutch chefs using local produce than they did in previous years. “We used to get our vegetables from other countries,” Jonnie admits. “Now we mainly work with produce from our own region. For me, it has always been obvious to work this way. Why would I want expensive green beans from Kenya?”

To describe Jonnie’s culinary style is near impossible. He’s even been known to tell his guests he doesn’t have a speciality or style—that’s the beauty of De Librije. Traditional, but innovative, highly skilled and always with a focus on the ingredients of the land. The restaurant’s creations are a combination of flavours—the best of the locality and what the seasons present Jonnie and his team. “Our style of cooking is simple, pure and traditional. When you cook and serve with heart and soul everything is special. In recent years we have developed an idiosyncratic handwriting. We use lots of authentic regional produce in combination with the latest cooking techniques. New creations emerge as new ingredients present themselves or when other ingredients are no longer available. It is not like before when the menu was changed four times a year. Dishes change when the time is right—it is a matter of feeling and demand.”

Jonnie’s flavour combinations and presentation skills are a reflection of the chef’s personality and unique culinary ability, however the ingredients always lead dishes at De Librije.

For Jonnie, simplicity is key to his restaurant’s success. “In the world of De Librije we use local produce, picking wild [produce] in the region, to really ‘see’ the region and to be proud of your roots are just some pillars on which De Librije is built. We live in a rural environment and I believe you have to use your environment, we certainly do in our kitchens.

“We have a greenhouse just a few kilometres away from Zwolle. Eef Stel is our highly valued vegetable grower who, at our request, cultivates vegetables.” It is this kind of personal relationship between grower and chef that sets chefs of Jonnie’s calibre apart from others.

There are many factors that turn a good restaurant into an excellent, three-Michelin-starred one. The food foremost, but service and surroundings are also contributing factors. Audaciously converting a former monastery into a culinary institution, the building adds an edge of romance and mystique to the overall guest experience at De Librije. “We prefer special buildings with a history,” Jonnie says. “This can be seen by the changes we have made. The former prison has its own history too and has been transformed into a five star hotel, beautifully combined with traditional elements such as the cell doors.”

That said, big plans lay ahead for the restaurant, as Jonnie and Thérèse plan a renovation to give De Librije a complete new look.

While Jonnie and Thérèse’s influences lie in the land, their own identity is strong and unhindered by international culinary trends. “We do our best to maintain our own identity,” Jonnie says proudly. “For example, we love vegetables and grow them ourselves as much as possible. In our greenhouse we currently make extensive use of fermented juices. This gives such a special basis for preparations and creates a natural acidity.”

True to his word, two of the dishes to appear on the menu at De Librije include these elements: the foie gras with North Sea crab, which includes fermented cabbage and the pigeon with foie gras ‘cream’ and goat’s cheese, which includes kohlrabi juice.

Importantly, Jonnie follows his heart, which is led by nature.