One of the most exciting aspects of travelling is sampling the array of native delicacies and feeling like part of the community no matter what corner of the world you’re in. Herbert van Drongelen had that international exposure, which he brings to his job as Head Chef at Herbs Garden at The Four Elements Hotel Amsterdam. Funding his travels required a portable job, and so after attending catering college where he discovered a passion for gastronomy and food, Drongelen worked as a chef on cruise ships and completed an incredible cycling journey circumnavigating the globe in six years.
Sustainability is at the heart of his work, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and zero waste, which drives the philosophy behind this restaurant.
This hasn’t been without challenges though. Sustainability comes in many forms and while we may practice one branch, it can sometimes be to the detriment of another.
Drongelen explained: “It’s good to stop eating a lot of meat, but at the same time if we’re eating more vegan that means we’re eating soy beans and coconuts and palm oil from the other side of the world, and that creates a different problem. Half of Brazil is gone because of the soy bean production.”
The conversation with Drongelen is an interesting one in that it throws up questions around sustainability with no right answer. While veganism seeks to abstain from animal products and even reject the idea of animals as commodities, there is the environmental impact of produce consumption harvested thousands of miles away.
Is it sustainable to eat a properly farmed chicken or fish in Holland or an avocado that was grown in Ecuador?
“It’s very difficult to always make the right decision,” he admits.
“When it comes to sustainable menus and food, it’s difficult to say what is now the right thing to do in order to provide a sustainable menu. The vegan menu is a challenging menu. I decided what I’m going to do is be as local as I can be, which in Holland is a very challenging thing in the sense that in the dark months of March and April there isn’t a lot of produce. We produce a lot throughout the year, but there’s this gap where there is nothing. So in order to do that we preserve a lot ourselves; fermentation, drying, freezing,” Drongelen told us.
With a clear framework in place, local produce seems simple enough. However Drongelen has faced some challenges with specific ingredients and their availability in Holland. Olive oil for example has proven difficult and is one of a handful of exceptions he makes given the difficulties working without it. Orange juice is notably absent from the menu, unable to grow in Holland. In place of that though there are other fruits like apples and pears that are offered.
Drongelen explained: “When you don’t tell people, when you just confront them with the fact there is no orange juice, you will have a problem. They will say why is there no orange juice, what is this for a hotel? But when you explain what I just told you, why we don’t have orange juice, they say yeah that’s clever.”
Coffee is another example. Being based in a hotel, guests expect their morning brew, so coffee is on the menu, but Drongelen and his team know exactly where it’s sourced from, which is another caveat to this restaurant.
The impact of added value elevates this philosophy, which is why ingredients that come from outside of Holland like the wines that come only from Europe is a compromise but are carefully selected.
“Every wine on the list has an added value or story. For example it is a biological wine or a vegan wine. We only buy wine from Europe that has an added value. That way everything has a bit more colour and depth.”
The local philosophy doesn’t mean that dishes are only limited to Dutch and European cuisines though.
“One thing we do use is spice. They’re dried and transported, and that allows us to give some international colour. We did a lamb dish, Moroccan flavours and it’s because we can use spices.”
This flexibility has resulted in a menu that is eclectic and cosmopolitan despite the local philosophy. It’s also reflected in the way his team uses “different techniques that are cherry picked from around the world but we use local produce.”
When you’re able to produce pasta dishes made by two Italian chefs using flour grown and milled in Holland, not only do you preserve the economics of the place but the cultural diversity too.
As sustainability has shifted from an emerging movement to a firm lifestyle that has positive impacts on the environment, the different practices and ways of adoption makes it one of the biggest moral decisions when choosing what to implement and what makes sense to you. While Drongelen’s travels have been instrumental in shaping his exposure to cuisines and experiences, ultimately when it comes to Herb Gardens, there really is no place like home.