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INTERVIEW:Martijn Kajuiter, the 6ft 8in Dutch head chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford who has just been awarded a Michelin star, reveals how an unhappy childhood spurred him on and how he plans to be out of the kitchen in six years’ time

Martijn Kajuiter, head chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford, is talking about the impact of being awarded a Michelin star last month for his sophisticated cooking, using locally produced ingredients wherever possible, at the hotel’s House restaurant, overlooking Ardmore bay.

Kajuiter and his family – his wife Wendy and children Tygo (six) and Floyd (three) – were in the Netherlands when the news broke, on their way to Egypt for a holiday. “We were in the car going to the airport and I got a call from the Cliff House reception; I didn’t pick it up.” But the phone kept ringing, and when he learned from a journalist looking for a comment that he had been awarded his first Michelin star, Kajuiter was disbelieving. “It was January 16th. I knew the Michelin Guidewas not due to come out until the 19th.”

What he didn’t know was that a copy of the 2010 guide, ordered online, was delivered to the wife of an Edinburgh chef four days ahead of the official launch, forcing the publishers to bring forward their announcement.

“Then I had a call from Kieran Glennon, head chef at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, and he said ‘Congratulations, you have a star’, and then it was very real. I looked at my wife, and I just had to cry, because it was all worth it – coming from Holland, relocating the family.”

So what brought the 6ft 8in Dutchman – a high achiever who has been working in restaurants since he was 15 and made head chef at the precocious age of 23 – to Ireland to set up a hotel restaurant in a small town on the southeast coast?

“I had a burnout,” he says. “I couldn’t switch off. I was commuting two hours to work and 90 minutes home. De Kas is a very, very busy restaurant. We were doing daily changing menus, 60-70 covers for lunch, 120 upwards for dinner. I felt very hunted, just constantly on the move. It was an accumulation of many years of stretching myself too far. After seven years at De Kas, I couldn’t see where I was going any more.

“It started with headaches, and I couldn’t sleep any more, just constantly thinking, ‘What am I doing – is it still a good thing?’ One day I went to work and I said, ‘We have to talk, I need a few weeks off. I need to go to the beach and just do something different’. I had to cry a lot, I was very emotional, so there I was – a 6ft 8in, 240lb, heavy, hard-core testosterone-bomb chef, who almost thought he was invincible. But you’re not, you know. . .”

When Kajuiter mentions “going cold turkey”, he’s not referring to substance avoidance, he’s talking about staying out of the professional kitchen, and that’s how he dealt with this setback. “It was a bit of a hard moment, but at the end of the day it enabled me to get a fresh look at things. I never said goodbye to the kitchen, I just needed a break.”

The chance to come to Ireland at this time appealed to Kajuiter and his family. “My wife was 100 per cent behind me when I said we’d go to Ireland. We needed a change. It was after the burnout, we wanted more family time, a bit more breathing space, to have a garden, a place for the kids to play.”

He’s very much a family man, and his home-loving, close-knit, non-party-scene personality is attributable to the sometimes difficult experiences of his own youth. “My childhood was not the prettiest,” he says. “My father is not a man, if I look at it, to be proud of. He made a lot of mistakes; he liked to drink and go out and party. The relationship with my mother was very, very bad, and it created a lot of tension.” His parents are now divorced.

“There were difficult times, but it shapes you as a person. I just tried to turn it into something positive and it made me the person I am now, with a very strong awareness of what’s happening around me. That’s why I am very loyal to my wife. I am very fortunate that I have two children, and for me, family life is the most important thing.”

The family is now settled in Youghal, Co Cork, where Tygo plays hurling, is learning Irish and is “happy out”, according to his dad. But, although they are happy here, Ireland isn’t the family’s final destination. “I am not going to be here forever,” says Kajuiter. Now 34, he says he wants to stop cooking professionally when he reaches 40.

“I made a conscious decision that, when I am 40, my family needs to be paid back. My sons need to see their dad a little more, my wife needs to see her husband more.” He says hospitality is in his DNA, and thinks hotel management is where his career path will take him once he stops cooking.

But for now, with a lot at stake and a reputation to maintain, Kajuiter’s focus is firmly on the kitchen. His culinary wizardry has been making waves since he first arrived here, in September 2007, to set up a hotel restaurant that would use only local, seasonal ingredients. “At the beginning, I was a bit of a hardliner because I rejected olive oil, red wine, everything that didn’t come from here. But I was restricting myself too much. Now I keep it to the bigger picture. I want to create a sense of location, of where you are.”

Kajuiter has developed a working partnership with the St Raphael’s community for people with intellectual disability in Youghal, and they, together with retired teacher Liam Kelly, who grows and forages for the kitchen, provide much of his vegetable and fruit requirement. “The first thing I wanted to do when I came to Ireland was set up a garden.”

In Kajuiter’s kitchen, originality is married with a healthy respect for tradition, so he visited Irish Seed Savers in Co Clare to research and purchase native seed varieties for the nursery, which he visits daily, sometimes twice a day in summer, to collect fresh produce for the kitchen. Darina Allen, in whose books he found inspiration when he started to cook in Ireland, provided him with cuttings of an old Irish vegetable, Cottier’s kale. “My garden is filling up with a lot of very nice ingredients, fully Irish.”

There’s game from Ballynatray estate in Youghal, duck from Skeaghanore in Ballydehob, beef from McGrath’s in Lismore, and Irish fish caught off the southeast coast – “you won’t find red snapper on the menu here”. These are the backbones of a menu that sings the praises of a region blessed with the very best produce Ireland can bring to the table.

Kajuiter is brave enough to let a plate of homegrown summer vegetables – beautifully presented – speak for themselves, but he still has fun with food. An organic salmon dish arrives at tables in a smoke-filled cloche, superlative beef fillet is dressed with a flavour-filled “beef tea”, and his dark chocolate plate conceals hidden particles of “space dust” or popping candy – just when the palate might need a bit of a wake-up.

It’s not just about using quality ingredients and coaxing the most from them. Kajuiter’s style of cooking is exciting and challenging, while always very disciplined. “Part of my drive to have things better than perfect comes from the insecurity of my childhood. I am a perfectionist. I have always been like that. But with my burnout, I realised that if I was to continue like that, I would end up alone, and I don’t want to be alone. So now I count to 10 a lot more. I try to enjoy the moments that I am with my family more. I try to be open and have more mental flexibility.”

He has a loyal, but surprisingly small, team of six working with him, and he’s on the lookout for two more chefs, “but it’s difficult to get people”. Even though he has experienced it himself, he does not believe in running a kitchen fuelled by fear – “I prefer to work with people rather than against them” – and credits Gert Jan Hageman, chef and owner of De Kas, with showing him how it should be done.

“Chefs who were abused in the past end up doing it themselves. But he broke the vicious circle by holding up a mirror and asking, ‘How did you feel when you were standing in Pierre Koffman’s kitchen and they gave you a bollocking? Did you perform any better, Martijn?’ No, I didn’t. I’d rather invest positively in a team that stays longer.”


KAJUITER ON . .

WINNING A MICHELIN STAR:A star is an acknowledgement by a very respected guide. But we are not any different than last year. We are still improving our product, and if you want to improve you have to make mistakes. I have had beautiful nights when I thought, ‘Wow, this is great’. And sometimes I have wanted to jump off the cliff. That’s part of it – we are humans, not machines.

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT:If you want it well done, you get it well done; if you want mashed potatoes with it, you get mashed potatoes. Who am I to dictate what you like or not? I am here for one thing – to make my guests happy, and I will do everything in my power to meet their expectations.

SEASONALITY:My menu can change every day. It’s a true reflection of what’s in season, and you can’t dictate nature. If there is a storm, you can’t expect certain fish. The fishermen stay close to shore, so you get different fish. You need to work with what you have.

ORIGINALITY:Cooking comes from within yourself; fair play to all the chefs who can work with the same menu for a year. I can’t make the same dish constantly – for me it just doesn’t work. There needs to be a healthy dynamic; it needs to be a reflection of the season.

HEAT IN THE KITCHEN:The kitchen is an emotional melting pot – everything is based on a certain passion and a certain drive that you have. Sometimes there is laughter, sometimes you can cry – all emotions are represented in the work we do. The kitchen needs to be a bit of fun as well. There needs to be a healthy, competitive atmosphere and people need to have the urge to win.

WOMEN CHEFS:I worked with a lot of female chefs and I always though it was an addition in that they can keep the big-mouth testosterone-bombs a little bit in line.


See www.thecliffhousehotel.com, tel: 024-87800.

Cliff House Hotel: The Cookbook, by Martijn Kajuiter, edited by Tom Doorley

Audio Slideshow: Michelin-starred eating in Ardmore