Talking Belly to Belly with Glutton and Van Dam.

AmsterdamWeekly_Issue16_19AIn one corner: Johannes van Dam, Het Parool’s food critic, who puts fear into the hearts of the city’s restaurateurs—he can make them, he can break them. In the other corner: Amsterdam Weekly’s Undercover Glutton—he still gets to eat in peace. We have brought them together to discuss their mutual love—nay, uncontrollable passion—for food.  And indeed, it  turned out  that they have a lot  in common besides diabetes. Whenever one mentioned a particular dish, the other would kindly provide a soundtrack of salivation and pleasurable gekreun—a near-constant backdrop of gesmekkle. It was really quite sweet. The interview took place in one of Van Dam’s favourite haunts, Café Luxembourg on Spui. When Van Dam enters, he asks: ‘So you want to talk about my food passion?’ He pats his belly: ‘Well, it’s only growing by the day.’ The Undercover Glutton pats his belly in response. A bond is born.

By Steve Korver, 19-04-2007, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly.

What are your earliest food memories?

Johannes van Dam (JvD) I had a father who was interested in food and especially the taste of things. I remember, as a child I ate tomatoes on bread and poured sugar over it [UG moans]. Then someone suggested trying salt, so I did and that was good, too. Another memory is from when I was six or seven; my mother asked me to make her some tea, and I decided to add a lot of sugar to make it real tasty even though I knew she didn’t use it. I thought she did that out of thrift or something. She spat it out, but then explained that was because she wasn’t used to it. So I began doing without sugar in my tea for two weeks, thinking I would enjoy the sugar even more afterwards. But then I spat it out as well! I learned then that taste is very much about what you’re used to.
Undercover Glutton (UG) My memory is almost the same but I never stopped with sugar! I was born premature. I didn’t want to eat, and my father fed me sugar water. Ever since, I’ve had a passion for sweet things. My mother would make brown bread-and-butter sandwiches with tomatoes and salt and pepper, and sprinkle sugar over it. My father also had a food column back then, in South Africa, along with a few restaurants. So we were brought up with good food. I just loved to eat. I had a Russian grandmother who made the best pancakes in the world… Oh, and her fried fillets of sole!

So both your parents were good cooks?
UG Yes…
JvD Not at all! My mother is still alive, and she is still not. My father tried. On weekends and holidays he’d try something fancy from a very fat cookbook, but he almost always failed. I started cooking Sunday brunch for the family when I was seven or eight. Later, I cooked for my fellow students, and I’ve never stopped. I’m quite good, but I didn’t get it from my parents.

If you were a dish what dish would you be?
JvD I am a dish! They tell me so. I would be me.
UG You are what you eat after all… If I was served as a dish I would feed a lot of people. The meat would be tender and rich from all the nice things I have eaten. I think a roast…
JvD You are a roast. You are as big as me!
UG You know, my brother is a film caterer. He also has the passion. In his will he wants to be cremated, but his last wish is to be marinated and stuffed—the whole works. His wife freaked out. I asked him if he was serious and he said yes. Sure, you need a bit of a perverse sense of humour, but after all, eating is a communal thing. That’s what I believe anyway.
JvD I would be a simple peasant dish, with honest ingredients. Not many of them… something with potatoes, onions and cheese.
UG Actually, I would be a terrine.
JvD Why’s that?
UG Because I adore terrine. I really do. I really, really do.
JvD I make marvellous terrine.

Any other passions besides food and cooking?
UG Theatre. And people. Writing. Movies. Nature. I love watching nature programmes. It’s kind of odd, but it’s as if nature provides a bounty for the table. If I’m on a train, for example, and we’re passing sheep, I’m dividing them up into different dishes. Or cows, into burgers and roasts.

JvD Like a Dutch poet once said: I’m fine with sunsets as long as there is a good glass of jenever with it. I also love writing and I was doing that before I started to write about food. I also love comics, art, poetry and history. And I have a whole collection of books on hoaxes and conmen because it says so much about how people think.

At what point does food stop being a passion and start becoming a liability?
UG With diabetes. I have diabetes.
JvD Yes, me too. There’s also cholesterol…
UG Heart problems…
JvD I am in and out of the hospital these days. Diabetes is something we share with most of our food-reviewing colleagues. Except for that scrawny little woman who doesn’t seem to like her food but writes about it anyway…

What dish since childhood have you still not got tired of?

JvD Potato puree. It should be good potatoes, well made. But, then, it’s always marvellous. In restaurants, when it says ‘served with puree’, I go: ‘Maybe I should take that’. But lots of things: kroketten of course…
UG Bacon and eggs. Bacon, because it was against my religion. But I asked my dad who was eating some what it was like and he said ‘here’ and stuffed a mouthful in my mouth. I spent the rest of the day in the hot African sunshine, waiting to be struck by lightning and it didn’t happen. So then I had it everyday. The good, grilled bacon, crispy.
JvD Oh, ja. That’s good.
UG Maybe when you’re exposed to trying all these different types of food, no matter how exotic, you become jaded and want something simple.
JvD Just like me and my puree. But for we Dutch it’s more about the uitsmijter where the meat is not fried with the egg. I have a version with pastrami, which I put on the bread and put the fried egg on top so it heats the pastrami and the fat just oozes into the bread. I can tell you it’s really marvellous. The best way you can treat both egg and pastrami.
UG Where do you get your pastrami?
JvD Fred de Leeuw on Utrechtsestraat. He makes it from the beautiful Wagyu, the Japanese fat cow. Well-smoked and well treated. Here, they usually inject it with salt water…
UG I had pastrami in New York and had to bring back whole bags of the stuff. Isn’t it pickled beef, but half-timed pickled, then roasted and smoked?
JvD Not roasted, steamed. You salt it dry with the herbs and spices. Leave it for three or four days. Then you smoke it and steam it. But here, they just inject it with fluids.
UG Like embalming fluids…
JvD Yes, and they use lean meat. And fat is taste and succulence. It’s a pity about that, but it’s true.
UG I understand we also share a passion for boiled eggs with anchovies. When I read that in one of your books, the blood drained from my face. I like a freshly baked roll. Butter. A hard-boiled egg. And anchovies. To me that is LICKKKK.
JvD Anchovies are fermented and contain a lot of natural taste enhancers. It makes you drool.
UG Really!

How did your passion become your trade?

JvD I was in journalism and suggested to a paper I start writing about food like Waverly Root did in the International Herald Tribune. My first book was based on the way he wrote his book Food. Only later did I start to review restaurants, since I was afraid that I’d be recognised and that it would make it impossible to write an objective report. But later I learned, if you have enough experience, it doesn’t matter. A bad cook will stay a bad cook no matter if you are there or not. Same with a bad waiter. Because you aren’t judging mistakes but the level someone is working at. And a mistake is a mistake. The level always stays the same.
UG I just started two years ago. I wasn’t the first choice but…
JvD They scraped the bottom of the barrel and there you were?
UG Yes, pretty much. Well, I had been porpoising in and out of horeca for a long time. I’ve worked everywhere from a food-freezing factory to fancy digs. But I do love food. So I was given a chance and it worked out. But I’m a newcomer.

How do you prepare before going to a restaurant you’re about to review?
JvD The first thing I do is choose a restaurant. Usually, I take a kind of restaurant that I haven’t reviewed the week before. Not two Italians in a month, not two expensive ones in a row. If it’s a very specific cuisine—like this week, I did a Vietnamese—I just take out my Vietnamese cookbooks and keep them handy to check names and so on. But usually I don’t prepare very much. I used to use them more before, when I didn’t know everything like I do now [laughter]. And I always pack my own knife. A very sharp one. There were Americans in a restaurant I was eating at once. We were all eating steak and they asked me why I used my own knife. I told them: just look at your plates—they all had a red pond of liquid on them—and mine was completely dry. My juice was still in the meat and therefore much tastier, while they ripped the meat apart. It’s very convincing.
UG I do what I call a flyby. I target the place. I go past and look at the menu and see if you’ve been there. I look at the numbers you gave and when you were there last.
JvD I find it a pity that I can’t do that.

What’s the difference in approach for you two?
JvD I always go with an assistant who has booked the table for us. He goes in first. Once, he got seated at the worst table—against the wall and not by the river—at Excelsior. Then I showed up and they panicked and wanted to put us at another table. I said it was fine, but in the review I recommended that readers should reserve under my name or Freddy Heineken’s. A little humour is important. But these things should be mentioned. My assistant and I always order two four-course meals so I can taste them all. You need that many to be impartial and to rule out the mistakes. I once had a cake made with bad cream. It was made by an assistant who hadn’t tasted it. But I didn’t even mention it in the review because otherwise the restaurant was perfect, and mentioning it would have made the review too negative. It was just a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. But it was not a mistake in the attitudes or the level they were cooking at.
UG There are many gremlins in horeca to be sure… Well, I’m different. I’m totally anonymous. And to have a private life is great—you can misbehave. But one side of me would love to have people running in fear and trembling when I walk in.
JvD [laughs] But it’s not fun. I would much prefer to be anonymous. I once even asked the make-up artist who did Van Kooten & De Bie to try to change me into someone else. But he wasn’t able to. But then there’s The New York Times’ Ruth Reichl, who wrote a book about taking on different personae to review restaurants. Anonymity is very important in New York City. There’s even prices on the heads of some reviewers—up to twenty-five thousand dollars for just a picture. But she says if she doesn’t put on a disguise the restaurateur will get his friends to sit nearby and praise the meal loudly. Well, sorry: you’re an idiot if that makes any difference to you. They can’t suddenly get a butcher with better meat. They can’t make another soup for you because there’s no time. That’s why I always take dishes that I know they had to prepare beforehand. Also dishes of different foodstuffs and techniques, so I get the full picture. Once in a two-star restaurant, I received a mixed seafood starter and there was just so much of it. So I described it in detail so they’d have to serve the same to future customers. They don’t do that kind of thing anymore. At 11 they gave me more than the table next to me. Even Paul Witteman, who is much more famous than me, got less—I joked to him that obviously he wasn’t famous enough. Then I went to the kitchen and saw that all the plates had this tiny amount. So I took a point away. They weren’t happy with that but if you give me something extra, I take something extra. I also hate it when the owner pushes his own wines, promoting his own tastes. I hate that. Rot op, I think—a gentleman’s translation of ‘fuck off’.

How do you deal with the pressure to be ‘right’?
JvD Ah. Well I try to be. I work very hard, so I always check everything. I do make mistakes but, now, rarely. Because I know a lot depends on it. If I write a bad review it’ll certainly hit hard, if I write a good review it’ll hit them, too. I know it’s a responsibility and I take it very seriously. I’ve been accused of being wrong a lot of times, but it’s always nonsense. It’s usually from people who don’t know anything and who are regular customers in a restaurant and don’t want to be called a moron and be told they eat shit, yet they love to eat shit and just go back for another portion of shit. I’m telling them they eat shit—and they do.
UG I let the readers know it’s a personal observation. It’s like you learn kitchen forensics. The plate arrives in front of you. First you leave the garnishes aside (they just take up space) and look at the actual products. Where are they from? Are they from Hanos or are they from Aldi?

Is it dangerous to get to know the culinary players in town?
JvD I have one good friend who’s a chef, but I have never reviewed his restaurant. The rest are acquaintances. They act like friends but they aren’t real friends. Sometimes it results in a fight. Like Joop Braakhekke from Le Garage who started lying about it. Once I said: ‘This is shit.’ And he said: ‘Oh yes, it’s shit and actually we did not want to give you this dish, but you asked for it.’ Then later, he said: ‘Oh, he just came here one time and he thinks he can pass judgement.’ I had been there ten times. And he admitted it was shit and now it’s me that’s shit. Well, he’s a lying bastard—but now we’re like friends again.
UG I’ve been asked to play him in a strange movie this year. I get to cook a human being.

And that’s a dream of yours, isn’t it?
UG Yes, it is.

So what shows a restaurant’s mettle?
JvD One thing I always take is a creme brulee. In one way it’s a very simple dish, but it can be ruined in hundreds of ways—and usually they are ruined. It says a lot: the differences in very simple dishes like that are very obvious. I had the worst one of my life about a month ago: the cream came from a pack with clotted sugar on top, not caramelised. And people like it, apparently. But some people are lost forever [laughter]. Potato puree can also tell a lot. But it starts with the bread: if they bring hard butter you know they just don’t have any consideration for the way we consume. Sometimes it’s even worse— you can see a layer of butter and there’s another layer under it. You can do archaeology, and see they top up the butter every time and the bottom layer is very far gone [laughter]. Once I discovered that in a very expensive restaurant which was owned by one of the big criminals connected to the one who’s now on trial. But I had to state it in the review.

Which place was this?
JvD You know I’m not one to tell. But he’s in jail now—and the cook definitely should be! There should always be a balance— between sweetness and acidity. That’s very important. I wrote about The Dylan last week. It’s one of the most expensive places, and the cook did not know anything about the necessity of adding acidity to, for instance, fish. If you don’t, it’s flat. Just a splash of lemon juice, wine or vinegar adds tremendously to a fish dish. And then you pay seventy euros for a four-course meal and it was rubbish. It was just so sleep provoking. He also deconstructed some dishes as well—took them apart but then didn’t put them back together again. Like a timepiece, it was all the separate elements, but it didn’t work. It happens all the time. They want to be fancy and modern. They take things from better chefs who have invested, like Ferran Adria  in Spain. He deconstructs. He invented that whole thing, and they try to imitate him and they just cannot do it. One chef took things from Adria, changed them, and from a very clever idea made complete rubbish. And he had three stars! It’s because Michelin keeps on advocating things like that—it sells tyres I guess. But I’m getting tired of it.
UG This gentleman is a gourmet. I’m a pig. A gourmand, because I like to eat. And sometimes I eat pure rubbish. But I like chocolate mousse. If there’s chocolate mousse on the menu, I will order it.
JvD It’s like my creme brulee. There are about four or five ways of doing it right and hundreds of doing it wrong.

What’s the biggest faux pas a restaurant can make?
JvD I once had spoilt liver. Liver that was so far gone that it seeped through the fork.
JvD Can you imagine that? It was green. Awful. I must say the cook was fired on the day my article came out. Later, everyone thought: ‘Van Dam has such power!’ But later, I heard that the managers from the company—Krasnopolsky, a quite large company—had wanted to get rid of the cook for a year but couldn’t get permission. So they were, in fact, grateful…
UG My bane is getting served vegetables from the day before. And they bullshit me that it’s fresh.
JvD Happens all the time.
UG And second-time hashed-up potatoes—and the idea of having to pay for it! It’s just an attitude. A lackadaisical attitude. Amsterdam restaurants need to get over that.
JvD The problem is that most Dutch accept this shit. As long as there is a ribbon around it, they’ll eat shit. I have a beautiful drawing by Yrrah, the cartoonist, where, in the background there are four or five ladies eating cakes and in the foreground, there’s the cook in the kitchen and he’s decorating the cakes by squeezing a dachshund. Terrible! That’s why a lot of restaurants can go on doing that. We have a task to prevent these kinds of…
UG Outrages!
JvD Then there’s fried potato. What they do is put a little paprika powder in the pan and a bit of fat and just mix it up with some boiled potatoes and heat it a bit, so it looks like it’s fried but it’s not all.
UG And crust is very important!
JvD There is a lot of cheating in the kitchen. There are even books that tell how you how do it. I’ll fight that to the death.
UG To the revolution!

Power—how much do you actually have? How do you deal with it?
JvD Well, it’s not my idea, but some of my colleagues—and politicians—tell me that I’m the only journalist with any real power. I can make a restaurant close or stay open. There was an Indonesian restaurant with only two or three tables… I wrote about it and then it was sold out every night. The owners had put all their money into it, and thanked me for giving them a chance at a pension. But I take it very seriously. I’ve never cheated. Never been bought.
UG Well, I’m definitely smaller-scale. Sometimes I do come by a place and think they need a boost and then I’ll write it—and if there’s a positive reaction, great. I found a great Turkish place, Temiz Slagerij, with grilled chicken. Their rotisserie attracted me as if it was that grand wonder-like monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wanted to do a dance around it and let everyone know.

Ever felt the urge to start a restaurant and let others make a judgement?
UG Absolutely not.
JvD No. I’ve been offered and thought about it, but no. Also, now there are restaurants that weren’t there ten years ago that are almost the way I’d like them, so there’s less of a need. Anyway, I’m a bad employer and I’m not really an obedient person. I can’t stand people who think they are much better than I am. If I had to serve them I’d send them away crying into the street. I can’t do it. But I do give advice to restaurants. Freely. But that’s it.
UG Once there was a stage when I thought I’d love something by a beach with a patio, a barbecue pit and contact with the fishermen, and a tomato patch with a few herbs growing. You’d be able to get lovely grilled fish, a delicious salad and a cup of nice wine—nothing fancy, but drinkable. With live music and dancing after dinner. Really simple. But again: no.
JvD I just reviewed a little place, Gartine on Taksteeg. They are open for breakfast, lunch, high tea, but no dinner—they close at six. They have a big garden and a greenhouse in Almere Haven where they grow all their vegetables and fruits and herbs. Everything organic. Darling couple. Simple place. I imagine it was their dream—like I had, like you had. Marvellous.

So what does Amsterdam have going for it?

JvD Variety and quality. Also cuisine. Good dishes. You can get shit, of course, but it’s our task to tell people where they should go and where not to go. That’s why I detest all those newspapers and magazines that only review the good ones. So you don’t know which ones to avoid. I always give tips on how the cooks can improve. I never only say: ‘This is niet lekker.’ I always say why.
UG I agree about variety. I was brought up in Africa with a limited amount of exposure to cuisine. And Amsterdam is a nexus point. You got your variety, quality but also your lousiness in a small village.
JvD ‘A cosmopolitan village,’ is what I always say.

What about cheap variety? You’ve got Chin-Indo-Suri but that’s it. Where’s the cheap Vietnamese?
JvD Well, that Vietnamese I just reviewed is cheap. The small pho is eight euros fifty and is enough for a meal. You can get four steamed spring rolls with shrimp for four euros. And they’re perfect.

What’s missing in Amsteram?
JvD It’s changed somewhat but I the French- and Belgian-style brasseries where you could get a good meal cuisine bourgeois. Here it’s shit or fancy—which can still be shit.

How about Flo?
JvD It’s quite posh. But it comes close. I’m very happy it’s there because it sets a standard. There’s also Cote Ouest and the French Cafe. It’s getting better.

How about places like Harkema and Dauphine?
JvD That’s too fancy. Just like Cafe Amsterdam. It’s too Dutch, which means they are skimping on everything. It looks like a French menu but it’s actually managerial. It’s not the cook but the manager who decides.
UG It’s a cost-effective menu.
JvD Very cost-effective. Well, all menus should be cost-effective, but the priority is that there’s enough and it’s very tasty. But these places are just fancy. The names are fancy, the dishes, the surroundings are fancy—or modern, or whatever they are. The food remains mediocre at best.
UG I miss food courts like they have in Paris or Berlin, with a variety of meat you can buy it by the ounce. Quality stuff from all over Europe.
JvD We used to have that at De Bijenkorf, but they thought it was too expensive. The manager who did the cheeses went to Albert Heijn. We do have little shops and markets, but no food halls. That would be a good thing. Or a market like in…
UG London…
JvD Or Barcelona. Or better supermarkets. In Belgium, the supermarkets are much better quality. But here, no.

What kind of local places do you return to time after time?
JvD You want our secret addresses? Le Petit Latin. It has a French cook preparing Provençal food. It’s really quite simple, in a cellar just around the corner. Also Bordewijk. And a few Indonesians. But usually, I cook myself.
UG One of my favourites is New King.
JvD Also one of mine—simple and always good. There’s a review of mine hanging on the wall.
UG Me too! I also love Tasca de Lisboa. That does Portuguese chicken piri piri. I love to eat with my fingers, to pick up a whole grilled chicken and…
JvD Ja!
UG And of course TjingTjing, but I’m biased because it’s a friend. But I think he’s good because I see what he does and he’s finicky. Everything has to be cooked to the moment.
JvD I love that. I love cooks who are finicky.
UG The vegetables begin raw and need to be cooked then, at the moment. Also potatoes—I’ve helped out grating rosti till my fingers bleed.

Most memorable Amsterfood moment?
JvD Well, the liver was very memorable. But you want something positive don’t you? Hmm, that’s very hard. It’s like asking a parent which one of their children they prefer…
UG I’d have to choose a bit from every special place to make a composite. It’s like who’s your best friend. Your best friend is a group—a composite of all the people you love.

3 Replies

  1. Nick Leslie, the Undercover Glutton, died on 16 March, 2009. He was not only a great eater but a great storyteller (check out He was also a great friend. He is missed dearly.

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