Kitchen "Rock 'n' Roller" Sergio Herman
Sergio Herman is merciless in his demands on himself and the level of cuisine in his restaurants.
© Chantal Arns
You don't have to be interested in good food in Belgium and the Netherlands to know Sergio Herman, the 51-year-old is to be encountered there at every turn: As a legendarily gruff mentor in TV cooking shows ("It smells like ten farts in a plastic bag" / "Sex on a plate!"), as a permanent topic for gossip magazines, as the godfather of his own brand of cookware and tableware and, and, and ...
Herman's main field of activity is as the owner of a gourmet empire; his Sergio Herman Group currently comprises six star-rated and fine-dining restaurants in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as a premium fast food brand, Frites Atelier, and a constant stream of pop-up locations. However, the speed with which Herman opens new venues or withdraws from them – sometimes after disagreements, such as recently with his long-time companion Nick Bril in the Antwerp two-star restaurant, The Jane – makes the term 'pop-up' relative.
He often questions whether or not he can maintain his current pace. Herman says, "I have seen many examples of people around me who have pushed their limits too far. But I don't have a plan B because I've come to terms with the fact that I'm programmed to work all my life". However, at the beginning it looked different…
In part as a disciplinary measure, his father sent Sergio, a school drop-out, to hotel management school in Bruges. His father knew what he was doing: together with Sergio's mother, he ran their country inn Oud Sluis, which specialised in mussels, and hoped that the hard daily kitchen routine would bring his son to his senses. The calculation worked, so much so, in fact, that after graduation Sergio completed an unpaid internship with Michelin-starred chef Cas Spijkers, discovering high-end cuisine for himself. Soon he was looking for other culinary mentors, but fate intervened; his father fell ill and called the teenager back to the kitchen of the family inn. At first, this meant cleaning mussels and peeling onions, day in, day out. To this day, a love-hate relationship of astonishing proportions comes to light whenever he is asked about mussels.
Even today, Herman calls his father the "strongest voice" among all those from whom he was able to learn something. "It was he who encouraged me to find my own style and he gave me all the support he could. He was a strict teacher though, harsh at times, but I decided not to be discouraged." That, he says, is what he now teaches to the next generation in his restaurants: "It's worth fighting for a strong career." In Herman's case, that meant he was "cemented in the kitchen of the Oud Sluis as a chef for 20 years".
No half measures
In the end, Herman was to transform Oud Sluis into the most famous three-star restaurant in the Flemish-Dutch region. But the beginning was anything but promising: regulars refused to embrace fine dining, while new guests shied away from the address which had a reputation for being conservative. Often the restaurant remained empty. Herman did what he does with every setback, "I try to redirect the negative energy of a loss or failure into something that wrings those feelings down." He never lets grief and disappointment distract him from his goals. "That attitude may be hard at times, but as long as that works for me, I will continue to live that way. My willpower is my anchor." His first anchor point was a Michelin star in 1995 for the then 24-year-old chef of Oud Sluis, his second followed in 1999 and the third in 2006.
The success story could have gone on forever if Herman wasn't Herman: In 2013 he simply closed Oud Sluis, which was booked out for months in advance and which had been immortalised in a documentary entitled Sergio Herman – Fucking Perfect. The chef, who had not come out of his kitchen for decades, reinvented himself as a gourmet big businessman at the age of 42. According to Herman, his life up to that point had given him "the status and respect in the culinary world" that he has built on ever since. But at the same time, he realised that he did not wish to continue living in the kitchen, he wanted a life "that I can change in any direction I want to change...".
He now channels the passion with which he used to work behind the cooker into gastronomic projects of all kinds, "but they have to be something special and unique. I live for that excitement". Herman always keeps a firm grip on the strings. During the Covid restrictions on restaurants and hospitality, for example, he tested all his venues and then handed over to-do lists to the respective chefs.
So far, Herman's armada of restaurants has been limited to the Flemish-Dutch region so that he can keep track of everything that bears his name. His Frites Atelier brand is probably the most suited to expansion and even franchising, due to its tight culinary snack corset. The first franchise opened last year in the designer outlet Roosendaal, in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, there are four other branches in The Hague, Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. Soon, there may also be news about Herman's long-planned move to Singapore.
As crazy as possible
Before jumping to a new continent, however, Herman takes another look at his neighbourhood: The Strand Hotel sits high up on a sand dune on the Zeelandic coast looking out over the North Sea. Here in this opulent food and well-being hotel in Cadzand-Bad, you can either dine at his two starred restaurant Pure C or in the much smaller relaxed bar-bistro Blueness, with its fresh seafood strongly influenced by Japan. Just across the border in Belgium, two other projects are under negotiation, about which he does not want to reveal any details for the time being, but according to Herman, should be completed later this year. Admittedly, this is "a lot of work. But I try to live as healthy as possible, which is a challenge in this business. And I try to stay as physically and mentally fit as possible". All in all, he says, he is "in for another crazy year – but that's just the way we like it!"
Current Covid regulations mean you may not be able to dine as a guest of Sergio Herman temporarily, please check before travelling.
Pure C **
Blvd de Wielingen 49, 4506 JK Cadzand-Bad
T: +31 117 39 21 10, pure-c.nl
Herman's first project after Oud Sluis is in the Strand Hotel in the fashionable town of Cadzand with views over the sand dunes to the North Sea. Now the kitchen is entrusted to his former Oud Sluis sous-chef Syrco Bakker, who extracts a maximum of flavours from the greatest possible reduction, for example, eel with green herbs and salt lemon.
Blvd de Wielingen 49, 4506 JK Cadzand-Bad
T: +31 117 39 21 10, bluenessbar.com
Herman also used Cadzand's Strand Hotel for his hybrid bar and bistro with French-Japanese fusion cuisine which opened in 2018 with great success. The concept of high-end cuisine in a casual atmosphere attracts gourmets of the next generation.
Maritiem Plaza 1, 4506 KZ Cadzand-Bad
T: +31 117 39 21 10, air-republic.com
Herman's third base in Cadzand-Bad is a classic brasserie with a strong focus on North Sea food, such as king crab served with artichokes, roasted chive oil and caviar. The kitchen is staffed by an employee for whom Herman refuses to show any mercy – his son, Boy.
Le Pristine *
Lange Gasthuisstraat 13, 2000 Antwerp
T: +32 3 376 33 76, lepristine.com
Less than 30 kilometres over the border from Cadzand in the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium, is Herman's second gastronomic stronghold, with this casual fine-dining restaurant as his flagship. Here, an Italian touch is added to his intimate knowledge of and precise work with local products.
Frites Atelier, branches in:
Venestraat 7, 2511 AR Den Haag,
Korte Gasthuisstraat 32, 2000 Antwerp
Groentenmarkt 20, 9000 Ghent
Rue Saint Catherine 32, 1000 Brussels Designer Outlet Roosendaal, Rosada 70, 4703 TB Roosendaal
Burgers, stuffed croquettes (the ones with shrimps are also served at Air Republic) and fries – but what fries: The fries are top-notch and are always combined with new flavours. Not cheap for fast food, but the quality more than justifies it.
FIND OUT MORE
Think DifferentlyAngelo Gaja is a fourth-generation winemaker at his family estate Gaja in Piedmont, Italy. He revolutionised winemaking in his home region,...
Taking Pleasure in WineOur columnist – a wine professional whose job it is to assess quality – argues that we also need to consider sheer pleasure when drinking....
Bordeaux: Taking a Fresh LookBordeaux is home to some of the world’s best, most long-lived and expensive wines. But are Bordeaux wines really beyond the reach of any but...
Pairing Champagne with Food - Science Proves the MatchProfessor Barry Smith of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London explains the...
Rome and Its ArtichokesNowhere else in the world are so many artichokes eaten as in the 'Eternal City', and these days the vegetable has never been so...
Sushi is an addiction that has conquered the world in the last 50 years. Here is our list of the 25 top sushi places, outside Japan.
You might have overdone it a little but that's no reason to throw cheese away...here's a few ideas for using up all those gnarly looking bits and bobs...
While each species of deer from roe to reindeer has subtle flavour differences, the most important factors are cut and cuisson. Here are the top 10...
Fondue chalets are very much in vogue. Falstaff presents the most beautiful pop-up chalets in Swiss cities.
Cheese fondue belongs to Switzerland like schnitzel to Austria and roast beef to England. Our Swiss editorial team get to the bottom of the...
Cheese fondue is a winter classic: we asked eight top sommeliers for the perfect wine accompaniment.
Cooking is a skill and an art – but there are many food-related skills that are nothing to do with prepping meals. Here are seven of the best.
Deep-fried potato sticks attract not only ordinary mortals, but also star chefs. Why and what does it take to prepare them perfectly?