He’s one half of the husband and wife team of Restaurant De Librije, adestination restaurant in Holland, which has held three Michelin stars for10 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, butfor the past 21 years to be precise. In 1993, the husband and wife team took overRestaurant De Librije. Since then, they have acquired and retained the highestaccolade in the culinary world; three Michelin stars. They’ve opened a Relais &Châteaux hotel (Jonnie is also a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef), a second restaurant,cookery school, wine academy and a food and wine shop. They’ve also helped shapethe face of new gastronomy in the Netherlands, which has been underlined by theirfood festival, now in its second year, called Chefs (R)Evolution. Held in the village ofZwolle – which, thanks to the Boers, has become known as a gastronomical mecca inrecent years – in its short history it has been attended by some of the world’s bestchefs. This year’s festival, which took place at the time of going to press, wasscheduled to include appearances by René Redzepi, Quique Dacosta, MassimoBottura and Grant Achatz, among others.
It’s in this rural pocket, with a population of 125,000, where Jonnie and Thérèse’sancient monastery–cum Michelin-starred Restaurant De Librije attracts patrons fromfar and wide. In 2008, they opened Librije’s Hotel – a former women’s prison whichhas been transformed into the Netherlands’ smallest five-star hotel. With 19 guestrooms, each one has been respectfully refurbished, while maintaining key features,such as the cell doors and bars on the windows. “It took considerable daring toconvert a prison dating back to 1739 into a prestigious hotel,” says Rob van Duijn,Maître de Maison of Restaurant De Librije and Librije’s Hotel.
In the same year as the hotel’s launch, Jonnie and Thérèse opened restaurantLibrije’s Zusje [which translates to Librije’s Sister]. Fast on the heels of RestaurantDe Librije, Librije’s Zusje has two Michelin stars, retained since 2011.
“Restaurant De Librije is doing very well,” says Jonnie, reflecting on his first bornrestaurant. “We have a great team and everybody is working with passion, whetherit is in the kitchen of Restaurant De Librije, in Librije’s Hotel, Restaurant Librije’sZusje, 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 ofany dish. In recent years, Jonnie acknowledges there has been a shift in attitude,with far more Dutch chefs now using local produce than they did in previous years.“We used to get our vegetables from other countries,” Jonnie admits. “Now wemainly work with produce from our own region. For me, it is always been obvious towork 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 tellhis 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 ingredientsof the land. The restaurant’s creations are a combination of flavours – the best of thelocality and what the seasons present Jonnie and his team. “Our style of cooking issimple, pure and traditional. When you cook and serve with heart and souleverything is special. In recent years, we have developed an idiosyncratichandwriting. We use lots of authentic regional produce in combination with the latestcooking techniques.” He explains: “New creations emerge as new ingredients presentthemselves or when other ingredients are no longer available. It is not like beforewhen the menu was changed four times a year. Dishes change when the time isright, it is a matter of feeling and demand.”
Jonnie’s choice of flavour combinations and presentation are a reflection of the chef’spersonality and unique culinary ability, however the ingredients lead a dish at DeLibrije.
For Jonnie, simplicity is key to his restaurant’s success. “In the world of De Librije weuse local produce, picking wild [produce] in the region, to really ‘see’ the region andto be proud of your roots are just some pillars on which De Librije is built. We live ina rural environment and I believe you have to use your environment, we certainly doin our kitchens.
“We have a greenhouse just a few kilometres away from Zwolle. Eef Stel is ourhighly valued vegetable grower who, at our request, cultivates vegetables,” Jonniesays. It is this kind of personal relationship between grower and chef that sets chefsof Jonnie’s calibre apart from others.
There are many factors that turn a good restaurant into an excellent, three Michelinstarred one. The food foremost, but service and surroundings are also contributingfactors. Audaciously converting a former monastery into a culinary institution, thebuilding adds an edge of romance and mystique to the overall guest experience atDe Librije. “We prefer special buildings with a history,” Jonnie says. “This can beseen by the changes we have made. The former prison has its own history too andhas been transformed into a five star hotel, beautifully combined with traditionalelements such as the cell doors.”
That said, big plans lay ahead for the restaurant, as in January, Jonnie and Thérèseplan 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 andunhindered by international culinary trends. “We do our best to maintain our ownidentity,” Jonnie says proudly.“For example, we love vegetables and grow themourselves as much as possible. In our greenhouse we currently make extensive useof fermented juices. This gives such a special basis for preparations and creates anatural acidity.”
True to his word, two of the dishes to recently appear on the menu at De Librijeinclude the foie gras with North Sea crab, which includes fermented beetroot and thepigeon with goose liver ‘cream’ and goat’s cheese, which includes turnip cabbagejuice.
Importantly, Jonnie follows his heart, which is led by nature.