Michel Westerman – Executive Chef of Hotel Okura Amsterdam
My name is Michel Westerman and I am Executive Chef Main Kitchen of Hotel Okura Amsterdam.
Currently I am working here for four years now with loads of joy and pride. I have the privilege to work with a fantastic team and together we are aiming for the best. Hotel Okura Amsterdam is a five star superior hotel and exclusive member of the Leading Hotels of the World. All 300 tastefully decorated, spacious rooms and suites of Okura are designed to ensure the highest standards of luxury. The hotel is also home to four high quality restaurants, which all have been awarded by Michelin, and offers a cookery studio and a large banqueting facility.
The status of being a chef is different in different countries. What is the status in the Netherlands?
Within the Netherlands the profession of being a chef has become more and more interesting with more opportunities thanks to cooking shows and television programs. However, on the other hand the amount of people applying in the hotel- and restaurant business is not increasing. At the same time the economy is wealthy and more restaurants and hotels are being opened, which makes it very difficult to fill all the vacancies. The companies that are truly involved in the development of their employees and have a strong focus on quality within their operations also see the difficulty in finding the right match. I think it is important to create the right environment for the employees in an open atmosphere, where hard work goes together with fun, honest feedback and possibilities to learn and develop.
In which age did you recognised that you “need” to become a chef?
This was on a very early stage in my life. Basically when I was around 10 years old I was already interested in cooking and tried things out in the kitchen at home. On my thirteenth I started helping out in the kitchen in a small touristic hotel in the city in my spare time, which made me even more enthusiastic and passionate.
The chef education system in the Netherlands, how long does it take and are the courses a combination of Dutch and international kitchen?
As a chef you never stop learning. My first steps after the Pre-vocational Secondary education were going to the restaurant, kitchen and bakery school in Amsterdam. From here I continued going to a Secondary Vocational education. Here I had one educational day and five working days in companies that rotated every year. The type of companies you chose were important for your Curriculum Vitae for the future. Nowadays the system is still a bit the same although there are more opportunities to continue developing with some very nice educational initiatives such as ‘Sterklas’ which educates cooks to high quality chefs.
Making the chef job more attractive again for younger people, what needs to be done?
To make sure we keep our profession interesting for the younger generation, we need to start promoting it at an earlier age. There is a lot of talent, however hotels and restaurants are seen as low payed jobs with many working hours. So the idea is there that when working in hospitality it is not a job where you can be proud of. I think this is not true and when starting to search for the right match/interest at a lower age the natural selection will work in our future favour. On the other side, hotel and restaurant businesses should look how they can keep this job interesting for the new generation. Because the business cannot operate properly without driven staff members who understand hospitality and commitment. At the end it is a balance between both interest and making sure that it is rewarding for all.
How would you describe your culinary line?
I would describe our culinary line an international cuisine including Dutch ingredients and a Japanese touch. We work with a lot of seasonal products and ingredients and try to surprise our guest with the use of special flavours. At the end the freshness and quality of the products is very important since we only go for the best.
Seasonal, regional, Bio, Asian influenced… the actual trends; what are the new trends in the Netherlands?
The Asian cuisine is for sure the trend in the Netherlands as well as cooking with vegetables.
After more than 6 years as Executive Chef de Cuisine at the Marriott in Amsterdam, you changed as Executive Chef Main Kitchen to Hotel Okura Amsterdam. What was the reason for the change?
The Renaissance hotel was a challenging environment for me due to the international character of the large Hotel group as the Marriott International is. It was a very pleasant working environment with many hard working associates in the middle of the heart of Amsterdam. Since I strive to continuously develop myself as a chef, it was my goal to get as much as possible out of the job. After almost seven years it was time for the next step and I continued my career at Hotel Okura Amsterdam. My old F&B manager used to be head chef here as well and after a visit 18 years ago it really inspired me and when that opportunity came I had the grab the moment.
Hotel Okura Amsterdam is a very interesting culinary place. Under his roof are:
The two Michelin star Ciel Bleu Restaurant of Chefs Onno Kokmeijer and Arjan Speelman
The One Michelin star the traditional Japanese cuisine, Yamazato Restaurant
Sazanka only teppanyaki restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star.
Serre a place to enjoy international specialties. Bib Gourmand by Michelin
What is your culinary specialisation in this at the OKURA organisation?
Within Hotel Okura Amsterdam we have divided the kitchens into several segments. Ciel Bleu Restaurant is led by Chefs team Onno Kokmeijer and Arjan Speelman, Serre by Chef Daan Damen and Yamazato Restaurant and Teppanyaki Restaurant Sazanka by Mr Tomikawa. I am responsible for the banqueting kitchen, room service, breakfast kitchen, pastry kitchen, staff restaurant and our cookery studio. We help each other where needed and share our expertise and knowledge among products and preparation methods .It is great to be part of such a culinary destination. We also exchange staff or do internships in each other’s kitchen to strengthen our cooking capabilities to a higher level.
Having so many great places under one roof; does such a great chef community inspire each other?
Sometimes we work together for events or catering. This works both ways and looking in each other’s kitchen is always nice for our employees.
Do you have a close relation to your suppliers of your groceries?
The relation with the suppliers is very close and sometimes we visit the supplier to look for new products or ingredients. The suppliers know what is expected from them and together with our Purchase Department we keep them informed about the expectations and delivery. I have been working for many years now with these suppliers and I try to visit them as much as possible to increase the personal relationship.
Thank you for your time Michel!