Michel van der Kroft: 'I put my soul on the plate'

Michel van der Kroft (Hoorn, 1969) has been heading the kitchen of two-star restaurant 't Nonnetje in Harderwijk for seventeen years. His Portuguese-inspired cuisine – based on the love for his wife and second homeland – is unparalleled. A lunch or dinner at 't Nonnetje is a heavenly pleasure, where taste, experience and hospitality form a blissful trinity.
Michel van der Kroft
Esther Quelle

What a beautiful location! On the historic Vischmarkt in the old town of Harderwijk, amid a row of monumental houses. What a welcome! With fresh pastéis de nata with coffee, the symbol of Portuguese cuisine. And that fits perfectly with the name of the restaurant! Because this delicacy originated with the nuns of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery in Belém, a district in Lisbon. Back then, in the eighteenth century, they used egg whites to starch their clothes and with the leftover egg yolks they created the most fantastic pastries. Chef Michel van der Kroft has been given the freedom by owner/host Robert-Jan Nijland to introduce Portuguese influences into his kitchen. As he says: “The love for my wife and her native country has become my signature on the plate. Just last weekend, during the 25th anniversary of 't Nonnetje, we served all kinds of delicious Portuguese snacks on our terrace on the Vischmarkt.” The anniversary year was also enhanced with a freshening up of the interior. “After twenty-five years, the business was ready for this,” Van der Kroft explains the thorough renovation. “We wanted to completely turn the place upside down to bring the interior and experience to the same level as the kitchen and hospitality. All credits to Robert-Jan, who threw half a million at it. You just have to dare to do that in the uncertain times in which we live. The result is a matter to be taken into account. Also because we have gathered a super strong and enthusiastic team around us over time, we are ready for a new chapter in the book called 't Nonnetje.”

Michel is flattered by the terracotta color that Robert-Jan has given the floor and walls: a nod to Portugal. “He thus expresses his confidence in me. I've been working here for seventeen years, I'm a loyal guy. Together, with our team, we want to get the most out of this.” Peace and comfort: those words were the approach for architect Niels Maier from Maastricht. This is reflected in the furniture, the lighting plan and even the tableware. “The plates are matte, there is no sparkle anymore. This makes the dishes pop off the plate even more. The interior looks warm, cozy and cozy, guests will quickly feel at home here. And we have consciously reduced from 46 to a maximum of 36 place settings, so that there is even more attention, time and service for the guest, and even more peace and quiet in the tableware. We want to be able to create the ultimate experience for all guests at any time.”

Eel smokehouse

We take a seat at one of the tables, where I sink my teeth into the homemade pastéis de nata (I hear the tasty crackle later on the voice recorder). “In all the years that I have been coming to Portugal, I have spoken to many pastry chefs,” says Michel. “I kept getting tips. Over the years, I have been able to make progress with my pastéis de nata, the cream of which has the taste of lemon peel and cinnamon. Last year I thought I had reached the point of perfection, but then I started working on the dough again and got it even crispier. I don't know what else I should change to make them even tastier. We even get Portuguese people who say that our pastéis de nata is better than the ones at their house. You can't get a better compliment.” Michel takes us back in time: he was born and raised in Hoorn, where he was destined to work in his uncle's eel smokehouse.

“I had a lot of energy as a child. The term ADHD did not yet exist, but retroactively it could well have applied to me. When I started to become slightly unruly at home, it was clear to my parents that I needed an outlet, or better yet: a part-time job. My uncle had an eel smokehouse and a fish shop in the center of Hoorn, where I could go after school. Soon I could also be found there on Saturdays and during the holidays and I could no longer avoid it. And I was only twelve, right! I helped with cleaning herring and eel, processing fish, filleting, I was introduced to how to help customers in the fish shop... My uncle gave me the basic knowledge of fish, but also the mentality of hard work and tackling, which I would be of great use later. I could put all my energy into my job and was very proud that I could pay for my first stereo installation out of my own pocket.” At the same time he was in secondary school, where he had to choose a direction. That became Cooking & Serving, because it was closest to fish. “Once I was cooking in the kitchen, even if it was just the basics – mayonnaise, salad, thickened soup, a pudding – I knew: this is what I want to do! My heart started beating for the chef's profession. I completed my secondary school education, quit my part-time job with my uncle and became an apprentice chef.”

Michel van der Kroft

Holy ground

Michel started working in restaurant De Waag in Hoorn. But he soon knew that if he wanted to move up in the profession, he had to leave the region. “In my second year I started working in Amsterdam at the Excelsior restaurant in De L'Europe, which had one Michelin star at the time. Gerard Dresscher was the chef. To me that was sacred ground. The kitchen was based on Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), the founder of French cuisine. I learned all about classic sauces and dishes, but also that fish and meat were served on a platter and filleted at the table by chefs de rank in dress suits. It was all very chic, a classic stronghold. That has been my basis and I have never let go of it. Then I went to restaurant De Hoop op d'Swarte Walvis in Zaandam, which also had one star. My ambition was star level. And Amsterdam was not yet as littered with stars as it is now, in the XNUMXs: at most about five restaurants. Motivated by that ambition, I had to and would gain international experience. I went to Zurich, where I worked for a year in the Haus zum Rüden restaurant. There I could go into even more depth, work more refined and also become more independent, because: away from home. After a year I had to return to the Netherlands to do military service. I was trained as a menage master, in which position I was, as a corporal, responsible for the menage (food) of a company. I experienced that period as very enjoyable. One day I would prepare a rice meal of twelve dishes in a mobile field kitchen for a hundred and fifty men, the next day I would cook in a canteen for six hundred men or in the officers' mess for thirty men.

 “We literally fell in love with each other through the door”

I enjoyed the experience in Switzerland so much that I returned to that country after my military service. This time I ended up in Fiescherhof, a family hotel in the canton of Valais. There I headed a small kitchen brigade. A very valuable period during which I continued to grow in the profession. But the most important thing about that period is that I was there at 22e fell in love with the love of my life, Maria do Céu. We literally fell in love with each other right through the door. We decided to finish the season there together and then settle in the Netherlands. How does my wife deal with that? Portugal is the country of fado, a melancholic music style that is about homesickness and nostalgia. The Portuguese call that feeling, that longing for lost times nostalgia. A Portuguese who does not live in his or her own country will always have that longing for the homeland. My wife has that too. Our daughter is even named after the Portuguese fado singer Mariza. Nice story: the three of us were once sitting in a restaurant in Lisbon, when Mariza walked in with a group of us. As she sat at the table, she made eye contact with our daughter. Mariza beckoned, 'come here'. Our daughter walks towards her. "What's your name?" the singer wants to know. “My name is Mariza,” our daughter answers in Portuguese. Let me explain that we named our little girl after her because my wife found so much strength in her songs during her pregnancy. When Mariza performed in Carré, we took our daughter there. And later we attended her performance in the Concertgebouw. Between two songs she tells the story of our meeting in that restaurant in Lisbon. "Family, where are you?" We stand up, spotlights on us, wave. Very special."

Michel van der Kroft

Chorizo ​​and morcela

The Van der Kroft family's holidays are always about family visits. Michel calls Portugal his second homeland. “It has a great quality of life: the weather is nice and you can eat and drink very well. The quality of the products is unprecedented. Portugal has nine hundred kilometers of coastline. You eat the freshest fish there. And then the chorizo ​​and morcela (Portuguese blood sausage), the hams... That drives you crazy as a chef. But most of all, the people there are great. A Portuguese is basically modest, a bit subdued, very sweet and super hospitable. If you come to a Portuguese home, you will be welcomed with a table full of goodies. They will do everything they can to make you happy. As the Portuguese writer José Rentes de Carvalho puts it in his book Portugal – A guide for friends: 'If you are invited to a Portuguese home, never say that you like the painting on the wall. Because it is immediately removed from the wall, packed and then you get it with you.' I have experienced that myself. The way I was received by my parents-in-law the first time… That was so warm! From day one I was a son to them. I had a special bond, especially with my mother-in-law. She always stood in the kitchen watching me cook. Unfortunately they are no longer there. My father-in-law had to go to the hospital for a check-up after a fall at home thirteen years ago. His wife accompanied him. In Portugal it is customary for the ambulance to take you home. It had now become night. The driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed head-on into a tree. My father-in-law died on the spot, my mother-in-law fought for her life for another week, in vain. Intensly sad. My wife inherited their house. A house with many memories, where my wife was also born. It will remain our forever home, the place where we will live when I ever retire.”

Looking for truffles in Italy

When they settled in the Netherlands, Michel came to work in Joop Braakhekke's Le Garage. “I had previously worked with the chef, Pieter Damen, at De L'Europe. After just a few months I became his sous chef. It was the nineties. Braakhekke was at the height of its fame, Le Garage the place to be. Every day is packed, a bustling business. I worked there for almost six years, a wonderful time. Joop took us to New York and Paris to show how the profession was experienced there. He wanted to share such experiences with us. So special. Who takes their staff halfway around the world? That period was very formative for me. The click I had with Joop was based on our both love for the profession. He has also given me many opportunities. For example, I worked with him as the culinary editor of his television program for two years Cooking crazy formed. We went to Scotland for recordings, or looked for truffles in Italy. But at the age of twenty-nine I was ready for the next step: I wanted to manage a kitchen myself. Initially, this would be a restaurant in the Stadshart of Amstelveen. But the development of that square was still in its infancy. It looked like the Eastern Bloc, so desolate. I took my loss and was soon approached to work as a chef at De Kersentuin, funnily enough the place where Joop Braakhekke, as a duo with Jon Sistermans, made his name. I was not only responsible for the restaurant, but also for breakfast, room service and banqueting of the Bilderberg Garden Hotel where De Kersentuin was located.

I started there in 2000 and in 2005 I obtained the highest degree of professional competence: SVH Master Chef. I was able to develop very well there as a chef and also as a manager. Then I started thinking: what now? If you are ambitious, you quickly think of obtaining a Michelin star. That became my goal. And I didn't think De Kersentuin was the ideal place to pursue that dream. Due to my responsibilities for the hotel, I lacked the focus to go for the board. If I wanted to realize my dream, I did not want to do it as a chef in a hotel, but in a small-scale restaurant company where I could devote all my attention to cooking. I quit my job and left without anything else. At the same time, my predecessor had quit his job here. Robert-Jan was a bit in sack and ashes. He took The Telegraph, it opened on the Stan Huygens Journal and read that I was away from De Kersentuin. He picked up the phone and called me. 'Would you like to come over for an interview?' From Hoorn to Harderwijk, that is quite a distance. I held off a bit and suggested we lift it over the weekend. But an hour later he was on the phone again. 'Why don't you come over on the weekend?' I went to Harderwijk with Maria do Céu that weekend. When we left I set the odometer to zero, when we arrived it read seventy-five. Just possible, I said to my wife. We walk onto the Vischmarkt, see 't Nonnetje with the terrace in front of it... It immediately felt good. And that feeling had only become stronger after meeting Robert-Jan. A few days later I called him: I'll do it.”

“The rest of the day was a party. There were many tears of joy, a lot of champagne was passed through”

Michel van der Kroft

Primal cry

“Of course, Maria do Céu and I sometimes talked about starting our own restaurant together one day. That was once a dream. But I'm so happy with what I have now! It turned out this way, I'm satisfied with what I have. She worked as a hostess in restaurant L'Oasis de la Digue in Hoorn for a long time. For a number of years she has been helping out at 't Nonnetje when necessary. It is great to be able to share that intense way of working and living with each other in the workplace. My wife has always supported me, but now she understands me even better. 't Nonnetje had a star before I started there, but it was taken off: we had to earn it again. That star had to be returned as quickly as possible, that was the objective. I started on October 1, 2006, and that star fell in 2008. At that time, this was still done by press release. An emotional moment. Then we worked hard to take even more steps, to create even more refinement on the board.

The second star fell in 2014. That was at least as emotional, at least as great a release. And also some appreciation for the sacrifices my wife and daughter had to make, because of course I was often not at home. Because of this intense way of living and working, my wife and I decided not to have a mobile phone, to protect the little time we have together. For us, a day off is really a day off, on which we take all the time for each other, for our family. This is how we try to find a balance in this hectic world. The announcement of Michelin in 2014 took place in Maastricht. Robert-Jan and I were invited to attend. We knew they were targeting us: a number of inspectors had been spotted in our restaurant, including one from Paris. I suggested waiting for the announcement here in 't Nonnetje. With our women and the entire team there. We sat behind a laptop, refreshing the page over and over again. I was the first to read it: 't Nonnetje takes second Michelin star.' I gave a primal scream and fell to my knees. It's not normal what goes through you. It was party time for the rest of the day. Friends, family and guests came by. There were many tears of joy, lots of champagne. The impact of such a second star is enormous: you become a culinary destination. Since then we have a much more international audience.”

Cheese from the star mountains

“In the period leading up to the second star, I was discovering my identity on the board and the Portuguese signature became more and more visible. I was also given the freedom to develop my own cooking style. After the second star I pushed it even further until it is what it is today. Dish by dish, I have started to integrate inspiration from Portugal into our cooking style. The dish I am most proud of, my most beautiful signature dish? My wife is from Serra da Estrela in the Dão region of central Portugal. Not only beautiful wine is made there, but also a very special sheep's cheese: Queijo da Serra da Estrela. This 'cheese from the star mountains' is the king of Portuguese cheese and has been made for centuries by shepherds in the mountains of Serra da Estrela. It is a soft, creamy and runny raw milk cheese that is held together with a linen cloth. That cheese has such an intense taste, really special. I created a dish with it: ravioli filled with Queijo da Serra da Estrela. Added to this is sage butter, spinach, fried chestnut mushrooms and young zucchini, topped with sweet and sour red cabbage, chives and gold flowers. I serve that dish as an ode to my wife and our love. We serve this with a wine that is made one kilometer from her birthplace: a white Conciso, mainly made from the Encruzado grape. I ask the guests not to cut the ravioli open, but to take it completely into their mouths and let it explode. It is wonderfully intense. They often say at the end of the evening: 'Michel, it was all great. But that ravioli was really the end.'

And when I come home in the evening, I say to my wife: 'It worked again: they liked the ravioli the best again.' Another dish that I am very proud of, and which a Portuguese would never come up with, is the carabineiro, also known as scarlet prawn named. This red deep-sea shrimp is the holy grail among prawn lovers. It is caught off the coast of the Algarve, at a depth of eight hundred meters. That is such a special ingredient… Much tastier than lobster. A carabineiro has an intense taste. On the plate I combine it with chorizo ​​oil and a puree of bacalhau, one of the national ingredients of Portugal: dried and salted cod. This trinity of flavors are so in line with each other that it becomes a marriage. Something is happening in your mouth. Especially if you suck the gravy out of that cup last. We'll mention that when we serve, because we Dutch are not used to that, haha. I cooked the dish at culinary events in Portugal and all the Portuguese top chefs stood there with their mouths open: what is he doing now?"

Ambassador of the eel

Yet another example from the Portuguese-inspired cuisine of 't Nonnetje is a caldeirada, the Portuguese counterpart of the French bouillabaisse. “A one-pan dish with almost exactly the same ingredients – fish, tomato, onion, potato, fennel, saffron, white wine – only the Portuguese add one ingredient more, namely fresh peppers. That gives the fish stew such strength and spice. My caldeirada is made from haddock with a squid tagliatelle. Only I took the process apart, I made a deconstruction of it by cooking all the vegetables and garnishes separately for the best result. This is how I present a classic Portuguese dish in a modern and refined way. Portuguese cuisine is basically a rural cuisine, but with beautiful flavors. If you modernize it and make it a bit lighter, you get such elegant and refined dishes. We don't just cook Portuguese, about 50 to 60 percent. I also give my sous chefs the space to come up with new dishes, my pastry chef is also given the freedom to give free rein to his creativity. One of the non-Portuguese inspired dishes is based on smoked eel. That's my childhood, I grew up with it. The taste that is etched in my memory is the eel that came from my uncle's smokehouse and that I ate warm from the bone. I have created a terrine of foie gras and smoked eel, with a twenty-five year old aceto balsamic vinegar and various preparations of beetroot as the connecting factor. That dish has been on the menu since my very first day here and will never be taken off. Guests return again and again.” In 2018, Michel was even appointed the world's 'first Eel Patron', ambassador of the eel. A title that was created by the Sustainable Eel Netherlands Foundation.”

Michel van der Kroft

One lump of emotion

“Many Portuguese chefs and winemakers are now friends of ours. One of those winemakers, Luís Pato, a celebrity in Portugal, comes from Bairrada, in central Portugal. I am developing a dish with the red wine grape from that region, the Baga. A load of forty kilos is currently on its way to Harderwijk. I'm going to deseed them, dry them until they become raisins and serve them with wild duck. Why duck? Because 'pato' in Portuguese means duck. The wine we are going to serve with it is the same wine that Luís Pato makes from the Baga grape. That will be a wine and food combination... Not normal! Do I want a third star? I don't believe in consolidation, you always have to stay on the attack. But some modesty is appropriate here. I dream of that third star every night, but it is not in my hands. And everything that is not in my hands, I must let go. I focus on what I can influence, and that is what we do here on the plate and in the glass. Together with my team, I do everything I can to make sure we don't miss a beat and to blow the guest out of their chair with what we have to offer in terms of taste, experience and hospitality. And then it is up to the inspectors to judge it. But no matter how it turns out, my career is already a success. We can be proud of the two Michelin stars, 18 Gault Millau points, a new business. And the guests who are visibly affected, show their emotions. For me, that is also what this profession is all about. This profession is a lot of emotion for me. Cooking is putting my soul on the plate and touching the guest with it. That's the best part, isn't it? Every day I celebrate my love for the profession with my team, our colleagues, our guests and also with my family.”


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