Talking to Merel Beelenkamp, chef and owner of the outstanding Rotterdam based
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Last month, November 2019, she appeared in the Dutch Vogue. Since opening her restaurant Bistro Belén, owner Merel Beelenkamp hasn’t gone unnoticed. We asked the beautiful, young and talented chef some questions about her passion for cooking which goes hand-in-hand with her love for nature. We recently had our annual Christmas dinner at Bistro Belén, for whom has not discovered it yet; the refined and well-thought flavors of Merel's dishes are outstanding.
Merel, can you introduce yourself, please?
I’m Merel, 30 years old and live across the street of my restaurant Bistro Belén with Bastiaan (husband), Fief (dog) and Marie (cat).
How would you type your food? What dish represents your kitchen best?
Well, we serve organic vegetables and wild game from the Dutch Delta. Our dishes are pure, complex, but still recognizable. I love to use deep flavors, sauces and different kinds of textures and fermentations. I don't really have a fixed dish that represents my kitchen the best because we are constantly changing our menu according to the availability of the seasons, but of course, I have a personal favorite dish; smoked razor clams with green and red strawberries served with a sauce of smoked goose.
Who inspires you in your work?
Actually, nature does. While wandering through different landscapes with Bas and our dog fief, I get lots of inspiration. We use our senses to get inspired and after, we have a whole new dish or menu.
You run an organic restaurant that works with micro seasonal and regional products. What motivates you?
We like to do it because it actually works this way in nature. The Dutch Delta has so much to offer during the whole year. We follow landscape zones, for example, dunes, kwelders, polders, forests, on sand or clay soils. All these different terrains form plant families, which go very well together. There are many techniques that will help to preserve vegetables, so you won’t need anything from the other side of the world. Within the seasons, plants are constantly changing. For example, in the spring you can use the young leaves, towards summer the green berries for kapers, and the red berries in autumn make for wonderful sauces.
We were curious; The name Belén links to Bethlehem we found out, does this reference mean anything to you?
True, but that is not the reason why the restaurant's name is Belén. Belén is a Spanish girls’ name, and was my “nickname” in Argentina, where I was an exchange student during my studies International Business and Languages. The name is actually pronounced like we would do in French, but the accents work opposite in both languages.
What has been your biggest challenge during the past two years? And a positive surprise?
Our biggest challenge is to balance our experimental kitchen, and drive for really good organic ingredients and high-end natural wines with our fixed costs, like our rent. As for every entrepreneur with a drive for doing it differently, I imagine. As a positive side effect, however, this also pushed us towards a clear definition of the direction of our kitchen, which we are now working on to bundle into our first cookbook!
Which five things are always in your refrigerator?
Different kinds of broth, made from leftovers of animal carcasses and vegetables as we try to have as little waste as possible. A good organic butter of course, homemade oils, fermentations and cured ingredients. This all sounds quite elaborate maybe, but fermenting apples for example, is a process that our grandmothers used in order to preserve food for the winter. By using that process, but then only for a week or two, you get beautiful, rich, surprising flavors that really set a dish apart. The fermentation process takes place outside the fridge, and stops the moment it goes in.
Can you share with us some chef-worthy tips to get us through the holidays?
Enjoy it like a holiday. Take your time to prepare your family festive feast. Cooking already starts with finding your ingredients. So, start early, make it a nice excursion to find those special plants, or cuts of meat, so that there is no stress. Cooking, especially for family and friends, should be about enjoying flavors and tastes together, and enjoying each other's company.
What is the idea behind the interior of Bistro Belén?
Our interior hints at style elements from a bistro, such as the Thonet chairs and marble tables. However, we wanted a more abstract background, spacious, warm and toned back, with a few surprising spatial elements in reference to the style of our kitchen. Basically, a background to let the eating experience take center stage.
The warm lights, a big curtain running the entire length of our restaurant, wooden floors, and a music playlist which we composed, work together to create a filmic intimate background for the food and conversations at the table.
Where will we find you on your day off?
Of course we go out dining a lot, to get new experiences. But, wandering around in nature, after which we end up a lot at my mothers’ house near the forest in Brabant is something that always calms me down.
At last, our favorite question, what do you dream about?
I love to bring what nature offers to our guests in Belén, but I dream about living out in the country, having a farm, producing our own vegetables and animals, really investigate the impact of soils on our food and nature. Together with a small restaurant of course, and some guesthouses. However, for now I like to focus on the present, as there are so many things that I would like to do with Belén!
‘We follow landscape zones, for example dunes, kwelders, polders, forests, on sand or clay soils. All these different terrains form plant families, which go very well together.'