When Sergio Herman stunned the culinary world in 2013 by announcing that he would close his famous restaurant Oud Sluis, few people could understand his decision. But, as he told Food and Wine Gazette, once he had achieved all his objectives he no longer felt motivated. “I could have gone on for another five or 10 more years but would it have been fun? For me the answer was no. I also wanted to find balance in life.”
He still works extremely hard and opening The Jane, a stunning restaurant in an old church in Antwerp with chef Nick Bril was no walk in the park. “It was very hard to set this up. I was here every day before its opening. But now I can say that after nearly a year open, I have more balance and I am seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
Sergio is still present in his two restaurants The Jane and Pure C. “I quit Oud Sluis but I did not stop. It’s still a hectic life but its completely different. This week for example, I am at The Jane three days, at Pure C on Friday and Saturday. But I still have more balance in life though its still hard work. But it is different,” Sergio said.
For 26 years, he was cooking day and night at his restaurant Oud Sluis in Zeeland, the Netherlands. 18 to 20 hour days were the order of the day. Listed among the top 20 restaurants in the world, with 3 Michelin stars and one of only two chefs in the world to receive the maximum number of points in the food guide Gault Millau, this talented chef decided to close his restaurant.
A man with an incredible work ethic, he is revealing his story to the world in the soon to be released Sergio Herman Fucking Perfect, a documentary by film-maker Willemiek Kluijfhout who follows him from the moment when he announces the decision to close the restaurant.
“It is a very nice documentary depicting 26 years of my life. It should serve as inspiration to young chefs to think of their goals in life and to find the energy to go and achieve them. If you have dreams and goals in life, you have the power to achieve them,” Sergio tells me when we met at The Jane a few days ago.
The world’s top chefs can be considered to be stars in their own right, but what message did Sergio want to convey in the documentary? “It is not only glitter and glamour. You also get to see the other side of our life. Working in the kitchens is very hard work. It’s a lot of effort by many people. Guests are coming to the restaurant and they pay x money for a meal but what they don’t realise is that there is an incredible amount of work by many people in a team at the back end before the meal even starts.”
The working times are not for the faint-hearted. “We start working in the morning, at 8am maybe 8.30am and we continue to work till late at night till 2 or 3 in the morning. This happens every day without a break. It is a tough job,” Sergio said.
I am all the more surprised when I ask him how he used to find the time to create his new dishes, something he was so well known for. It doesn’t take him long to answer. “At night,” he tells me.
It is obvious that all this has taken its toll on his life and his family and that is very evident in the documentary. But how does one go about such a big decision in one’s life? Let’s not forget, Oud Sluis is the restaurant that belonged to his parents. It is where he grew up (they lived on top of the restaurant), where he learnt how to cook, and also the place where he reached the top.
“When you are there for so many years, you end up having no new goals. As a chef, I always needed new goals which I tried to achieve each year. But if you don’t have this feeling any more and you are working in a small kitchen surrounded by so many people, it can easily demotivate you.”
The family was also an important consideration in my decision. “I am now 45 years old and I wanted to find a bit of balance in my life also for my family. I have four children. My oldest is this year 16, the second is 10 years old. I didn’t see them a lot and I feel the time has come to bring more balance and to give my children a bit more of a papa feeling. For myself, I must say that in the past two years, I feel much more relaxed at home. When I was in Oud Sluis, I would be at home one evening in the week but I was not relaxed. I was always thinking about the restaurant or about a particular dish or whatever. Now it gives me pleasure to be at home,” he tells me.
Sergio had it all. Michelin Stars, points, awards and he was in the list of best restaurants in the world. The Jane, an incredibly successful restaurant has also received its first Michelin star within less than a year of its opening. But he is no longer bothered with this. “I am no longer thinking about stars or points. Professionally, I have reached my goal in life. I am of course extremely happy for Nick and the team. But, personally, I don’t have the ego to live for stars any more. It was my life for so many years.” he tells me.
He is now searching for different things. “Of course they are important. I see it a bit like sport. It’s the equivalent of getting a gold medal. If you are working extremely hard and you receive stars or points or great reviews, of course it gives you a great feeling and gives you the power to push and go further. It gives you the ability to motivate your team, to be in control and to work harder than before. But what I would tell the next generation of chefs is to find their own cooking style and have their own gut feeling when creating new dishes. In today’s world with social media, internet and everything you find it much harder to find a style in chefs. Of course there are chefs with their own style and their own way of living and cooking but you also need to feel it in a dish.”
At 45 he is still young though a role model for many. “My advice to young chefs is to try to bring out the best of their talent every day and to try and bring out their personality through their cooking. This to me is essential. Always do your own thing. You need to be in your own tunnel and figure out what you stand for as a chef. You can reach your goals if you work hard. If you do your best every day and motivate your team then you can achieve your dreams. And remember that team spirit is extremely important,” Sergio says.
Having spent most of his professional career cooking, he misses the intensity of the kitchen. “I sometimes miss it of course. Normally I try to do spend one or two days in the kitchen each week doing service to retain the feeling which is very important,” he tells me.
Sergio is not resting on his laurels. With The Jane and Pure C he is happy with what has been achieved. But he wants to do something different. “At Oud Sluis we were working at a very high level. We still have a good level here in The Jane and in Pure C. For me, it is also my goal to do something simple with extremely good produce. The new project will still be rock and roll but with simple food.”
But how does he define simplicity? “You have to find the right balance between pure food and pure flavours. It is also a gut feeling. Cooking is not chemistry like in pastry. With pastry, it has to be exact otherwise it’s shit. But if you are cooking meat or a sauce, the feeling of how to cook it comes from your heart, from your passion. When you are looking for simplicity, you need to know what ingredients are necessary and those you can do without. It is something you cannot learn in one year. You need at least 10-12 years to have professional balance in cooking.”
With The Jane, Sergio and Nick have already moved down a notch in terms of simplicity. “We are also constrained to do this because of the numbers. At Oud Sluis we used to do 80 covers, here we do 200 a day. It has to be simpler. But the next project will be more about pure food because at the Jane it is also about the ambience and the experience.
I ask Sergio why they decided to open The Jane in the city of Antwerp, Belgium. “For me it was simple. The people who used to come to my restaurant in Sluis near Knokke and Bruges were 70 to 75% Belgian. When I was younger, I was always going to Antwerp because it’s a really nice city. It is one of my favourite cities in Belgium and I had always said that if I opened a restaurant in Belgium, it would be in Antwerp.
“Three years ago, we found this place and of course, it is an amazing project. We were busy for three years to open it. It is a project you can do only once in a lifetime,” he said.
Finding inspiration and being creative
One thing which fascinates me is how Sergio could be so creative given he was working so hard at Oud Sluis day in day out. He tells me sometimes it had to happen during the night, or as he was going along trying to find time here and there. “Now I am a little more calm and actually can find more time to be creative. But I also need more time to be creative. I need to rest more and focus more,” he said.
“For example, at the moment we are working on a new menu at The Jane. We start the discussion about what we can offer our customers, we look at what is coming in season. For example, in a few weeks time we will have asparagus and wild herbs. I would be thinking about what we could do and tonight, after the dinner service, as I drive home and am sitting in the car, I start to think and you join the dots,” he tells me.
With social media nowadays it is very easy to fall into the trap of picking up your smartphone to see what someone else is doing. “It is very easy to copy. But you need to find inspiration and be creative by yourself. That is why I always tell chefs to get into the car or go for a walk in nature. It is easier this way. Of course, I am not saying that you should not see what is happening around you. But is social media a good thing? I don’t know. What I know is that before, whenever I used to travel I would try to go to a good restaurant every evening to discover new things. Now I just look for simple things because I want to retain my own style.”
Restaurants, social media and the future
I feel Sergio is in a unique position to assess what has changed over the past years at the top of the culinary world and where it is going.
He tells me that now he is playing at a different level. “What we are doing at The Jane and in Pure C is completely different. It is of course a very good level but the mindset is completely different. I think that this is a concept for the future. I feel that young people like what we are doing. We have customers that have visited five to six times in one year. Before they would come maybe once in two years. In my opinion, we will see more of this in future. It is also what I am looking for when I go dining.”
Sergio is no longer interested in formal restaurants with impeccable service. “It’s nice but it’s not for me. In the past, I did it so many times, now I just don’t look for it any more.”
He believes that people need to feel comfortable in a restaurant. “You need comfort, not just comfort food. A restaurant should be easy going and with a good price quality ratio. If you go out to eat, you want to relax. It is so hectic now. With all the emails we receive each day, social media everywhere, it is just crazy.”
Since he mentions social media, I ask him what he makes of bloggers. “You have good and bad bloggers. Many times we are in the kitchen and the people in service tell us there is a blogger on this table and on that table. They have just created a blog and want to write something. Nowadays, everyone can start a blog, it is easy to post something about what you ate, what you like about the food. There are things which maybe you might not like but is it so important if a waiter made a mistake and spilt some wine on the table cloth!” I cannot help but nod and agree with him.
“What is sure is that if before it was complex with all the guides and points, it is now even worse. But for me the bottom line is that one needs to enjoy oneself when going out. You need to enjoy the moment with your wife or children or friends and have a nice lunch or dinner. Of course you cannot do anything about photos in restaurants. I used to hate it at Oud Sluis but there is nothing you can do to stop it. But yesterday I had a lady at the restaurant. She was taking photos and texting throughout the meal. It was unbelievable. To me, that’s a step to far.”
You can read Food and Wine Gazette’s review of the film Sergio Herman Fucking Perfect here.
Don’t miss our insight into Sergio Herman in the coming days. He talks about food waste, his mentor, his best ever meal, what he would never eat, favourite places to eat among others.