Travel: Infinite cuisine

Dutch chef Sidney Schutte and his Israeli counterpart Itzik Barak have hit it off with cooking rooted in tradition but boundless in ambition.

Chefs Sidney Schutte (left) and Itzik Barak (photo credit: WALDORF ASTORIA AMSTERDAM)
Chefs Sidney Schutte (left) and Itzik Barak
Walking through Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp Market, Dutch chef Sidney Schutte and his Israeli guest Itzik Barak are raving about Hong Kong street food: dim sum, crispy duck and especially noodle soup. Perhaps it’s the weather, with the mercury just above freezing, that brings about the craving, but as we trundle through the open-air market, tasting delicacies from Schutte’s favorite stalls, I can see that the conversation is indicative of the two chefs’ culinary philosophy.
In between bites of pickled herring, served with gherkins and onions; fresh stroopwafels filled with caramel and spices, which are a legacy of the Netherlands’ colonial past; poffertjes, mini pancakes served with butter and powdered sugar, nibbles of Dutch cheeses and, of course, waffles and fries, Schutte and Barak discuss how they got to know each other and how, while their cooking is rooted in tradition, it is by no means bound by it – quite the opposite, in fact.
Schutte is executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam, where he runs its fine dining restaurant, Librije’s Zusje, for which he received two Michelin stars just seven months after opening in 2014. Barak is executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem hotel, where he runs the Palace Restaurant, and the two met a year ago at the Taste of Waldorf Astoria event in New York, where both were among the five selected chefs to make the finals of the annual competition.
“We hit it off right away,” says Schutte. “Occasionally, you meet colleagues that trigger your interest; you want to take a look in their kitchen; and in this case, it was mutual.”
“I saw straight away that he is an executive chef who, like me, wants to be in the kitchen, not in front of a computer,” says Barak, one of Israel’s leading kosher chefs, who recalls how they trawled Manhattan together, eating in several restaurants a day and cooking up the idea to create a meal together.
Barak is in Amsterdam to cook a kosher tasting menu at Librije’s Zusje, with each chef cooking up three dishes in a six-course menu, accompanied by a different wine for each course, which they will repeat in Jerusalem for three weeks, starting February 14. Schutte labels the collaboration a “culinary jam session,” while Barak calls it a dance where each chef has to tango with his partner and work with the tastes the other is using in his own dish.
Schutte has never cooked kosher before, and he describes the hurdles he had to overcome to adapt to the restrictions of kashrut.
“Everything was new to me; I didn’t know what to do and kept changing the menu,” he says. “It’s a huge challenge and you have to be very creative.”
Talking about his culinary influences, Schutte, who has also worked extensively in Asia, says, “The good thing about Holland – or at least I see it as a good thing – is that we don’t really have a food culture. So I am not limited by history or culture like, for example, in France, where you have to show respect for tradition. We can cook whatever we want from all over the world.”
Barak notes the similarity to Israel, and adds that “every place you go to, you bring something new.”
An eighth-generation Jerusalemite, Barak’s roots go deep and hail from Turkey and Syria, providing a strong influence on one of his signature dishes, sea bass kubbania, a tartar with bulgur wheat, artichoke, tomato confit, Kalamata olives and tehina.
He proudly notes that French celebrity chef Alain Ducasse tasted the dish while in Jerusalem and said it was worthy of three Michelin stars – an accolade that is denied to Israeli restaurants, as the guide does not cover Israel. It has been accused of bowing to political interests, but denies this, citing an insufficient audience.
Hailing from the south of the Netherlands on the North Sea coast, Schutte, too, likes to use a lot of fish and seafood, which is in ample supply at the Albert Cuyp. He, too, serves up a fish dish, bass slow cooked at a low temperature with a crème fenugreek and morel mushrooms.
“I like to cook with Asian flavors, with South American flavors, I like to cook with flavors from all over the world, and out of that I try to make my own style. When you are not limited, you are open-minded, and you can really do whatever you want. It’s not that I cook Chinese or Japanese dishes, but, for example, I like to use ginger, I like to use mole [a Mexican sauce]. I just use the flavors.”
With dishes such as Schutte’s beef spareribs with ginger-pickled watermelon and roasted bell peppers, wrapped in smoked coconut, and Barak’s ingenious parve chocolate mille-feuille served with mild-spicy lemongrass-coconut sorbet, the two chefs’ globe-trotting influences are on full display.
As Schutte puts it, “We both come from a culinary culture that lets you go anywhere.” ■
The writer was a guest of Waldorf Astoria Hotels.