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"Most chefs would go insane if they had to do anything else."
Interview with the Head Chef
At the end of my list of interview notes for Jacco Langelaar, my friend and one-time head chef from our time cooking together in Stockholm, I have a few cheesy, rapid-fire, questions to ask him. I put these here just in case this, my first interview for the newsletter, ended up an awkward disaster and I needed to get something, anything, from him to fashion an article from.
It turns out I didn’t need these final questions at all.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of covering all bases, I ask my favourite of them anyway. What, I wonder, is the one lesson he remembers another chef teaching him that he most values today?
“Well,” he begins, rubbing the exceptionally thick, long, dark beard he has had since the first day I met him seven years ago. “It happened years ago when I split mayonnaise in front of this chef called Erik.
“I was only young, and Erik looked at me and said ‘Jacco, you need to understand what is happening here’. My first reaction was to think, ‘what a dick’. But I’ll never forget it because when I got home I opened McGee [ed. he is referring to a book by Harold McGee called On Food and Cooking, a bible to cooks about the science of cooking] and I said to myself ‘this will never happen again’.”
I’m talking to Jacco over a very shaky WhatsApp video connection. He is sat outside the bed and breakfast he now runs with his partner in the Swedish countryside town of Särna. Behind him, I can just make out the yellow, wooden exterior, accented by gleaming white beams, of the building I recognise from Instagram that might be one of the most beautiful bed and breakfasts I have ever seen.
Readers of The Recovering Line Cook will be familiar with how much of my cooking career was spent in Stockholm, Sweden. This is why having Jacco as my first interview guest is such a thrill for me.
Jacco was there on my very first day working in Sweden, where we cooked together at Gastrologik in 2016. As soon as I met him, I knew this tall, Dutch chef with the remarkable beard was everything I dreamed of being as a cook. Efficient, confident, trusted by those around him. To watch him work was to imagine he had never not been this good. As though he simply appeared holding a case of knives once upon a time fully formed as the great chef he already was.
Jacco was there on my last day as a cook in Sweden as well in 2020. By this point he had risen to the position of head chef at a place called Oaxen Slip, where I was a line cook.
We haven’t reached that part of our ongoing story in this newsletter yet. But let me give you a teaser. It was a beautiful place to work, a true home from home for me.
And it was people like Jacco that made it so.
Oaxen was the last restaurant kitchen Jacco worked in as well before opening his bed and breakfast.
But that is largely where the similarities in our story end.
Unlike me, he started cooking professionally in his late teens straight from school.
“When I told my school teacher that cooking was what I wanted to do,” Jacco says, “he immediately told me what a waste it would be. A waste of my capacity.
“But all that did was inspire me to go for it.”
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Jacco enrolled into cooking school aged 16, and eventually found a course that required only one day a week in class with the rest of the week learning on the job in a professional kitchen. But, it wasn’t yet the kind of kitchen he wanted to spend the rest of his career in.
“The first restaurant I worked in really taught me nothing. I was deep-frying as many schnitzels as I could in one go, thinking I was a cool chef, and drinking loads of beer every night. I felt like a cool kid, but I wouldn’t even eat at those places today.
“And then at some point I thought: I’ll either do this the rest of my life, or I’ll do this the rest of my life and try to get to a high level.”
He finished his training in Amsterdam aged 20, after which he cooked in what he describes as “smaller random towns” in the Netherlands. This included one restaurant that had just lost their Michelin star. This period, however, was tainted by disappointment for the young chef, and he had come to dislike the culture in the kitchens he had experienced so far.
To find the environment and high level he desired, he and his partner decided to move abroad. They chose Stockholm, Sweden, attracted by the growing number of Michelin star restaurants there. They moved in summer 2014.
“I sent letters to all the Michelin restaurants in Stockholm,” he tells me. “Two got back to me.”
One of them was Gastrologik.
Jacco says, “When I got to Gastrologik, I didn’t have a clue. It was such a higher level than I expected it to be. A lot higher. They were one Michelin star. I thought they should be two at least. And so did the staff working there.
“And even though the team was nice, I felt out of place. I thought, somehow they are going to find out I’m not up to this. I’m not going to make it to the end of my trial period.
“So I told myself just to enjoy it as long as it lasts.”
Jacco was wrong.
When I showed up at Gastrologik two years later, Jacco was very much still there. He had just been put in charge of the pastry (desserts) section. And, to my eye at least, he was in total charge of his domain. Not only clearly up to the Gastrologik standard, but pushing the restaurant onwards as well. The head chefs, who were also the owners, listened to him. They took his advice and ideas. He also seemed to understand the Swedish that ran back and forth across the lunch break table. Being an idiot Little Englander who spoke no other languages, this impressed me no end.
Watching Jacco work, I was also envious of how easy everything looked for him. The way he handled his delicate dessert “candies”, gossamer-thin shells of sugar filled with honey that were served to guests at the end of meals. When he plated them, they looked stunning. When I tried to do the same, they invariably ended up crushed in my stupid, doughy, sausage fingers.
And of course, that’s not to even mention the graceful speed with which he moved around the kitchen and completed his prep list (which he never failed to do). All despite being a six-and-a-half foot giant of a Dutchman in a very small open kitchen.
These memories, so vivid to me still, make it an odd experience talking to Jacco today. Hearing how he too, not that long before I met him, struggled with feelings of inadequacy almost makes no sense to me. But for all it doesn’t make sense, it does start to explain. It explains why, despite my own shortcomings and how I clearly didn’t work at the level Gastrologik reached for, I was never made to feel guilty for it. I was never made to feel small or unwelcome or worthless. For all the stereotypes of angry, abusive chefs we see on TV and movies and, more importantly, read about in real life, there were none to be found at Gastrologik in 2016.
“We were just this small bunch of chefs at Gastrologik,” Jacco explains when I mention this. “We hated and even laughed at what we called the ‘cheffy chefs’. The angry ones, the serious ones. The feeling we had was that those guys were just so… so… pathetic.”
Jacco tells me that he had started to come across such ‘cheffy chefs’ during his time cooking in the Netherlands. And, as he moved on from Gastrologik and began moving up the ranks to leadership positions himself, it became more and more important not to fall into becoming this type of chef himself.
“Michelin restaurants back at home were full of cheffy chef people. The first question they’d ask you was always, ‘well, where have you worked? What restaurants? I hated that attitude. Because it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what age you started either. What matters is you have passion. Not how big your cock is or where you worked before.
“When I became the guy that young chefs were supposed to come to with questions, I remembered how shit it felt to be given a stupid answer to a stupid question in these other shit restaurants. I wanted 100% not to be that. I wanted to be more understanding than that.”
I started working with Jacco again in 2018. It had been almost two years since my stage at Gastrologik, but we had kept in touch and one spring day we met to catch up over pizza in the centre of Stockholm. I told him how miserable I was at my current job (we will be getting to that chapter soon by the way) and he suggested I apply for summer work at one of his favourite restaurants called Oaxen. It was an odd restaurant that consisted of two separate places in the same building. One was a two Michelin Star fine-dining outfit (Oaxen Krog), the other (Oaxen Slip) a casual bistro.
He suggested I try out for the Slip.
It was the best decision of my restaurant cooking career.
Eventually, in late 2019, Jacco was promoted to head chef at the Slip. His first head chef position. When I ask him how he approached his new role, he goes back once again to something a teacher told him at culinary school many years before.
“It happened in a dessert and pastry class. We had got to puff pastry week. My teacher said ‘we just need to do it once, then you can forget it. No one really makes their own.’ This felt so stupid to me. I thought, if they are telling us this in school then who the hell is going to know how to make puff pastry in 20 years’ time?
“That gave me the same feeling as when my teacher told me being a chef would be a waste. And so I didn’t forget how to make that damn pastry. I did the opposite.”
It was this passion. This interest in, as Jacco puts it “preserving the knowledge of the profession”, that influenced his own leadership philosophy and approach to being a head chef.
“When I became head chef, I made a choice to put classics on the menu. And whether you were an intern or sous or anyone, I wanted to help people on the team learn the basics. That was what was important to me. Understanding.”
As we have moved through our discussion from Jacco the young cook drinking free beers at his first paid gig, to Jacco the responsible, enlightened head chef, something important we haven’t mentioned becomes too relevant to leave out.
Jacco and I both became fathers at around about the same time. And we eventually ended up reacting to this a similar way: we stopped being restaurant cooks. But whereas I sold out entirely to focus on copywriting, Jacco maintained his chef credibility by taking ownership of the B and B he is talking to me from today.
But that does mean for a few brief years, Jacco was both a new father and head chef at a very high-tempo, respected, and popular restaurant.
I’ve always been fascinated by how the small decisions we make day to day can change our lives in unimaginable ways. It’s why I’ve always been fascinated by how my decision to become a chef might have changed the kind of husband and father I am today.
I ask Jacco how he thinks being a chef might have influenced the type of father he is.
“Well, looking at it the other way, being a father and head chef, you do feel more responsibility for the young interns.
“But, as for my kids, well, I can say they do eat shit loads of butter.
“But seriously,” he says. “If you work in this environment, the high pressure becomes normal in your head. You know, if you asked most chefs in the world to work in another industry with the slow pace, the not really caring, all their coffee breaks, they’d go insane. At Gastrologik, at Oaxen, no matter what you did the day before, no matter how many beers you drank, you’d still only get the same 10 minutes for lunch. You learn to stop caring for yourself so you can get the job done. It’s easy to continue that lifestyle, pushing on all the time when raising your kids. I don’t see myself as an angry dad, but if it’s my turn to take the kids to school, you can be sure they’ll get there on time.
“So you need to remember to let go, slow down. Knowing this, it reminds me to take it as easy as I can. For myself, and the kids.”
Talking of kids, it’s about this time in our conversation that my own four year old boy arrives home with my wife. This also tells me I should’ve had dinner started about 20 minutes ago. Jacco, meanwhile, tells me his sourdough needs folding.
And, so, we return to my one quick-fire back-up question. The one about important lessons, a chef called Erik, and a young Jacco splitting the mayonnaise.
So, I ask him, following his declaration he would never let his mayo split again, has he, in fact, ever split mayonnaise again? He laughs.
“Of course, probably a thousand times since then, but I did push myself to understand, like Erik said. And doing that, you get confidence. By understanding. Now if I split a sauce like that, it’s just because I’m not paying attention. But I know now why it happened. I understand.
“But that day with Eric, I really just wanted to walk out.”
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Check out Jacco’s beautiful Bed and Breakfast here. If you are ever planning a trip to Sweden, you really couldn’t choose a more memorable place to stay.