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Episode #61: Joris Bijdendijk

Episode #61: Joris Bijdendijk

The chef of Rijks & Wils, and one of the founders of the Low Food Foundation.

Joris Bijdendijk is the chef and owner of the restaurants Rijks, inside of the Rijksmuseum, and Wils, which has an open fire restaurant and a café and bakery. A few years ago he started a foundation called Low Food in 2018 with a group of people that work in the culinary industry. Their aim is to change Dutch cuisine. I know there are a lot of other organizations doing something like this around the world, though often times its just some weird ploy for 50 Best votes. This isn’t that. They are really trying to use actual data and open lines of communication between different groups within the Netherlands. They are trying to lay the groundwork to create a more sustainable and healthier food system.

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Partial Episode Transcript

On starting the Low Food Foundation

Joris: “All my friends are either chefs or they're working in politics and policy makers, and, I don't know, sausage makers. We've been seeing each other for 20 years and we all want the culinary part of the Netherlands becomes more well known. We try to promote our own country, like many people do in their own country. Also, we know the problems that farmers and fishermen face with all the rules and regulations. That's basically where Low Food started. I was always talking with my producers and farmers and asking: what can I do to help you? You're most important to me because I need your produce. Long story short, one of my chicken farmers said to me that ‘if you really want to do something, you have to go to the government and talk about these rules and regulations. Because for me, it's just impossible. I think they're really good for food safety, and etc. But it makes life so expensive. We cannot keep up.’ So, we just said okay, let's try.

Then we sat at a table with the Prime Minister asking for help and support. The Minister of Agriculture told us that you need to become something because we cannot just help individuals. And then we decided to start the Low Food Foundation. So that was in 2018 and in 2019, we had our first symposium. Claus Meyer was the keynote speaker because he was a great inspiration for us.

We became a foundation for three reasons. We think we can work as a network agent. We think we need to do research - I'm going to talk a little bit more about that that part later – so you can actually prove if you are sustainable. And we want to teach young chefs and offer them freedom, like a kind of a college, not like school, but more a way to develop their own formula for their career. Something I missed when I started cooking. So, these are the three things we're doing.”

Nick: “So the food system in the Netherlands is quite industrialized. Right? I imagine it is very intensely cultivated, the fields and everything?”

Joris: “It's very focused on business.”

Nick: “So the rules and regulations, I imagine, are written around large producers for exports and things like that. So, for small farmers it's almost impossible to fit into that system. So Low Food is trying to change that, almost like a political party.”

Joris: “On one side we want to know what's going on with the fishermen, and it's more like a community and helping each other, asking what do we need from each other. I'm a chef, and I need my fishermen and farmers, and I ask what I can do for them today to have a better life. For example, this chicken farmer, he has about 200 chickens, and he needs to know, six months in advance how many chickens I think I will use. That's very hard. So, we changed the way of thinking. Actually, it's better if you just decide how many chickens are good in certain week, and you just send them over. And you can decide on the price and we make sure that in our restaurant, we change it into revenue with a healthy financial model.

Nick: “That's extremely helpful. I keep hearing all these stories in New York of farmers getting requests from restaurants that they only want a certain size and shape of a carrot or something. And they're all like, What the fuck? What am I going to do with all these other carrots? You're just making it impossible for farmers to operate.”

Joris: “It’s impossible because if you produce small scale…if you produce on a large scale, you can make selections of your vegetables or other projects. If you fish large scale, there's 10 tons of sea bass and you can say, okay, that's the one and a half kg part, that's 1.3 kg part. But in small scales this is just impossible. That's what I realized, when this farmer invited me and said, You asked me to bring you over one and a half kilo chickens, well walk in and tell me which one are good. That's also the way of learning, right? Just go and see how they work.”

Nick: “I think a lot of restaurants have been disconnected from what actually happens on a farm. And they're dealing with the middleman who's putting pressure on the farmer. It's just a lack of communication.”

On the term sustainability

Joris: “For the last year, we've been thinking about how can we become more transparent when we talk about sustainability, For many people they just think like, Okay, this restaurant is serving vegetables, it must be true. Also, for example, my two restaurants, they have Michelin stars. Also, the green star is something I would love to have, but we do not actually know the criteria for getting a green star. I understand the feeling of the restaurants that have a green star, but we are trying to make this transparent and measurable.

With Deloitte we've been working on a system, on a model where restaurants can actually measure themselves or we can measure the restaurant for them to see where they stand. It’s not good or bad, but it's just like, okay, you with your restaurant, you stand here, this is your data. You can work on this, this, this and this topic to become more sustainable next year. So, giving them the tools to actually know what they need to work on.

I've measured my two restaurants now with Deloitte, with some ups and downs. First, we thought, we're going to measure every dish, which was not the right method. We had such a long list of items, like 1.2 grams of black pepper. It was impossible to measure. Now we have a different system. We basically hand over 100% of the data of everything we've been using in the restaurant for one year, including electricity, water, ingredients, kilos of chicken, kilos of carrots, the amount of covers we've done, etc, etc. Then we can actually make a lifecycle assessment.”

Nick: “Was there anything that surprised you and the results of your own restaurant?”

Joris: “Of course, many things. The details show that if you're using less water in the restaurant it doesn't change a thing. It doesn't have any impact, it's like less than 1%. I'm not going to focus on that part. The same for electricity. Of course, you kind of noted already, but the ingredients you pick have the biggest impact. Of course, beef and dairy have the biggest impact, but for example, farmed mushrooms use incredible amounts of water. There are many details like that. If you use wild mushrooms, instead of farmed mushroom it changes a lot.

We work with averages, like for example, it has an average value in terms of land use, water use, co2, etc, etc. But if we have a farmer that works in a different way, the next step is to measure that farmer and use those values in the assessment for your restaurants. So that's the next step. We have started measuring fisherman that we've worked with and would like to have a completely a transparent system, and to help the chef and the rest of the restaurant to become more sustainable, and actually change something.”

Nick: “That's extremely sophisticated. So, you're creating the model in the Netherlands, but is there an idea that it can be replicated anywhere?”

Joris: “The whole goal is that we did this model and we're going to scale it. We're going to introduce the model on the 15th of May for during our symposium, and then ask the next chefs. It's also like, you're vulnerable, because everyone can see what your you're using and where you're standing. So, it's not like, again, to show if someone is good or not good. It's to show the chef what he needs to work on and to be transparent. So that's our goal after the Low Food Symposium that many chefs will want to use our model to measure themselves. It would be great to have a portfolio or a data bank with many suppliers, not just the fishermen or farmers that we've been measuring. That can give a more specific view on where your restaurant is standing.

What we calculate is the true price. For example, if you use asparagus from Peru in the Netherlands, for one kilo of asparagus there is like 300 liters of water needed. Then because of that kilo of asparagus, someone else couldn't use the water needed to buy something elsewhere. How can we compensate? There are like 3 million things that are in your ingredients that have that kind of story. And we calculate the true price. Another example, with eggs, we need to give back three euros per cover in a restaurant to compensate. And then of course, the next goal is to become net positive. How can we get to like a negative amount of euros?”

Nick: “Do you think that's possible in a fine dining restaurant, or high-end restaurant?”

Joris: “We're finding that out, but in theory, I think it's possible depending on which ingredients are used that make an impact. So, if you have regenerative agriculture and you use those ingredients, it's regenerative. So, you bring something back. We are learning, but we're totally 100% in this in this project now.”

Nick: “Do you think the term sustainability in restaurants has kind of lost any sense of meaning?”

Joris: “That's the whole thing. First of all, something I don't like from this word, is that it means that there are many things we cannot do. It should be the other way around. There are many good things that you could do, if you know a bit more of which products or which producers are good. Seeing the, the nice side of sustainability is important. Also, to have it more transparent and know what you're about if you talk about sustainability, because it's more than just wearing a green chef jacket.”

Nick: “That's kind of what it's become, though. You have like one local farmer that nobody really knows where or who it is, or you buy some weird fish, and then people slap a sustainable label on it. Everyone just kind of accepts what everyone's saying. To have some actual data would be I think groundbreaking.”

Joris: “Yes, exactly. Because I really had the feeling that something was missing in this whole story about sustainability. I was basically copying other chefs like, okay, he's doing this, this looks good. It must be good. I don't know.”

Nick: “I think that's kind of what everyone does. They just kind of accept that the words being thrown around, the buzzwords and the stories being told, without doing any kind of research into what is actually sustainable and why it's sustainable.”

Joris: “Exactly. I didn't know where to start or which part of the sustainability movement where can I change something. I would love to do something, but I don't have any book or data  whatsoever that helps explains me this. Now I do. I do have it.”

Nick: “I think it's good, the approach you're doing. I mean, a lot of times, especially like in the Americas, the disconnect between scientists and what restaurants and chefs are doing, it's so vast. They're in completely different conversations. The communication aspect of it, the connecting points are just not there.”

Joris: “This is exactly why we've created Low Food for chefs, producers, policy makers and scientists. Those four. For these people that have something to do with one of those it is interesting. Even if you're not from the Netherlands, and you want to have a network which has policymakers, scientists, and farmers and producers, that's what Low Food is standing for. Then we want to do research on topics to do something with food waste, protein transition and biodiversity. So that's where our research is going, and everything's open source. All these models and all these resources we just publish because I think that's the way to speed things up. With just shared knowledge. To share whatever we've been doing and other people can become inspired by it.”

On Dutch ingredients

Joris: “It's hard to say. Of course, what determines a cuisine is the produce you can get, but we basically produce for the whole world. And many of our ingredients, the ingredients that we eat and we use are imported, which is really strange. I mean, we export our shellfish, cockles, abroad, yet we import as many vongole from Italy to our country, so our system is pretty weird on many topics. Same for the langoustine. If I want to use langoustines, you can catch them in the North Sea. And then my fish supplier needs to drive to Paris to buy Dutch langoustines and bring them back to the Netherlands. So that's so that's pretty weird.

I think, after the Second World War, people were only thinking about how to produce as much as possible, as cheap as possible and as safe as possible. That changed a lot in our food culture. And I think you need restaurants to kind of let people see what you can do with Dutch ingredients. In 80s, when the first real chefs started restaurants and Michelin stars became important, all the good restaurants were French. Now finally, for 10 years or so, many chefs, young chefs that start a restaurant, not necessarily super high-end or anything, but just real food, they try to search ingredients from nearby. It’s not like a real clear signature of what Dutch cuisine means or whatever but more the fact that so many young chefs are trying to search for good suppliers. That makes Dutch cuisine Dutch cuisine. There are so many ingredients that we can really be proud of and so many things from nature that you can eat as well. I think you need to restaurants to kind of teach that to consumers and for the ingredients to become more mainstream and make them cultural foods.”

Nick: “I mean, it has to start somewhere. It's not just going to happen overnight that everyone starts eating local anything.”

Joris: “It’s also very important for Dutch cuisine, for me, is that you include the Surinamese people as our people, which have a certain way of cooking, and the Indonesian way of cooking. And many, so many different cultures living here together and basically get any ingredient you can think of, you can get in in the Netherlands, so it makes it very interesting.”

Nick: “You've you brought up Suriname. I'm really fascinated by this. I think Suriname and French Guiana are the only places in all of Latin America I have not been. I've been to like Guyana, but not French Guiana and Suriname. I've read a lot about it and researched recipes and things. It seems like a super fascinating place. There are amazing, interesting ingredients from this part of South America. I imagine you get a ton of them because the Netherlands is the primary trading partner for Suriname, so everything goes to Amsterdam one way or another.”

Joris: “The interesting part of Suriname is that you have people from India, Jewish people, Jewish cuisine. It's such a unique mixture of cultures that live together and create such an interesting cuisine together with different influences.”

Nick: “Guyana is the same way. It has this southern Caribbean influences; indigenous influence from, the Amazon and northern South America; Indians from India; all of these weird things coming together. They're fascinating cuisines, but I think there's one Surinamese restaurant in New York, or there was for a while, but that's the only one I've ever heard of outside of Suriname. I'm sure in Amsterdam, or elsewhere in the Netherlands there are a bunch.”

Joris: “Plenty everywhere. Indonesian and Surinamese restaurants and little shops where you can have Surinamese black pudding, it's amazing. Every time we have an invite from wherever, like a guest chef or something in a restaurant, I always take them on a small tour at the market. The market is not such an interesting food market. You can buy your vegetables and some cheese and stuff like that. But the little shops, you need to know where to go. You can basically have your seven-course street food menu, which is amazing.”

Nick: “Have you been discerned on before?”

Joris: “I've been, yeah. It's such an interesting country and I really want to go back again. I made a television series about food and art and we went to Suriname to investigate cassava, but I don't know if you say it like that in English.”

Nick: “We say cassava or yuca. Usually we say yuca in the US, but cassava works too.”

Joris: “It is such an important product in Suriname. They make everything from it, like the bread to cookies, the soup. So I started to get to know Suriname thanks to cassava.”

Nick: “I need to get there. I might meet you there.”

Joris: “We were talking about labs and the importance of doing research. Actually, Fatmata Binta, she does a bit the same research in Ghana on fonio, which is a super interesting ingredient. Doing research on it, to see what you can actually make of it. A couple of years ago, she contacted me and she sent me some fonio over and said, Can you just try to do something with it? So I made, I don't know, a crisp of it and I sent the recipe to her. She does a little bit what we do with Low Food in the Netherlands. Promoting an ingredient that can help you become more sustainable, because fonio is such an interesting product. I don't know if you know it or not?”

Nick: “I known a little bit about it. I saw her presentation in December in Bogota, at Bogota Madrid Fusion. It is super cool what she's doing. I don't know that much about fonio, but I imagine there are lots of ingredients in a place like Ghana, that have just been kind of forgotten, or just they're not used to their potential. And they're very sustainable and they're probably very abundant and inexpensive.”

Joris: “There are so many ingredients that we don't know. She brought me some ingredients from Ghana, for example, dawa dawa, I don't know if you know it. This is fermented locust beans.”

Nick: “Okay. Yeah, it's called something else in Nigeria.”

Joris: “It has many different names in different countries. This is the plant based ingredient with the highest amount of umami. It's like a flavor maker in any dish, really strong, strong smell and it really gives so much full flavor to any dish. It's incredible. And they brought many more ingredients like that. You think you know everything until you don't?”

Nick: “Ingredients like that, it doesn't matter what you do in a French kitchen, you cannot get those flavors out of these ancestral products that have been basically perfected over centuries. From the growing the locust beans to the processing of them, and they're just incredible. And there are so many things like that out there. But, as you said, cooking schools have basically been just teaching French cuisine, for the last 50 years, all over the world.”

Joris: “It’s because it's easy, and it's really structured. Learning how to make bouillon, and then to do a croissant, and how to debone.”

Nick: “I think those skills are important, but I think what cooking schools haven't taught is how to create your own cuisine. Using that model, rather than just replicating that everywhere. I still see that with like, not so much French cuisine now, even though it's still kind of the backbone of all cooking schools, but even Nordic style food now. It's like everyone just tries to copy it without trying to make it their own. Just using the model of that and using nature and biodiversity and all those things. It ends up just being you have a Nordic restaurant in Paraguay, instead of, you know, just having this incredible Paraguayan restaurant. That's a bad example because there are incredible Paraguayan restaurants and I don't think there's a Nordic restaurant there, but you get the idea.”

Joris: “Of course. I think you're totally right. They should teach people how they can create their own unique style because everyone has their own unique style.”

Nick: “It allows for more freedom in what you cook with, instead of, just requiring the same size carrot. It allows for inconsistencies and just the beauty of cooking and the inconsistencies on it. I don't know. Are there any like Dutch ingredients that nobody uses that you're really excited about?”

Joris: “For example, right about now, every year in April, you get all the goose coming to the Netherlands to reproduce, so goose eggs are really good. Especially the yolk has a lot of flavor. Cheesy. There are three guys near Rotterdam producing soy sauce. I think they're the only one to do it in a traditional Japanese way in Europe and we are using their soy sauce a lot. I think they won the highest degree that you can get in Japan for soy sauce. They have their own grains, their own soy beans and they do everything regenerative.

In the past years we've been trying to use…when you have cheese production, for example, goat cheese, but also cow in dairy production, there are a lot of male animals not being used in a proper way. Goat meat is really tasty. So, we've been putting goat meat on the menu for quite a while, but it's so weird. Many male goats are being produced, but it's really hard to get the meat because there's not a system that supplies the male goats from to a farm where they can grow.”

Nick: “Is that because there's just there hasn't been a demand for the goat meat or, or just the system doesn't work for small producers, small ranches?”

Joris: “I think when it is on a small scale, we didn’t have many goats and there was little market for it. But it's not popular. I mean, the food we eat is so standard. It's like pork, chicken and a little bit of lamb. And the rest is nonexistent. There are farms with, I don't know, 10,000 goats just for dairy production. And 50% of the goats being born are males and 50% are females. I think there are about 150,000 goats being born every year in the Netherlands, sp 75,000 are males, which they don’t use for dairy production.”

Nick: “So they just get slaughtered most of the time?”

Joris: “Or exported to places, but the thing is they don't have the place to raise male goats. That's the problem. They need to build the same number of farms to be able to keep those males and there's no demand for it. Not enough. You don't see any business in it. And that's the thing, food is business.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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New Worlder
New Worlder
The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill and anthropologist Juliana Duque, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.