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In conversation with Guido Braeken: "This is a fairy tale in which I get to play a role"

He cooked the restaurant to two stars in the very first year. Guido Braeken (b. 1984, Maastricht) thus subitively put Julemont, beautifully located in the stately Château Wittem in South Limburg, on the culinary map. "Man, how proud I was! Of the whole team. These stars belong to all of us."
Esther Quelle

After a two and a half hour drive, we arrive at our destination: Château Wittem in the South Limburg town of the same name, located between Maastricht and Aachen. On this early morning, the estate breathes tranquility. The three-hundred-year-old plane trees in the castle garden are doing what they have been doing all their lives: standing. There is no hurry here. The castle goes way back in time. Charles V still slept there. And also William of Orange, before he and his troops went to Maastricht to fight the Spaniards. A hotel room has been named after both of them since the castle was purchased by Dutch-German couple Alexander and Nicole Wilden in 2018 and transformed into a boutique hotel and fine dining restaurant. The former's sister, Victoria Wilden, general manager of the castle, gives us a brief tour of the 12 luxury suites, which are primarily intended for guests of the restaurant. By now they know where Wittem is: restaurant Julemont was world news in the Netherlands last year when it was awarded two stars in one fell swoop during the Michelin awards. The architect of this success is just walking in, Guido Braeken: "Sorry I'm a little late, but I wanted to take my son to Easter breakfast at school myself."

Love for the hospitality industry

With a punishing espresso, we take a seat in Private Dining, where he takes us back to his younger years. "I was never the best student at school, had a hard time sitting still. I preferred to work, to earn money. All over the village on Saturdays I went to wash cars and do odd jobs. When I had earned something, I cycled to the record store to buy CDs - music was my great passion. From the age of fourteen I was allowed to start working for real. From Friday to Sunday I could work in my cousin's business, De Poshoorn in Maastricht, which at the time was eatery of the year. I started washing dishes and after a year I was allowed to help out in the kitchen, for example making satays and sandwiches. I found the vibe there very special, much nicer than at school. That's where the love for the catering industry came in. I stayed there for four years. During that time I also sometimes worked as a waitress, which I also enjoyed. Eventually I had to choose a direction and decided to do the four-year Gastheer course. My first training company was Auberge De Rousch in Heerlen, a very large establishment with an à la carte restaurant and rooms where meetings, weddings and parties were organized. There was that same friendly atmosphere there.

After a few hotels, in my final year of study I chose as an apprenticeship restaurant In De'n Dillegaard in Nuth, which had one star. There it became really serious. Setting tables for twenty covers is more difficult than for a wedding with five hundred people: everything tight and in order, the sheets ironed, perfect in every detail - I loved that. When I finished school, the sous chef of In De'n Dillegaard left. The chef asked if I wanted to help him in the kitchen. Although I worked at the front, I could never quite let go of the kitchen. It was a bit harder and more raw, which suited me. So I took the plunge. And then I never left the kitchen. Of course I had no training for the kitchen, so I enrolled in an accelerated private chef training program. In De'n Dillegaard gave me the opportunity to develop myself. There I learned how to handle ingredients such as sea bass, turbot, lobster, tuna and lamb. And bought my first cookbooks, from which I started to recreate everything. That's how I made the macarons from Sergio Herman's book - at the time I didn't even know how to pronounce it, haha."

Perfection on the board

After four years in De'n Dillegaard, Guido went to De Leuf in Ubachsberg, the starred restaurant of then Paul van de Bunt. "If you work in fine dining, you want to look into other kitchens. I was curious to see how restaurants with two and three stars were doing. With my wife, I once went to lunch at De Leuf, which had just won a second star in 2007. It was so good! I said to my wife, "If I can go here, I'll do it right away. Afterwards, we walked out and in the hallway I ran into Paul. I said to him, 'Mr. Van de Bunt, I would like to leave my number in case a spot becomes available with you in the future.' To which he asked, "When can you come for an interview? So that was quickly arranged. I did a combination of kitchen and service there the first year, but after that I wanted to focus entirely on the kitchen. When the sous chef, one of my best friends, left, I got the chance to take over his position. Paul gave me a lot of freedom. I was allowed to come up with my own ideas and develop them. He was very innovative himself and, for example, at the time of elBulli's heyday, he wanted us to delve into molecular cooking.

"He instilled in me what you need to maximize performance as a chef."

I worked there for five years, which was very good for my development. You don't master a kitchen in a year, you really have to allow yourself that time. That's why I stayed at all my work addresses for a long time. After those five years, however, I felt the time was right to take a new step." One of his colleagues at De Leuf had gone to La Source, at hotel La Butte aux Bois in Lanaken, Belgium. The latter called him to ask if he wouldn't also like to come to La Source. "I didn't know the restaurant, but it was reasonably close to me. And that colleague had convinced me that the chef, Ralf Berendsen (whose name the two-star restaurant now bears; ed.), cooked great food. I went for an interview and eventually started working there. He did indeed cook so well! Due to illness, the sous chef quit after six months and I was able to move on again. Only then did I really learn to cook. Berendsen is so perfectionist, so keen on taste. He gave me what you need to perform to the max as a chef. In seven years we have cooked La Source to two stars. Fine dining is top sport: you want to win that medal. And you have to do a lot for that. It was also quite a hard kitchen, although we had a very good click together. It was a busy place, you couldn't give up. Ralf asked the utmost of you and wanted perfection on the plate. Whether you had three or eight cooks in the kitchen, it always had to be quality. I wouldn't have wanted to miss it, it was perhaps my most important learning experience, but it did demand a lot from us. I would have loved to work in another three-star restaurant: Oud Sluis. The first time I went to eat there, I knew: I'm never going to experience something like that again! I can still taste the pigeon with pumpkin, so to speak. But Sluis was two hundred kilometers away from me. I had become a young father, my wife had her own job. For practical reasons, I didn't."

Raspberry with goat yogurt, shiso, basil and caramelized white chocolate | Kagoshimi Wagyu with unagi, black garlic, onion and Hollandaise sauce

Three Musketeers

It was more obvious to go to Beluga Loves You, in Maastricht. After seven years at La Source, Guido wanted to move up the ladder. When Servais Tielman offered him to become head chef, he didn't have to think long. "I started on September 1, 2019, a day after Hans van Wolde's farewell. His old team was still working until February, there was Servais' new team, and I was in between. If I wanted my dishes to take effect as of September, everyone had to do as I wanted. Quite a challenge, but it actually went pretty well. That's where I got a picture of where I stood, how far along I was. The first six months I was searching, the dishes from then I would never make like that now. But that was mainly because there was pressure behind it: in three weeks I had to put together a five-course menu, eight-course menu and the à la carte dishes. Meanwhile, the business was open, so I didn't have the peace of mind to test. In the end, what we served wasn't bad, because after three months we got a star right away. Still, that didn't feel like my star. With Servais, there was always another owner in front of me who is also a chef. I was working there for six months when corona broke loose. Not the most enjoyable time, but instructive.

In the lockdown, we started a delivery. We started with ten orders a day and at one point there were as many as five hundred. That involved tremendous organization: you have to manage very differently, buy differently, work differently. Good to experience that side for once." Although things were going well, Guido chose to accept the offer to become head chef at Restaurant Julemont of Château Wittem just a year and a half after his appointment. Suppliers had dropped his name there. At Beluga Loves You, he still felt like a sous chef of sorts, so he accepted the invitation to interview. "It was always my goal one day to run my own kitchen, a place where I would have full responsibility for menu and execution. Victoria Wilden offered me this opportunity. I had to take it. Moreover, I was able to bring along my two sous chefs, Norris Neutelings and Max van der Sterren, with whom I had worked in previous businesses besides Beluga Loves You. We had always been like: if a new challenge comes up, the three of us will take it. The three musketeers of the Heuvelland: one for all, all for one! In two days everything was complete."


Curious about the rest of the article? The summer edition is a fresh cocktail of entrepreneurship and sports. In this edition, some entrepreneurs from the Champions League of business pass the review. Among them are Freddy Heineken and hospitality tycoon Richard Caring, whose expanding empire has been called the "restaurant equivalent of LVMH. Business is top sport, but top sport is also business. Take Formula 1: the sport is increasingly developing into an octopus with arms that touch all aspects within our society. Jaap de Groot examined how millions are being turned into billions. Furthermore, interviews with gymnast Sanne Wevers, two-star chef Guido Braeken, hotelier Robert-Jan Woltering, designer Maarten Baas and Rico so, together with his Naomy. The "King of Kickboxing" is also emerging as an octopus (with very strong arms): as an entrepreneur, he is active in various industries. "When I look back later, I don't want to think 'if only I had this or that.' I just want to, boom, accelerate, do fun things, enjoy myself." Boom, the new MASTERS: enjoy!

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