To paraphrase an old saying, you can lead a diner to a restaurant but you cannot make him eat. This is the problem Alan Pearson, head chef at the Merlet Restaurant & Hotel at Schoorl in The Netherlands, is having with his Dutch customers.
Preston-born Pearson has put traditional English foods such as bread-and-butter pudding on his menu but he cannot convince his customers that it is good enough to eat. He says that the middle- to upper-class people who eat in his restaurant are wary of English cuisine. "They associate English food with badly cooked fish and chips. They say, ‘Those English cannot cook'."
His customers' dislike of English cooking must be hard for Pearson to hear, not only because he is from Britain but also because his cooking, which he describes as light and modern with a touch of fusion, won Merlet a Michelin star in February this year.
However, 39-year-old Pearson shrugs off the diners' comments. In an accent that is a mixture of flat Lancashire vowels and Dutch precision, he says that the food in The Netherlands is generally lighter than English food. Qualifying this, he adds: "There is a lot of chargrilled and fried food in England. Here, it is usually boiled or glazed lightly."
In general, says Pearson, the Dutch eat a lot of fish and not as much offal as the English. "I can't put calves' liver on my menus because [my customers] won't eat it," he says. "They wouldn't give it to a dog. The only way they would eat it is if I combined it with something else, possibly truffles."
But Pearson does not want to paint a black portrait of the Dutch, whom he says are very pro-British. And he points to the fact that there is a certain similarity between the traditional dishes of northern England and northern Holland. In the Schoorl area, for instance, stampot (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and hutspot (mashed potatoes with carrots) are firm local favourites, and not far removed from Lancashire hotpot.
Pearson should know all about the culinary needs of the Dutch, as he has been working in the country for the past 13 years after becoming disillusioned with life as a chef in the UK.
His early career was spent in such places as the Bell House Hotel in Beaconsfield before he moved to London. But after only a two-month stint at the Selfridge Thistle Hotel, he realised the capital was not for him. "In London," he says, "I enjoyed the service, but everything was so organised I couldn't find the excitement I was looking for."
At the Selfridge Thistle Hotel, Pearson would start work at 7.30am and clock off at 3pm - on the button. It was these strict finishing hours that he did not like. He explains: "I would be totally in the shit but then the time would come to clock off - I hated it because when I start something I like to finish it."
Luckily, Pearson heard of a chef de partie job at the Le Méridien Apollo Hotel in Amsterdam - he knew a chef in Bournemouth who knew the head chef there - and, having got the job, he moved to The Netherlands at the end of 1985.
In 1989, he moved on to become second sous chef at the city's Excelsior Hotel, where he worked with head chef Imko Binnerts, whom Pearson cites as one of his greatest culinary influences. He adds that he learned a lot at the hotel's one-Michelin-starred eaterie, and was impressed by Binnerts' discipline, techniques and respect for produce.
From the Excelsior, Pearson progressed to the American Hotel and then, in 1992, to his present position as head chef at the family-owned Merlet Hotel & Restaurant. He got the job with the help of Binnerts, who knew the Van Bourgonje family, which owns the establishment.
The hotel, 25 miles outside Amsterdam, has 18 rooms and an 80-seat restaurant, which Pearson describes as having a "provincial feel", with tiles on the floor and an open fire at one end.
The seven-strong kitchen brigade, six Dutch chefs and one German, caters for an average of 15 people at lunch, spending up to Fl62 (£20) a head. Evening service is generally fully booked, with an average of 80 covers per night and guests spending around Fl105 (£34) on a five- or six-course meal, excluding wine.
Even though none of his kitchen staff speaks English, this has not proved to be a problem for Pearson as he has mastered Dutch well enough to be understood. There is also no clash of cooking styles, because Pearson, in his own words, has become a "little bit Dutch".
Life outside the kitchen
One main difference between working in a kitchen in The Netherlands compared with in Britain, says Pearson, is that the Dutch are more aware that chefs have a life outside the kitchen. "In England," he says, "you keep quiet and get on and do your work, no matter how long it takes. But I couldn't expect my staff to work up to 15 or 16 hours a day." For Pearson, this is one of the main advantages of living in The Netherlands, "because everything is geared towards the employee", such as social events and working hours.
At Merlet, Pearson's kitchen is open to restaurant guests, who have a ringside view of his brigade's cooking. "I have nothing to hide and it brings me closer to the customers," he says. "If you can't put a face to a name, you can't get the character of the guest. I will do more for a guest if I know their face."
Part of this customer-friendliness takes the form of catering to all culinary tastes through a choice of five different menus: classic, inventive, gastronomical, Merlet and vegetarian.
The classic menu features starter dishes such as home-smoked salmon with horseradish sauce, Fl32.50 (£10.50), for "customers who don't want food they are not familiar with", says Pearson. The opposite is true for the inventive menu, which is aimed at those not afraid to try something different. This features starters such as dry deep-fried scallops coated with duck liver and a sweet sherry vinaigrette Fl26 (£8).
Both the gastronomical and the Merlet menus are set. The five-course gastronomical menu, at Fl105 (£34) without wine, changes every day and features dishes such as duck liver terrine and sweetbreads. The Merlet menu offers four courses for Fl85 (£27.50) and often carries Pearson's signature dishes, one of which is stewed plaice fillet with anchovy and spinach.
The four-course vegetarian menu, on the other hand, offers diners the likes of a starter of green beans, or nut salad with nut crackers and coarse-grain mustard, and a main of grilled courgettes with herbs in tempura and tomato coulis, for Fl74 (£24) excluding wine.
Dutch food is dominated by seasonal availability and tends to be uncomplicated, and Pearson enjoys cooking in that style. "We don't do much with the produce," he says. "For example, we would skewer a turbot in the pan with butter, and cook it slowly to let the flavours come out naturally. We let ingredients be ingredients, and don't make too many combinations. There can't be a drama on the plate."
Ingredients used in the dishes are sourced from around 35 suppliers, mainly local as Pearson is keen to promote local food on his menus. "I have one supplier who delivers French cheese and one who delivers oysters," he says. "They are very specialised. My meat and fish are both delivered from local suppliers." In fact, he spends around one-third of the restaurant's turnover on produce.
Wide supplier base
Continuity of supply is not a problem, he says, because of his wide supplier base. Nevertheless, he is always on the lookout for new sources. A recent discovery is veal from the Waterlands district near Schoorl. Being grazed on wet pasture means that the veal is dark, almost like beef. Pearson is excited by its quality and confirms that it will soon find its way on to his menu, though he has yet to decide on an exact recipe.
However, his excitement about ingredients and cooking does not extend to cooking at home. He lives with his Dutch wife and six-year-old son in the little village of Groeg, two miles outside Schoorl, and his wife has banned him from the kitchen because, as he readily confesses: "I make a mess."
Earning around £1,200 a month after tax, Pearson is content with the Dutch lifestyle, which allows him enough leisure time to go to the beach, which is a 10-minute bike-ride from his house. He admits it is a bit of a culture shock going back to Preston, because he misses the greenery and trees of Schoorl.
He says he cannot see himself leaving The Netherlands in the near future, but one thing is for certain: if he ever returned to cook in the UK, he would try to get British people to eat Dutch food. "I would definitely bring my Dutch influences with me," he says, "I don't think that I could help it."