‘I was eight, helping my mum bake a cake’. Michelin-star winning restaurateur Francois Geurds is recalling the moment when he decided to become a chef. We’re sitting in Ivy, his restaurant in Rotterdam - named in fact after the mother who taught him to cook. It’s the bustling, buzzing run-up to lunch with everyone from the cleaner to the sommelier is hard at work, but Geurds gets a far-away look in his eyes as he tells the story. ‘I sat on a little stool in front of the oven and I watched the cake rising and turning golden for the whole 45 minutes. I was riveted, as though I was watching a film. It was beautiful, just seeing the process unfold. And I thought: I’ve got to know more about this’.
This year, Geurds will open a new test kitchen to further the perpetual process of innovation and experimentation necessary to keep Ivy in its place as one of the top restaurants in the Netherlands. ‘All Gaggenau,’ he says. ‘I worked with a similar test kitchen at the Fat Duck. It’s great equipment, works perfectly and looks great. It does everything, it gives you almost infinite possibilities’. As if to suggest what those may entail, a proof of Geurds’ experimental approach arrives at the table: a tiny ice cream – flavour: picalilly (a kind of English pickle) - atop a tomato cornet, a potent one-bite explosion of intense zinginess.
‘We used to eat chips and picalilly with Heston every Saturday’, says Geurds. ‘I love picalilly! So I thought, why not make a picalilly ice cream?’ Some of course might just ask, why? ‘I love to surprise the customer’, says Geurds. ‘And myself too’.
Geurds’ mother is from Aruba, and his enthusiasm for cooking, he reckons, derives from the Caribbean food culture he absorbed through her. His Dutch father, a vegetable grower, was a huge influence too. ‘He used to say that vegetables were the future’, says the chef, and today Ivy offers a vegetarian menu as a matter of course. ‘Eating healthily is becoming more and more important. People are far more aware of what they eat. That’s one of the biggest developments I’ve seen in my 20 years as a chef’.
The return to the ideal of the natural and organic follows the scientific approach of molecular gastronomy – the culinary chemistry practised by the likes of Feran Adria and Heston Blumenthal and sometimes criticized for the use of additives or E numbers. Geurds combines the best of both worlds. He’s very much in the molecular tradition, but puts the emphasis on authentic, wholesome ingredients, many of which he goes out of his way to source.
‘We never use additives or colouring to make a dish look or taste good’, he says, as a plate of yellow jerusalem artichoke and manchego custard, dotted with black herring roe, burgundy bottargo and red and purple flower petals, arrives on the table. ‘First, we decide how a dish should taste. Then we get the presentation right’.
In the background, the kitchen staff make short, fast movements, their young, flushed faces bobbing over steaming pans. The atmosphere is busy, yet everyone seems relaxed. Geurds has a word for everyone, and while he’s an authoritative presence in the restaurant, it’s hard to image him as a culinary prima donna. ‘A happy kitchen is a good kitchen’, he says knowingly. Kitchen design, he adds, must be simple, unobtrusive, and practical: ‘Physically, routing is the most important thing. You need to be able to reach everything within one metre, two metres at most’.
‘Perfection in simplicity’, as Geurd adds. ‘That’s where food is going now. And authenticity. It’s more and more about going back to basics, back to the traditional kitchen. Proper food well-prepared – that’s what it’s all about’.