Sergio Herman, the man who had the balls to close down his three Michelin starred family restaurant and World’s 50 Best regular, Oud Sluis, only to start anew in a different country with a different concept. Together with business partner and fellow chef Nick Bril, and the help of Dutch designer Piet Boon, Chef Sergio transformed a 19th Century former chapel in Antwerp, Belgium into one of the visually most stunning restaurants in the world today. They placed the open kitchen where the altar used to be (because of course), clad their staff in Dutch fashion brand G-Star uniforms and baptized the entirety: The Jane.
Fast forward to current days, The Jane has already earned two Michelin Stars and us mere humans can only get a reservation if we book about three months in advance. The ‘fine dining meets rock ‘n roll’ vibe the place oozes is exactly what comes to mind when meeting Chef Herman in person. He has written cookbooks, owns two more restaurants, had a documentary made about him and yet, despite all his accolades and global success, stayed true to himself and the one thing he cherishes most: his Zeeland roots.
Born and Raised in?
“Born in Oostburg, raised in Sluis [province of Zeeland in The Netherlands].”
What did the parents do?
“My parents owned a mussel restaurant in Sluis, which was very well-known in that region. This was the place I’d eventually end up spending twenty five years of my life at, working day in, day out to reach the top and competing with the best in the world.”
So, your parents knew the industry very well. Did they ever try to discourage you from becoming a chef?
“They never did, no. My mother did warn me it was a tough profession though, but at the same time she said I would have to experience it for myself to truly find out. Of course, I had already seen what it was like during my childhood with my parents.”
What would you tell your own children if one of them announces chef ambition?
“I would sit them down and have a very real conversation with them, bring to light all the ins and outs. But I don’t think you should try stop them, if they like it they will do it anyway. I would, however, definitely tell them what they can and cannot do.”
What was it like working so closely with your own parents? Quarrel or smooth sailing?
“In general, it always went well. We worked together for a very long time, very hard and very intensely. It’s a beautiful, lasting memory.”
Was it a difficult task to convince them to take a different direction with the restaurant?
“My parents saw that I had something in me, that I had a bit of talent and that I was working very hard on my craft and on becoming the best I could be. My mother gave me the freedom and the realization that a change was necessary, she gave me the opportunity to go for it. She thought it was time for a new story, my story.”
Since you grew up around the mussel pots in Holland, how do we really feel about traditional Dutch and Belgian cuisine?
“There is a big difference between the Netherlands and Belgium in traditions. In the Netherlands we have very few truly traditional dishes, except for stamppot [mashed potatoes with whatever vegetable on earth you’d like mushed in it]. A piece of meat, potatoes and vegetables is the tradition. Street food-wise we do of course have our herring sandwiches and smoked eel, and of course we simply cannot forget about the Zeeland oysters, lobster and – obviously – the mussels. In Belgium you find a lot more traditional dishes, like Paling in ’t Groen [Eel in the Green], or tomato with shrimp, Vol-au-Vent and shrimp croquettes.”
“That’s quite a difficult question to answer since both have an equally strong presence in my life. I live in Belgium but two of my three restaurants are in the Netherlands [Pure C and AIRrepublic]. In all restaurants seventy percent of the guests are Flemish and the staff is a mix of Dutch and Flemish. The biggest difference I guess would be that there are a lot more rules pertaining to the restaurant industry in Belgium, which makes it that much more difficult to run a business.”
Besides dad, which chef has inspired you most during your career?
“Very early on, when I was young, Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire made a big impression on me. That was a real eye-opener.”
Do you have any favorite dining experiences outside your own kitchen?
“There are three experiences that rank very closely to one another: beginning of the 90’s in Ghent at Willy, the Noma pop-up in Mexico and most recently a dinner at Frantzén in Stockholm.”
Has there ever been a real ‘oh shit!’ moment in the Herman kitchen?
“When a staple of an oyster basket ended up in the food … You do not know how it got there, you do not know who is responsible for it ending up there, but at that moment you just feel embarrassed and incredibly bummed that it slipped through your fingers, because in the end I am the one responsible for each and every dish that goes out into the dining room.”
Who would you still like to cook for?
“A table with Anish Kapoor, Anton Corbijn, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Bono. The menu would be the very best of me, however how I would feel at that very moment in time would determine what I’d end up serving. It’d be a huge challenge in which I would want to surprise the guests but also myself.”
What has been your proudest plating moment?
“A Walk through the Zwin, a dish that was on the menu in Oud Sluis during our last months of opening. You can find it in my book Desire – no recipe in this book, just a story about the dish.”
Meat or fish?
“Fish, because I’m from Zeeland and the ocean is pretty much in my DNA.”
Guilty food pleasure?
“Sour gummy bears, licorice and Magnums.”
“With my wife, children, family and friends at a deserted beach on Formentera, during sunset.”
When are you happiest?
“When I’m on holiday with my wife Ellemieke and all the kids.”
With so much success already under your belt, is there anything left to accomplish?
“I would very much like to create something small and intimate that is completely my own world. No more than eighteen place settings, max.”