Wanted: Foreign chefs to improve Dutch food

Please, unemployed Spanish, Italian and French chefs, come to the Netherlands and improve our taste, asks Pepijn Vloemans.

Last year I spent Christmas in the Vaucluse, a region in the south of France. In the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a favourite with the Italian author Petrarch, I ordered the menu of the day. The dishes were made with fresh, seasonable vegetables and there was wine from the region. The maître of the restaurant, however, didn’t have the look of a disciple of the slow food movement. He employed a local chef who cooked a traditional meal, not because he had a philosophy about it but because that’s what he’d always done. That meal was part of an old tradition. A wonderful and very tasty old tradition, as it turned out.
Culinary desert
When the bill came – 13 euros for the whole thing – I wondered why it is that we can’t have decent food at decent prices in the Netherlands. We have a free goods market, our supermarkets are among the cheapest in Europe and, after the United States, the Netherlands is the second biggest exporter of produce in the world. And yet when we enter a restaurant we find ourselves in a culinary desert. I am talking of people with an average income, of course. The seriously rich can afford the best of the best on a daily basis. Good food is for the privileged.
My own experiences with averagely priced restaurants are dismal indeed. I have lived in Amsterdam for seven years now and the number of restaurants offering food at decent prices can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The well-meaning students posing as waiters usually haven’t a clue about service, the chefs tinker with a couple of cookery styles, and the customers..ah yes, the customers. They seldom complain.
The Dutch don’t know about good food. We eat what we are given. Our national identity: we eat from little cubby holes in a wall. Culinary journalist Johannes van Dam says our national taste is down to the 19th century girls’ schools where students were taught to be ‘efficient’ with food. Efficient equalled cheap and wholesomeness was all-important so who needed herbs and fancy sauces. It’s true that a little went a long way but it did nothing for taste.
An yet, a good meal at a reasonable price like the one I had in that French village should not be beyond the realm of possibility. After all, we have an interest in nice food. We like to watch cookery programmes, we read the restaurant reviews in magazines and papers and we buy lots of cookery books.
But a culinary media culture doesn’t lead to a democratic eating culture. We don’t have the expertise. What we need are chefs who come with a culinary tradition which they can then hand over to us. If we are serious about developing our taste buds we had better not rely on Johannes van Dam and Herman den Blijker alone.
Culinary Marshall plan
Recently, Italian author Umberto Eco argued that the EU would be best served by ‘a second sexual revolution’. Taxi drivers would marry plumbers in an effort to promote cultural integration in all social-economic layers of society and European unity would live another day, Eco wrote.
The Erasmus student exchange programme is going strong and relationships are blooming. But it isn’t enough. In the spirit of Eco I would argue for an ambitious culinary exchange programme. A Delta Plan for tastiness. A culinary Marshall plan for the development of Dutch cuisine. It may be that the countries of souvlaki, spaghetti and garlic have something to learn from the northern countries but they leave us far behind when it comes to food. There is an enormous gourmet potential here for them to tap into. Our appetite for truly scrumptious food is never-ending so welcome out-of-work chefs from Spain and Italy and hello waiters from France. Deliver us from the culinary depression we have suffered for so long.
To moaners about egalitarianism I say: it’s the economy stupid. Culinary exchange will not only revive our taste buds and promote European integration, it will also help the economy. If we develop our taste, the cost of eating out will come down and this will create jobs in the restaurant business. Eating out stimulates employment. Good, affordable restaurants are a blessing for the local economy because they are labour force intensive, not raw material intensive. You can’t outsource washer uppers, waiters, cooks and interior decorators. Labour is a significant added value and the money generated keeps circulating in the local economy. And it is bound to grow if produce is locally sourced and ecologically produced.
Economics it the science of the satisfaction of wants. If the culture of the table wilts, so does the culture of buying. A euro can only be spent once. And that is good for the Dutch economy. If I buy a new MacBook while the old one is still working, the money goes to Foxconn in China and Apple HQ in the United States. That is money I can no longer spend in restaurants although I would like to.
According to a recent press release of the governments macro-economic think-tank CPB, a lack of consumer spending is to blame for the economic downturn. We’re too tight. I for one would like to do my duty as a consumer. Money is there to be spent but let’s spend it were it can do some good. So don’t talk to me about more stuff. Don’t preach about saving time as workers hastily scoff a sandwich while sitting in front of their computers and don’t eulogise the supermarket ready-made meals. Give me a restaurant where I can eat a good meal for little money.
We should learn from the French. In 2009, president Sarkozy brought down VAT for the hospitality sector from 21 to 5.5%. Working Parisians are given vouchers by their employers with which they can purchase a meal at a local restaurant. That is the sort of thing my stomach and I like.
Gordon Ramsey grant
The free traffic of people in the EU is an opportunity to learn from each other. So in addition to a Erasmus grant why not have a Gordon Ramsey grant? That will give Portuguese, Italian, French and even Belgian chefs a chance to come and live her and teach us about their traditions so I will no longer be a victim of 19th century Dutch cooking and don’t have to go to the Vaucluse to enjoy a saumon aux poireaux.
And if it’s true that the way to a persons heart is through his or her stomach, I would also invite the Poles and Rumanians to send their finest chefs. More culinary integration could be just the thing for our fractious European Union. We don’t have to love each other but we could do with tasting each other a bit more.
Pepijn Vloemans works for GroenLinks research bureau De Helling

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