12 April 2023
the flavours of Jeroen Achtien
A mix of talent, perseverance, an eagerness to learn and a love for the job and ingredients has brought Jeroen Achtien to where he is today in his career: Executive Chef of the kitchens at Hotel Vitznauerhof in Vitznau, Switzerland, including the associated restaurant Sens**. Kitchens where good taste always plays a role.
For many renowned chefs, the success story starts at an early age in the kitchen of the parental home; but not for Dutch chef Jeroen Achtien. It wasn’t until high school that the talented chef decided to pursue preliminary training in the hospitality industry. Jeroen: ‘I had no idea what I wanted to be, but had to choose a direction at school. One of my friends had just started training as a chef and my brother Leo was a chef too. He always came home with a smile and the best stories. That positive energy made me want to give it a go.’
First glass of wine
‘At that age, I wasn’t interested in high-level gastronomy. Besides my newspaper round, I worked at my brother’s eatery at the weekends. There, I drank my first glass of wine and learned to eat olives, after spitting a few out first. ‘I made carpaccio, learned to fry steak and make sauces and soups,’ the chef continues.
As part of his ongoing training, he worked at a variety of interesting addresses, including a catering company where the schnitzels for parties of 1,000 people were still handmade and a seasonal job where the day consisted mainly of rapidly baking pancakes and grilling chicken satay. Jeroen: ‘Eventually, in the final year of my training, I ended up at a restaurant where entire deer, ducks, geese and hares were processed. We left them to age and then deboned them. We also filleted the fish ourselves.’
When Jeroen won a cooking competition with school, with the grand prize being a trip to the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon, the supervisor asked if Jeroen might like to come for a week’s internship at the high-end restaurant where he worked. The young chef then joined De Librije*** in Zwolle, where he worked for more than eight years. During this period, he rose from novice chef to head chef and, in addition to working in the restaurant’s kitchen, trained Holland America Line chefs, among others, to serve the Librije menu correctly on board the cruise ships. Jeroen: ‘During my time at De Librije, I was constantly studying and discovered the Big Green Egg. Jonnie was one of the first European chefs to work with a Big Green Egg.’
‘In 2017, I was asked if I was interested in becoming Executive Chef at Vitznauer Hof. I wasn’t interested at first, until Sanne – my then girlfriend and now wife – and I visited the location on the way back from a holiday. Then something changed. ‘It was a feeling, the lakeside location, the view that changes at every turn,’ continues Jeroen. ‘In the beginning, it was really challenging. Almost all the kitchen staff had left, I didn’t have a network of suppliers yet, and I didn’t speak the language. That makes buying a fantastic cheese from a farmer on the mountain pretty tricky. I deliberately chose to only run Inspiration first, the restaurant in the hotel. Only about six weeks later, however, we reopened Sens. There were only three of us in the kitchen at the time. That is why I chose to serve a surprise menu, which is not common in Switzerland.’
The locals had to get used to it, but restaurant guides soon discovered the skills of the chef and his team. After six months, Sens received a Michelin star and was labelled ‘Discovery of the Year’ by GaultMillau, for which he was awarded 16 points. Sens now has 18 points and two Michelin stars, representing exceptional cuisine. Jeroen: ‘Actually, this wasn’t really our focus. Above all, we wanted to do what we loved and create delicious, beautiful dishes. But what we have built here over the years is just fantastic!’
‘We focus on traditionally produced Swiss products, including unforced livers from Appenzeller ducks. From that, I make a classic terrine to then create ‘snow’ for one of our dishes here. We are also highly regional. This is central Switzerland, so the area is rich in suppliers and you can find many small-scale, artisan farmers here. For example, across the lake from Lucerne is Ueli-Hof, an organic farm where the animals are well cared for. It’s clear to see and you can really taste the difference. And in Ennetbürgen is Holzen Fleisch, where they have woolly pigs and Black Angus cattle, among other things. They also provide extremely high quality meat.’
With the seasons
‘The goat’s cheese I source from a small farmer is very fresh and mild in flavour,’ Jeroen continues. ‘And in Wiesenberg, Andreas Gut makes the best sbrinz in Switzerland. We visited this cheese factory for my book, Jeroen Achtien, #1 of The Creative Chef Collection. Sbrinz is a tangy, hard cheese; it’s the Swiss parmesan. There has long been a debate about which cheese came first, sbrinz or Parmesan. When developing the dishes, we work with the seasons. I like full and round flavours, but these should be balanced by adding fresh elements to a dish.’
New flavours and techniques
‘We ferment a lot. I started doing that with Jonnie at De Librije. First kimchi, then cabbage juice, and so on and so forth. I continued that here. We ferment vegetables and juices that we can use as a base for sauces, as well as oysters and lamb by adding koji powder. Or tomatoes, which we turn into pulp, which we dry and then grind into powder. That has so much umami and depth. And if you leave raw celeriac to ferment in salt in a vacuum for a week, the vegetable ends up crunchy but without the rawness. It is cooked by the acids: a natural process. So, as you can see, we are constantly looking for new flavours and techniques. That’s really interesting for a chef.’
The Big Green Egg is used for some of these techniques, in the kitchen and outside, on the terrace. Jeroen: ‘As I just mentioned, I was already working with the Big Green Egg at De Librije. We used it, for example, to smoke celeriac juice, which reduced at the same time. This gave the juice a kind of licoricey flavour, the sweetness of celeriac with a smoky flavour.’ Several EGGs can be found in and around the hotel and restaurant Sens. ‘It all started with a Mini in the Sens kitchen, a MiniMax in the hotel kitchen and a Large on the panoramic terrace,’ says Jeroen.
Birdy's by Achtien
‘Meanwhile, at Sens, we added another Mini and an XLarge. We got to the point where we wanted to do more with the Big Green Egg, we really wanted to cook on it. Roasting beets or kohlrabi while catering for 170 people is not something you do so easily on a small model, so now we can include this kind of thing on the menu. Vegetables become really tasty by roasting them, it adds flavour. That is why at Birdy’s by Achtien, a restaurant in Brunnen that I opened with Christian Vogel in July 2022, we also have an XLarge in the kitchen.’
Roasting, grilling and smoking
The charcoals in the Mini and MiniMax in the kitchens glow for about 10 hours a day as standard, also while preparing lunch and dinner. ‘We mainly use the Big Green Eggs for roasting, grilling and smoking. Slow cooking is something we don’t really do in restaurant kitchens because it takes up too much space. That is not convenient for us. But I do use this technique at home, because I like to play with my Big Green Eggs there too.’
Want to cook like a celebrity chef? Check out these recipes by Jeroen Achtien. The chef explains step by step how he uses the Big Green Egg, in the restaurant and at home!
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