Nick Bril is ambitious and driven. As a chef and entrepreneur he knows exactly what he wants though there is a certain inner struggle to determine when he will start to push the boundaries at The Jane, Antwerp.
At 33, he has been cooking at the highest level for a long time having been the sous chef with his business partner Sergio Herman at Oud Sluis, a 3 Michelin star restaurant that closed at the end of 2013. He has experienced the trappings of the coveted three Michelin stars and is not in a hurry to get there though he aspires to get that accolade one day.
“Ambition is one thing, money is another. The cost of running The Jane is high,” said Nick, the Dutch chef of The Jane, a two Michelin star restaurant created in a former military chapel and considered by many to be one of the most stunning and beautiful restaurants in the world.
Having worked closely with Sergio he knows what it means to work at the top level day in day out. “When I speak to colleagues about the feeling of having 3 Michelin stars, they tell me that the road to get there is more exciting than actually being there. Having the freedom to do what you want, where a little margin of error is still acceptable is great. When you achieve 3 stars you need to stay there and having worked with Sergio at Oud Sluis I know what it means. So our position at the moment is enjoyable. There is a lot we need to stabilise and a lot of exciting things we can do,” Nick told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
He wants to consolidate The Jane first before attempting to push the bar further. He is set to open a second restaurant in Antwerp and has just launched The Jane Table, an exclusive space for 12 diners where he will be able to test his creativity. At that point, he hopes he will have the financial stability to decide in which direction to go. “I still need four to five years and I think then I can start to push the limits at The Jane.”
That also includes developing his signature. “At Oud Sluis, while I may have created a few snacks, desserts or a starter here and there, it was all Sergio. When we started The Jane in Antwerp, Sergio and I collaborated on the first menu. From then onwards, it was like a balance of 75 per cent my signature and 25 per cent Sergio’s creations. Over time Sergio was busy with a lot of different things and I needed to take decisions as you cannot really wait when you are operating a business. You also reach a point as a chef where you want to work on your own signature. I think I have my style. It is the Nick Bril style which has been trained and formed by Sergio at Oud Sluis. There is still the acidity, freshness and balance in the menu. I think that in the past three, four years I have started to develop my style, my signature but this is still a very short time for a chef. I believe it takes more than 10 years to really develop your style.”
I function well if I have 5 hours of sleep
Nick does not sleep much at night. When I met him in the middle of December he told me that he had left the office at 3.45am. “I was hungry when I got home so I ate something quickly, went to bed at 4am and at 8am I was awake. Since I was drinking some sake this does not help. But I always make it a point of never drinking during the work week. The reason I was drinking sake last night is that I needed to focus for two hours and I needed to make myself comfortable to work on my book (it is set to be published in April). I function well if I have 5 hours of sleep, four hours can be painful.”
He tells me that he has been like that since the age of 15. “If I follow this routine, I can still find energy on a Saturday night to finish service at 11pm and drive one and a half hours to perform a deejay set in a club before arriving home early in the morning.”
He stresses the importance of not drinking alcohol during the work week. “What I have noticed in these years of following this rhythm is that it is not the body that is fatigued but the brain. Being in a kitchen and working 18 hours a day, cooking, working, cutting and slicing is not an issue. But when you grow up and need to take heavy decisions, deal with problems, financial issues and big decisions, these tend to take a lot of your energy. Having an 8 hour meeting is more tiring than 18 hours in the kitchen.” I can definitely relate to that.
Nick takes 7 weeks of holidays and he said these are essential to recharge his batteries. “We work in seasons, normally opening the restaurant for 11 weeks before closing for holidays”.
At The Jane he has built a team which ensures that the restaurant works like clockwork serving around 170 guests a day. Having stablished the restaurant, he can now work on new projects like the recently launched the Jane Table and the Jane garden which supplies the restaurant with the herbs, flowers and some of the vegetables he uses.
“There are of course challenges to run a fine dining restaurant and serving the number of covers we do each day. This is not only necessary from a business point of view but we also need to fill the space because it is enormous. With a ceiling 14 metres above the ground, you need to have buzz and energy inside the restaurant. Serving 40 guests would not fit with the setting and size of the restaurant. When we are running at full house, there are 80 seats per service with 14 front of house people and 24 guests in the Upper Bar room. In total there are approximately 110 people moving in this space and this gives the special feeling of flow like a good brasserie,” Nick said.
It took me one and a half years to get used to The Jane
“It took me one and a half years to get used to this. A place like The Jane is all about structure, all about organisation, all about management and having a great team. It needs to be a well oiled machine,” he said.
It took time for everything to fall into place. “People need to take their responsibilities but they also need to enjoy what they are doing and get used to it. We don’t want to create the feeling that we are operating a heavy ballast,” he said.
“I think that we have now reached the stage where we know what our capacities are but we also have understood what our limits are because there are of course limits culinary wise. Running a restaurant with these numbers means there are limits to what you can do in terms of special preparations, to creating dishes that require a lot of time or very intense dishes. We currently serve a 14 course menu for 170 guests a day which when you count the plates on a daily basis is a lot. (For those of you who are curious this adds up to 2380 plates a day) It doesn’t feel a lot because that’s our daily routine,” he said.
Does this constrain your creativity, I ask. “I need to be more clever. For sure, when we were working at Oud Sluis, we needed to execute at the highest level. We pushed very hard but the cuisine was fragile and the service needed to be very smooth. At The Jane, I’ve decided to not be that creative, to take a more simplistic approach and focus more on the flavour and the depths of flavour. In Belgium, showcasing the product is more important because there is this ‘Burgundy’ type of mindset where you cannot play around with food. You need to give the clients an honest product, prepared well and focus on flavour, unique combinations and having an exciting menu,” he said.
Nick tells me that creativity in a restaurant is not just about the food. “When I want to be creative, I cannot just change the dishes from one day to the next. Normally we change menus every 11 weeks. Every week during these 11 weeks I change one or two dishes but I don’t change so quickly not to disrupt the front of house and to give time to the kitchen team to put structures in place.”
The new roof garden gives Nick a number of new possibilities. “There is of course a big romance feeling about having this. But it is also something that I had been doing at Oud Sluis where I created two herb gardens on my own initiative. The region of Zeeland also gave us the possibility to forage. It is not possible to forage in the city because even if there are things you can pick, you can never be sure what the dogs have done,” he jokes.
For the first three years operating The Jane, Nick had to buy all the herbs and flowers. “That was a big difference to how we worked before. The herbs at Oud Sluis gave Sergio the possibility to open up to a certain style of cuisine with herbs giving an extra touch. This was something I missed at The Jane. We also had a high cost because of how our dishes look. Using a flower is not necessary to add flavour but is essential for presentation. We needed to change the style of how the food looked because we did not have it and it also cost a lot. Now, since March, between spring and autumn we managed to grow a lot of things, which was beautiful. Being able to pick your herbs in the morning and being able to tell your customers that something is growing on the fourth floor 50 metres away from the restaurant is unique.”
Nick said that he has also come to appreciate the fact that when you are closer to the product you tend to appreciate it more. “When you visit an asparagus farmer or travel the night with a fisherman you tend to appreciate it more.”
This summer, Nick is thinking of a dish that will bring the garden to the restaurant. “We will have two different flavour types growing on the rooftop. We will have these growing containers which we can take daily. A container might have citrusy, acidic and fresh kind of herbs while another might have spicy, pungent Mediterranean flavours. We can take the two types of herbs to the table and give the guests the possibility to decide how they want to finish their salad including what vinagerette they want to choose. If I manage to do this, also because of the size of the restaurant, it would be great.”
Nick said the garden is not only great from a financial point of view but also gives a warm and romantic feeling to guests. He says the garden does not impact his approach on waste. “I do not think we have reduced waste because I am quite strict on waste. I do not have everything under control, like at the moment I am sitting here, but I am strict on how people look at waste. We have 65 people working here. What is not suitable for our guests is suitable for us as staff food. It is still really good. Take fish which is a nose to tail product. It is beautiful but not all the fish can be served at a certain level because guests expect it to be severed in a particular way. But we freeze what we don’t use and make fish lasagnas, fish stews, fish curries. In this case I try to be economical not financially driven. What’s important for me is to think about the future of food and the future of people on our planet,” he said.
Nick has been working a lot at events and festivals catering for a large amount of people. “I’ve noticed that the amount of plastic waste is really heavy. I am collaborating with Natural Tableware which is a company that focuses on disposable plates for festivals. Together we have decided our own line of disposable plates that are made with sugar cane pulp. Together with Yaara Landau Katz, an Israeli designer, we have designed four different types of plates with a cool design but which are sustainable.”
He knows it is a challenge in a restaurant the size of The Jane. “It is a fragile topic because we use lots of plastic waste for storage. I am particularly annoyed when I have to use single use plastic containers. When you work with hard plastic that you can reuse that is fine.”
Nick is speaking with his suppliers to see how he can change from single to multiple use plastic and what he can do to eliminate plastic piping bags. We generate 800 kilos of waste a day and if I can find companies to help me, I am up for it,” he said.
There are many similarities between music and cooking. The end result is the same.
Apart from being a chef, Nick is also a deejay and is invited for sets not only in Belgium and the Netherlands but also further afield. How does he do it, I ask? “Actually, I have had to cut down on the musical side over the past months because we realised that our daughter had become partially deaf which has forced me to reduce my activities. It is normal and logical to be present for my daughter though it is something I am going to miss.”
Nick says there are a lot of similarities between music and cooking. “In the restaurant, I like to please people, to entertain them, to allow them to enjoy the good things in life. Deejaying is the same. It is something that comes from the belly and makes people smile. So whether you are cooking or playing a deejay set, the end result is the same.”
He said that music has helped him to avoid burnout. “Being a chef takes 80% of my life but music helps me to retain my balance. There is a lot more to life than just work like travelling, music, the family and most importantly the children. Traveling is what relaxes me together with music.
So what importance does he give to travelling? “It is essential. It opens your vision and your palate. Travel is education. It is exploring and discovering flavours, visions and insights. You will limit yourself if you think that travelling is not important for a creative guy. All people who want to do something that has not been done before need to travel. I have people in the team who spend their holidays going to the pub, meet their friends, going to the cinema. I try to push them to travel, to go to Thailand or South America. We close the restaurant for 7 weeks which for me means there are 7 weeks of exploration. I really try to push my team. Money is of course a factor but not a lot of people want to travel. When I started at 19 at Oud Sluis, the minute I was earning money I was travelling. It could be on the weekends or during the restaurant closures. I would go to London, Barcelona. Travel gives you energy and also insights.”
When I met him, he told me he was travelling to Copenhagen to look at some chairs for the restaurant refurbishment but he would combine it with visiting a restaurant. “I am always on the look out for things that I can implement in the restaurant. Out of the seven weeks that the restaurant is closed I travel with my family for five weeks. And when I am there, I can rent a motorcycle and travel around visiting markets, street stalls and also taking cooking courses.”
So what will Nick do when he decides to push the boundaries at The Jane?
“I believe that every country has space for a few unique restaurants where people travel from around the world to visit. I am referring to restaurants like Noma, Osteria Francescana or Faviken. These are all restaurants that are unique. They are all unique experiences, completely different cuisines and are fully booked with people who travel to eat there. The Jane is a restaurant that is focused on the Belgian market. Most of the people who dine in Antwerp, like at Oud Sluis, are Belgian or Dutch. The way I cook is focused on the local market and not the international market. The way people eat in Belgium and the Netherlands is completely different from what international food bloggers, foodies and influencers expect. That is why you need to choose which direction to take.”
Nick is of the view that the restaurant can be a three Michelin star restaurant and serve 70 to 80 covers but given the Belgian bureaucracy and social system he believes that it might work only for a dinner service. “I believe it will be difficult to have 70 people working in the restaurant with the way the rules are evolving in Belgium. But if the financial structure is spread out, we might be able to do just 5 dinner services and offer a unique experience. Like this we would need to book 70 to 80 covers a day instead of what we are doing now. Ultimately it would be the equivalent of a restaurant that does 35 covers both for lunch and dinner.”
“I think that this is possible. But it needs to come at a point where we are in a solid financial position and then we can decide in which direction to go. For me, it is not about being in the World’s 50 Best or having 3 Michelin stars but rather about creating something where you have a really healthy restaurant that can make a profit.”
The Jane started at 54th position in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and then slipped to 72. “The same happened at Oud Sluis. Sometimes you go up, sometimes you go down the list. The list is an added value for what you do but it should stop there. I have taken a decision to cook for our guests. I have experienced disappointments when eating out in top rated places. As a chef, you need to start with what you enjoy. I make a simple dish with North Sea shrimps, potatoes, spinach and a cream of shrimps. It is a simple and classic dish that is not even presented in a fancy way. Our customers eat it and love it. It is not a dish that will take you to the top 50 but it is the kind of dish where people who pay the menu thank you for presenting such a dish. Food is food and a restaurant is a restaurant. Ultimately you need to decide what you want to do,” Nick said.
He said that both Sergio and he are Dutch but they opted to open the restaurant in Belgium because the market was very supportive. “The region where we are is a very good region. Our clients are very loyal and for me that is really important.”
That decision to open the restaurant in Belgium has paid off. The restaurant is highly in demand to the extent that it remains extremely difficult to secure a booking. He has come to love the city and its cosmopolitan feel and is set to embark on a new journey with a second restaurant later this year. That will be the start of a new chapter for Nick, one which can lead him to new heights.