Few people would imagine that Cadzand in the North Sea would be the place for a highly successful restaurant. Until a few years, it was a beautiful but rarely visited part of Zeeland. Situated in the Netherlands, just a few kilometres away from Belgium, the location may be idyllic but it is not only out of the way but barely known until Sergio Herman decided to open Pure C there.
Pure C opened in 2010, nearly six years ago and overlooks Cadzand’s beautiful beach. Since then, it has made a name for itself among foodies. After all, this is the creation of former three Michelin star chef Sergio Herman.
He entrusted the kitchen to Syrco Bakker, a young chef who had worked with him at his three Michelin star restaurant Oud Sluis which the talented Dutch chef closed in December 2013.
“From Sergio I learned the drive, the attention to detail and constantly striving for quality. I worked at Oud Sluis for three years and it was amazing how he was developing and changing things so fast,” Syrco tells Food and Wine Gazette on a cold and rainy autumn day when we went to interview him at the restaurant in Cadzand.
Having secured a Michelin star in 2011, Syrco is considered to be one of the rising stars of Dutch cuisine. And with a mentor like Sergio Herman, you can expect him to go far.
Sergio describes Syrco as a chef who is driven by an enormous willingness to work, who has great enthusiasm and an inexhaustible amount of creativity. “He is extremely talented and just as passionate as me. He delves deeply into himself and is not afraid to go for it, to expose himself and his roots.” Getting such words of praise from someone like Sergio, known for constantly striving for perfection, gives you some insight into what you can expect from this young chef.
Only 31 years old, Bakker has been at the helm of Pure C since it opened in 2010. Did he feel the pressure when Pure C opened? “Maybe in the beginning, when we started Pure C, there was some pressure because we wanted to show what we could do. Now, I am a little bit older and I am more focused on giving guests a unique Pure C experience. We are in a unique location and we are going step by step to create something nice and interesting.”
He tells me that he loves the spot but when Sergio told him that this was the place where they would open a restaurant and have a business he could not understand it. “There was the financial crisis. If you had said six years ago that there would be a restaurant with a Michelin star here, everyone would have said that you are crazy and that it is impossible.”But we had a lot of Belgian customers who came and they kept on coming to eat. They love good food and drink and Pure C started very well as a business.”
Sergio’s idea was to create a restaurant that he enjoyed and one which puts Zeeland, his region in the spotlight. He wanted to create something with the ‘Ibiza’ feeling in the North Sea where guests could go and eat and drink cocktails in a holiday atmosphere with funky music playing in the background.
“We started off as a bistro style restaurant, modern and casual. Our aim was for the guest to feel comfortable and not like in a classical French restaurant. We wanted them to feel like they are on holiday or at home. It worked out very well, maybe also because of the crisis.”
The crisis changed a lot of things. “People may want to eat out once or twice a year and they really have to choose where to go. Most of the time they choose places like Pure C not only for the food but also for the experience.”
Having received a Michelin star after just one and a half years, did this change Pure C’s plans, I ask. How did it effect Syrco? “In the beginning we did something that we really liked but we still continue to do this. Michelin rewarded us for what we were doing but we still focus on what we want to do.”
He acknowledges that sometimes it is hard not to follow what Michelin want but the team and he are focused on offering a nice experience. ‘It might sound like a cliché but we follow our heart and if Michelin likes it we are very happy, if not, we go for a full restaurant because that is what is more important.”
The Dutch chef with Indonesian roots tells me that his cuisine is inspired by the use of local products and of course seafood. “We are in the North Sea, this is a very rich area with lots of nice products, vegetables and herbs. We use flavours from across the road. But I also give my cooking a hint of Indonesian and Asian flavours because of my roots.”
He started off as a dishwasher but quickly moved to become one of the kitchen staff at Landgoed De Rose. Holidays gave him the opportunity to gain experience. As a cooking “nomad”, Syrco travelled throughout Europe to learn in the best restaurants.
After working with Jonnie Boer and Gordon Ramsay he went to work for Sergio Herman at Oud Sluis and it was here that he felt at home not only for the cooking style but also the way of thinking and the freedom to create culinary masterpieces using top quality ingredients.
Sysco finds his inspiration from everywhere but working in a restaurant close to the sea obviously helps. “It comes from everywhere. From the sea, from the area, speaking to the people who deliver the food, who bring us great produce. Sometimes they come and show me their produce. Travel is also important,” he says. “When you travel you get energy, experience and also the possibility to explore new flavours. You meet new people. You do not need to copy something but it is great to be able to see how other restaurants and chefs are working.”
Sergio Herman has obviously had a huge influence on Syrco and I ask whether he feels pressure to work with and have as his mentor someone like Sergio? “I feel very happy and honoured to have a mentor like him. This makes me and Pure C stronger. It is nice to have all the guests saying they are happy, that they like the food and the ambience. But is is great that there is somebody who can be critical and who looks at the details. That makes me and Pure C go forward. It makes us better. When everyone says you do a good job, you think you are doing well but you can always improve yourself,” he tells me.
Pure C placed 41st in Europe in the Opinionated about Dining List and that is something Syrco values because the list is unique in that it recommends really special places including for example, a Spanish restaurant that serves incredible meat despite the fact that it has plastic chairs. It is all about the experience.
Pure C is also evolving in terms of the depth that goes into preparing new dishes. “When we started we were very fast. Now it takes us three to four weeks to create something from scratch. Sometimes it takes two months, six months, even longer. We taste better. Before we were younger. Enthusiasm led us to go for 90% and present a dish without it necessarily being perfect. Now we wait until we are 100 per cent ready.”
So do you start with the idea or the produce? “We have a team. There is Sergio, three sous-chefs and myself. We have a big white board and we all write our ideas. Everybody has one afternoon in the week to test and let each other taste. I used to do it alone before but this makes us better and stronger. Everyone writes on the whiteboard. Sometimes ideas can stay there for a year and nothing happens with them and then one of us decides to take it forward. Sometimes it goes very fast.”
In today’s age of social media and constant sharing does this hinder the creative process? “I think that overall, social media is good. In the beginning, I wanted to protect everything and was angry when somebody copied. Now we just do what we wanted to do. Once I was working on creating a Waldorf salad as a dessert and someone came up with the same idea so I did not serve it in the end. But it has only happened once. It is also nice to see what everyone else is doing. We try to follow our own style. It is also good to show what you are doing. We use social media because we also think it is important. It is also nice because you develop new contacts, you meet people and you follow them, then you can be updated about what they are doing, when they have opened a new business or have a new kitchen.
Syrco tells me sharing also makes the team stronger. “Now we are totally open. When someone comes to the kitchen and they want to take pictures or want to have a recipe, they can do it. It makes me more motivated to be one step ahead. But at the end of the day when we have trainees in the kitchen I also want to know how a Mexican makes a taco, how a Korean uses tofu or how an Italian makes a focaccia or gnocchi. That is interesting for both sides.”
In many ways, Pure C is a vision of how dining and a restaurant should be in future. It is the kind of place where quality on the plate goes hand in hand with a relaxed and casual atmosphere. So how has Pure C evolved? “We started off as a bistro presenting simple but tasty food. We slowly moved to more gastronomical food. We were always busy but we are still busy so that is an indication that we can follow our heart. We have the support of our guests which is great because there are restaurants which are not busy and are trying to find ways to be busy. When we try something new, we listen very carefully to our customers and to what they have to say.”
Syrco says that this is their vision of what dining will look like in future. It will be fast with less descriptions on the food and how to eat what. People want to have a good time and experience something special and different. Service should be fast and casual and people want to be relaxed. This is what we try to do.”
Don’t miss our question and answer interview with Syrco Bakker next week where he speaks about what he learnt from Sergio Herman, Gordon Ramsay and Jonnie Boer, where he loves to eat and what he thinks of taking pictures in restaurants among others.