This story originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL in August 2016.
Rotterdam is known less for its fine culture than for its hard-working citizens. One of those citizens, Bob Richter, sees hard work as a form of art. For several years he has been running Hotspot Hutspot—a place where you can get excellent food for a good price cooked by locals who have trouble getting work elsewhere: namely recovering addicts, teenagers, or those who have been laid off.
Hotspot Hutspot has three locations in the city: Crooswijk, Heijplaat and—the first location Bob opened in 2012—Lombardijen.
Upon my arrival, I hear very loud music. I am greeted by Joyce, who is cutting tomatoes for the soup that's on tonight's menu. Bob is just arriving in a blue van after a trip to the grocery store. He looks different than I expected—he is pretty small in stature and wearing a long grey vest with bright white sneakers underneath. I had expected him to look much rougher.
We take a seat in the front yard. Apart from the high-rises in the background, it doesn't feel like we are in the city. We can hear birds singing, and we're surrounded by fruit trees, vegetable plants, and herbs. A number of people are walking around.
Joyce runs this location. She previously worked as a physiotherapist in addition to her volunteer work at Hotspot Hutspot, but when her former employer stopped paying wages, she started working full-time for Bob.
Bob was a former caterer who also used to organize dinners in a communal garden, but when it closed down for cost-cutting reasons, he started "playing restaurant" in a vacant building nearby.
Bob has clear ideas about how to help other people, like Djorgain, a culinary student who needed an internship to gain cooking experience and couldn't find one elsewhere. Now he cooks four main courses at Hotput Hutspot every week. Then there's Christiaan. This is his second day at Hotspot Hutspot. He arrived here after living in a safe house to beat his addiction. "The atmosphere is very open here. I do not feel I'm in the city," he says. "It is peaceful here."
Almost everything here is homemade, right down to the furniture and produce. A DIY team makes tables from recycled wood, grids to grow vegetables, and cutting boards from old laminate. They try to do as much as possible themselves and to be as sustainable as possible. There are solar panels on the roof and Bob is installing an apparatus to filter rainwater into drinking water.
Bob tells me there are leftovers from several local farmers and vegetables that were rejected at the auction market, which is an opportunity. He still has to deliver the groceries to the other two restaurants and asks me if I would like to join him.
First, we drive to Heijplaat, a peninsula in the harbor where the Rhine River and Maashaven have become too narrow and are no longer useful for industrial purposes. Heijplaat is completely surrounded by huge container terminals. Just like Lombardijen, Heijplaat does not have the best reputation, but Hotspot is located in a new building. Bob is planning on making an herb garden right outside the front door, but because of bureaucracy now it is still just a simple lawn.
Back in the in the car, Bob is telling me about Barry. Barry is in charge of running the kitchen at Heijplaat. He's a big guy, 28 years old, who previously cooked in award-winning restaurants. At one point in his life, he became addicted to drugs, which stopped him from moving forward in the right direction. He is now nearly 10 months clean and slowly starting to cook again at Hotspot. In addition, he wants to help other young people struggling with addiction, like Axl, who as a teenager played rugby at a high level until two herniated discs ended his dreams and he went on to work in construction. He started getting deeper and deeper into drugs and went from hospitals to mental-health institutions. Now he is clean and living in a safe house, and has started cooking at Hotspot Hutspot. After his first day in the kitchen he made an emotional phone call to his father, saying, "I now know what I want to be."
It is not only people recovering from a drug addiction who are working in the kitchen at Hotspot. Nóra, who is in charge of making desserts, is Hungarian and moved to the Netherlands to live with her boyfriend. Her Dutch was not good enough to find a job, but she's proved her worth at Hotspot.
We continue to the last location in Crooswijk. "I'm actually constantly striving for perfection, which is more interesting than achieving it", Bob tells me. "Apart from that, I try to seize every chance and opportunity that presents itself."
Inside it smells delicious. Manu cooks here with Ricardo. Ricardo has not been speaking Dutch for that long and he smiles more than he actually talks. Manu is the opposite, and almost all the guests here know her. She has been cooking for quite some time, and used to own her own shop. After becoming ill, she could no longer work in the kitchen. But now that she is recovering and feeling better, she is cooking as Hotspot.
Upon arrival, Bob immediately enters the kitchen to help out. Tomato soup is the first course and it tastes pretty sweet. "The tomatoes are first roasted in the oven with some spices, and no water is added after that, which is why it has a much sweeter taste. This process takes a lot of time and effort, so for a professional cook it is not that interesting. But at Hotspot Hutspot it is. The relatively simple steps and instructions can be followed by anyone. The youngest is 10 and the oldest 83."
After dinner, Ruud appears from the dishwashing area. He previously worked in the steel construction industry for 25 years. After he kicked his drug addiction, there was no longer work available for him with his previous employer. The reintegration agency sent him to Hotspot Hutspot because he had once trained as a cook. At first he was skeptical, but he has now signed up for a culinary course starting in the fall. "I have to learn everything all over again," he says.
After the evening rush hour, I ask Bob if he ever takes time to eat. "Yes, I eat tonight when I get home," he says.
Bob studied at art school, and you can see tell by the little things he does at Hotspot, like the way he hangs old cooking utensils from the ceiling and transforms them into lamps. He still has plenty of plans for the future, such as expanding to other cities. One day, he would like to open a fine-dining restaurant called Hotspot Topspot, and he has Michelin-star ambitions.
A few days after my visit, Bob sends me a message with the top 10 most hospitable restaurants in Rotterdam according to the website www.iens.nl. Hotspot Hutspot is No. 1. The dream to one day get a Michelin star does not sound that unrealistic, after all.