The service industry always has job openings. The rising number of chefs who are working on a freelance basis is becoming a great challenge for restaurant owners who are trying to keep their businesses going. Twenty-eight-year-old Dennis de Haan of De Haan restaurant, located in the Dutch city of Groningen, doesn't have this problem. His restaurant seats sixteen, serves five courses, and features an open kitchen and wine bar. There's just one hook: the whole place is run De Haan himself. Five days a week, de Haan is not only the chef, but also the server and the dishwasher. His business is thriving: he won't have an open table until at least February, 2017.
How exactly does he run a whole restaurant without staff? I recently paid him a visit to find out.
As soon as I walk in, de Haan asks if I would like some coffee. If yes, I'll have to pour it myself. That's the way it works at De Haan: guests are responsible for getting their own beverages. Every course has a wine pairing and the bottles are stored in the fridge in the correct order. After every course and glass of wine, the guests write down what they just had on their menus, which will become the final bill at the end of the evening.
While he prepares tonight's dessert—by dipping bonbons in chocolate—de Haan tells me: "Four years ago, I started to develop the idea for this restaurant. I used to wonder: Can't this be done faster, more efficiently, and better? I always wanted to start my own business, but getting a restaurant off the ground is a lot harder with staff than by yourself."
De Haan has turned organizing into an art form. The shiny kitchen features racks of numbered spices. "Every dish has its own work surface, with the ingredients for it at arms length." Every square inch of the restaurant has been carefully thought out.
"When you start a restaurant in a building outfitted for that purpose, it already has a kitchen with appliances you might not have chosen. This idea wouldn't work there. I wanted a space that was completely empty. I designed and furnished this kitchen by myself," he elaborates.
I start looking around and realize that de Haan has thought about every single thing in here. The metal container holding the immersion blender looks a lot like the receptacle I put my toilet brush inside at home. "It's a toilet brush holder," he confirms, smiling. "You can easily take [the blender] out, so it's less of a hassle. The chord of the blender is attached to a ski pass lanyard to keep it from tipping over onto the stove."
Cutlery is arranged per course, and so are the glasses. "Even if I didn't explain anything at the start of the evening, people would still be able to find the cutlery," says de Haan. This place really feels like a well thought out box of tricks, disguised like a restaurant.
"The evening [itself] isn't that busy. Mise en place is really the most busy time of day," he explains. "It's a race against the clock, because everything has to be ready for my guests at 6 PM." Guests can choose between a set menu of either three, four, or five courses.
I'm starting to understand how de Haan is able to run a restaurant on his own for five days a week. "In one week, I serve seventy guests, so when I make bonbons I don't make fifteen for the night, but [seventy] for the whole week. If possible, I make 300." Another one of de Haan's tricks: "I vacuum seal and chill fresh [ingredients] at the best possible moment. As long as it doesn't have a negative effect on the quality, it's no problem." This isn't something only restaurants run by single person do. "I worked at Parkheuvel [a Michelin star rated restaurant in Rotterdam] where we sometimes made things three months in advance. All of the best places have to be efficient if they want to keep their quality level consistent. Otherwise, you'll end up messing around on a daily basis."
The menu is always a surprise. On the day I visit, he's working on new dishes for this month's menu: mushroom ravioli for vegetarians and deer shoulder steak for meat eaters. "My cooking is pure and focused on the current season. I can get beef again in January, so right now I like to cook with deer [meat]."
I wonder if de Haan ever misses the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen. "I don't miss the conversations in the kitchen," he says. "My girlfriend stops by sometimes around 4 PM, and I will have to tell her, "you can leave now. Cooking demands a lot of focus and brainpower. As long as I'm alone, I'm calm. I'm in this flow, I can concentrate on what I'm doing, and that's why I'm capable of doing so much."
After the guests have finished their meals, the chef washes all of the dishes. He has enough of everything to do an entire meal service without having to wash a single cup. Pots and plates soak in water with detergent and cutlery goes in its own receptacle. "This too was originally a toilet brush holder," says de Haan. A bit odd, perhaps, that he uses those holders for everything, but according to de Haan they are easy to clean, on top of being made of stainless steel.
All of those tricks ultimately serve one purpose: to create tasty meals. "You can have the best concept in the world, but if people aren't enjoying their meal, what is the point? Nobody would show up."
I ask de Haan if he resents having to washing the dishes. "No, I don't detest any of the work. The only thing I do mind is that certain things take up too much of my time. When that happens, I try to think of a different way [to do them]. But by now you've seen most of my tricks."