Best known abroad for its herring, deep-fried croquettes and sickly sweet stroopwafels, it is fair to say the Netherlands has not historically been world-renowned for its cuisine.
Yet for the first time, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Amsterdam has been voted the world’s best on TripAdvisor, further proof the food scene in the country is on the rise, its head chef said.
With the exception of Irish oysters and Japanese wagyu, everything on the menu at the Bougainville restaurant is local Dutch produce, chef Tim Golsteijn said in his bustling kitchen just off Amsterdam’s main square.
“Dutch gastronomy has really been growing in the past 10 years, also because Amsterdam is becoming more and more of a big international city,” said the 36-year-old, who was born and raised in the capital and describes himself as “100 percent Dutchie.”
“You can’t compare it to London or New York or Tokyo, but we are getting there,” he said, as his sous chefs chopped, sliced and stirred ready for another busy dinner service.
In 1958, there were only eight Michelin-starred restaurants in the whole country, but now the Netherlands has forced its way into the world’s top 10, with 123 restaurants boasting a coveted star.
Golsteijn uses North Sea fish, local lobster and Dutch lamb, but also draws on culinary inspiration from around the world — reflecting the Dutch people’s history as seafarers and colonizers.
“From ages ago, we were travelers ... we came back with spices, with coffee, with chocolate. We took that into our food culture,” he said.
However, he is also taking down-to-earth Dutch staples and elevating them to Michelin-star level.
For example, the restaurant serves kibbeling, a humble, deep-fried fish bite snack found in beach cafes around the country, but with sea bass instead of the usual cod belly.
Dutch food has an undeserved reputation, said Isabelle Nelis, who runs culinary tours around Amsterdam.
“Most people think about heavy dishes like pea soup, or the dishes that we do in winter with the mashed potato, cabbage, sausage, but there is so much more,” she said.
It is not just food. Land reclaimed from the sea in the Netherlands contains excellent minerals for wine-producing grapes and there is even a burgeoning champagne industry, Nelis said.
The food scene has changed greatly over the years and is now “alive and buzzing,” she said, helped by the cosmopolitan nature of melting-pot Amsterdam.
Restaurants are serving about 180 different types of cuisine in Amsterdam, she said, adding: “You can eat in every nationality” in the world.
Eric Toner, the owner of the Bougainville, said the quality of the Dutch food scene had changed beyond recognition in the past few decades.
“When I was young, decades ago, it was maybe one or two restaurants with a star in Amsterdam. Maybe six or 10 in the whole of the Netherlands. Now we have 24 or 26 in Amsterdam alone,” he said.
As a child growing up in the Netherlands, “we ate a lot of meatballs, potatoes, vegetables and a lot of gravy over it. That was a normal dinner.”
Yet the next generation has much more refined tastes, helped by a greater choice of cuisines from around the world, he said.
“We have gone from a normal small country when everyone eats a big potato pan on the table ... to an international food culture,” he said.
The award made headlines around the Netherlands, but Toner and Golsteijn acknowledge that the TripAdvisor award, based on customer reviews rather than professional critics, does not catapult their restaurant to the highest echelons of global gastronomy.
For Toner, it is all about meeting customer expectations.
“I was completely flabbergasted. It’s an honor to win every prize,” he said. “But I know also the downside of it. Expectations go up and when I say: ‘What is the best restaurant in the world?’ I would not say my restaurant, I would say a three-star restaurant.”
The restaurant, within a hotel overlooking the Dam Square in Amsterdam, offers a five-course menu priced at 130 euros (US$140).
For Nelis, the Dutch should take more pride in their produce.
“We tend to complain a lot. We complain when it’s raining. When it’s nice weather, we say it’s too hot, and that’s the same with the food,” she said. “We don’t pat ourselves on the back enough.”
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