To be honest, we must say there are a couple of restaurants that we really adore, places that are just so good, that you’re looking forward to your next visit from the minute the previous one has come to an end. And when a restaurant can meet those extremely high expectations, you know it’s simply top-notch. De Librije in Zwolle is definitely such a restaurant. The former women’s prison, has been turned into a culinary temple where it’s impossible to remain indifferent. The place arouses the heart and the senses instantly, what proves that high-end gastronomy is so much more than extremely tasty food. It’s about an overall experience, a journey, an adventure.
De Librije in Zwolle
Meet Jonnie and Thérèse Boer
Professional, passionate, elegant yet playful as they are, Jonnie and Thérèse Boer managed to uplift fine dining to an unforgettable experience, thanks to their philosophy, their approach and their savoir-faire. They offer a form of indulgence that touches the deepest feelings of their guests. As the ‘face’ of De Librije Jonnie and Thérèse echo that same passion, although they are also known for their levelheadedness and perseverance. Today we have a personal conversation with Jonnie & Thérèse Boer about their ‘Chef’s Secret’, or about how they have achieved to have realized so many admirable projects throughout their career. It’s their story about teamwork, dedication and the love for gastronomy.
Welcome in Restaurant De Librije
A smooth car ride brings us to the nice town of Zwolle. With its city canals and the combination of historical buildings and contemporary architecture, this former Hanseatic city offers a charming and interesting location for a weekend trip. When you’re looking for fantastic food and an unforgettable night’s sleep in Zwolle, the place to be is De Librije, a world-famous restaurant and hotel. Thanks to its central location the place is easily accessible. As soon as you arrive the valet service awaits you to take your car so that you can forget the world right away, and start enjoying the warm, hospitable welcome that De Librije offers.
Once inside, we’re handed a welcome drink with herbal flavours. Optional: a shot of Gin & Jonnie, the unique, herbal gin that Jonnie Boer developed himself.
We follow Jonnie and Thérèse to their Chef’s Table, where the preparations for the next service are already in full swing. The hustle and bustle of the kitchen is of a cozy kind. The team seems to be functioning like a well-oiled machine. This definitely isn’t the kind of kitchen where chefs are screaming and tossing pots and pans in the air. Chef Nelson Tanate skillfully guides the team in a calm way. Rhythmized by a cosy tune, everyone performs his or her role for the mise-en-place. Jonnie gives some instructions and enthusiastically showcases some new bamboo attributes that will be used for the first time tonight. It’ll be a knife holder at each table. The team is curious, listens attentively and gets to work.
When we ask them what they think of The Best Chef Awards in Milan, Jonnie and Thérèse hesitate. “Lists, journalists, awards,” says Jonnie, “the invitations and requests keep on coming in. We’re very aware that it’s important to get a lot of attention, but we’d rather be here in our restaurant, cooking away.” This answer characterizes and humbles Jonnie and Thérèse Boer, who always keep focus on their restaurant De Librije, even though they have the chance to be in the limelight more often, doing public performances or shows.
Jonnie tells us a story about the ‘forbidden cheese’ he recently rediscovered. “Back in the day, the isle offered this incredibly scrumptious sheep cheese, a beautiful product with a rich umami flavor. And its production process is incredible. Similar to that exclusive coffee, this cheese is produced in the digestive system of the sheep. Sadly, the production was then prohibited because of strong regulations. What a joy to have rediscovered this delicious and creamy product at a remarkable cheese farm! Tricky though, having to figure out how to pitch this cheese to our guests without scaring them off” (laughs).
Now that’s an ice breaker! At this moment we’re joined by Thérèse. We decide to go in full official interview mode, even though our conversation is much more spontaneous than the straightforward game of questions and answers of a typical interview. An interesting conversation develops, reinforcing our respect and sympathy for this powerful duo. We must emphasize thereby that Jonnie and Thérèse always intended to do the interview as a pair, because they’re a close team. No chef can do without a strong hostess, and the other way around.
The Best Chef & Hungry for More (Chef’s Secret): Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Jonnie and Thérèse. Can you start off by telling us what your occupations are today and how this has evolved since you started?
Jonnie Boer: Definitely! Our main focus has always been De Librije, and that hasn’t changed. Furthermore, we had been busy preparing the fourth edition of our biannual event Chef’s revolution. We get together several great chefs, to perform a number of inspiring sessions.
Chef’s Secret: There’s also Librije’s Zusje (Librije’s little sister) in Amsterdam and a new project at Bonaire?
Jonnie Boer: Yes. When we were thinking about launching Librije’s Zusje it quickly became clear that the city of Zwolle would be too small for two businesses of this kind. This is why we chose to divert to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Amsterdam. Since a luxury hotel in a big city as Amsterdam is completely different than our location in Zwolle, Librije’s Zusje draws a different type of audience. When looking for a chef who could manage the project independently, we quickly thought of Sidney Schutte. He had worked in De Librije for a long time and we strongly believe in his capacities as a chef. As time went by, Sidney went his own way. You can still taste De Librije’s signature, but the restaurant has its own identity now.
And we cannot forget Brass Boer, our project in a Dutch luxury resort in Bonaire. We chose this location because we simply love Bonaire and have been going on holiday there for almost twenty years. We love diving and in Bonaire you will find one of the most beautiful, quiet and authentic Caribbean islands. We now mostly visit the isle when on holiday and we have been there five times during the start up this year. We mustn’t tell you how nice it is to have a restaurant there! The chef regularly comes to the Netherlands so we can exchange dishes, and we plan to go to Bonaire about two times a year, but the intention is that the restaurant can run independently. In Brass Boer they have lovely dishes like ‘On the beach’, a beautiful combination of oyster and goose liver. But the local specialties are very surprising too. I even learned to eat cacti there! The texture reminds you a bit of cucumber, but it’s hard to describe. Locals also make a very strange, slimy cacti soup with floating fish heads in it. (laughs)
Our restaurant in Bonaire is also home to Table 14, a table under the Cabana that seats up to six people. It’s a tribute to Johan Cruijff, Dutch professional football player and coach. Part of the proceeds the table makes, goes to the Johan Crujff foundation, which aims to bring the youth forward through movement.
Furthermore, we have been working on a new project in Zwolle. It is a new type of brasserie, with for example snails served in a different way. Our example is Thournieux in Paris, which also is a 2-star restaurand and a brasserie.
And lastly there’s our new cookbook that we have been working on. The book was published in October 2018 and will be called THUIS (home).
Chef’s Secret: By now we have to call you successful entrepreneurs. This growth in the various business, did it proceed organically or did you have clearly defined objectives in the beginning?
Thérèse Boer: What we have achieved today is the result of a natural evolution. We’ve grown step by step in our profession and as entrepreneurs. Even though in the beginning we had to sacrifice a lot and work long hours.
Jonnie Boer: As young entrepreneurs, you must work hard and a lot. But you learn to delegate tasks. By surrounding yourself with a strong team, you can grow and start up extra projects. Even in the restaurant, you can bring everything to the next level. The needs of our customers have changed, so we had the chance to evolve with them.
Chef’s Secret: De Librije is located in a very special building. How did you end up here?
Thérèse Boer: Have you ever been to the ‘old’ Librije? That was more of a ‘typical’ restaurant. We changed the interior of a restaurant every couple of years, but after the third time we grew tired of it. In addition, the kitchen was in the basement, which meant more logistic difficulties and kitchen technical difficulties. And it was a barrier between our kitchen and our guests, prohibiting easy contact. For these reasons, we decided that after 22 years, we wanted something else. Since the start of 2015 we’re in this new location, where everything is situated on the ground-floor and where we have a nice apero space and chef’s table.
Jonnie Boer: We were considering starting a business somewhere in nature. But look, it turned out to be something else.
Thérèse Boer: Zwolle was looking for entrepreneurs who wanted to give the building a new destination and approached us to ask if we were interested. When we visited the prison, there were still 65 detained ladies here. A very special atmosphere, as you can imagine. We could clearly imagine the building as a restaurant with a hotel. There was one big challenge: the prison is a protected monument, which means that many renovation projects were not allowed. For example, the large glass dome you can now see in the restaurant, originally wasn’t permitted. Jonnie and I said to each other: “If we get through wit this, we can really put our own stamp on this project”. The Monument Conservation Department eventually gave us permission, provided the glass construction would be removable. And we were able to realize that! Although it has involved quite a lot of effort and discussions and we have been afraid whilst making these decisions. But when you see the result today, you can forget all that trouble pretty easily.
Chef’s Secret: What do you want guests to remember after their visit to De Librije?
Jonnie Boer: We want guests to feel welcome. Their experience has to be unique. What we offer here, is not likely to be found elsewhere, because it’s hard to imitate.
Thérèse Boer: We know many people come to our restaurant to celebrate something, so we like to take that into account. Every one of our guests should have an unforgettable experience.
Chef’s Secret: How is this unique experience incorporated into your menu?
Jonnie Boer: Our menu is based on the senses. We deliberately choose to offer à la carte dishes as well as menus that our guests can put together themselves. One can choose four pre-composed four course menus. If you’d like seven courses, you start from one of these menus and the chef will complement them to a balanced whole. In addition, we ensure that there’s always a vegetarian menu. We have been doing this for 25 years now, so we know it’s important to keep count with intolerances and preferences.
Chef’s Secret: Where do you get the inspiration? How do you keep it fresh and how do you decide what dishes will and won’t be on the menu?
Jonnie Boer: There seems to be a tendency to always do something crazier than before and always invent more. When we got our first Michelin star, I was 25 years old and Thérèse was 20. It seemed like the whole gastronomy was in French style, while we went another route. We mostly cooked with local products and lesser known products. People often looked surprised at our dishes, our even laughed at us. But over time we have built a strong network. Our suppliers grew with us and we notice that the ‘oldest’ ones are often the best, because they share lots of years of experience. Many of the creations at the restaurant were created by me. But of course, I share my ideas with the team and in return they offer their feedback and ideas for improvement. This way our end results become even more perfect.
Thérèse Boer: The development of the dishes takes a lot of time because every team member tastes and assesses them before they are effectively put on the menu. This means it takes some time to get a dish from its creation to the restaurant. But the results our most important to us. And we like to give our servers the chance to get to know the dishes extensively, because only those who know how a dish really tastes can convey the story accordingly to our guests.
Jonnie Boer: I must admit that it is becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of the top dishes on our menu. Luckily, we can keep dishes longer since we let our guests compose their menu. This, we think, is very valuable. But it goes without saying that you can’t serve a dish for 10 years straight. You have to keep evolving.
Chef’s Secret: How do you continue to perform at the highest level? People sometimes say ‘It’s lonely at the top’. Is that right?
Thérèse Boer: One of the most important success factors of De Librije is the collaboration between Jonnie and myself. It’s important to us to act together, as a team. This works very well for us and we feel very comfortable with it. Each of us has his own ‘zone’, and together we get further than alone.
Jonnie Boer: We have always told each other that we will stop if one of us wouldn’t like it anymore. But that’s still a long way from now. (laughs)
Thérèse Boer: A second success factor is that everything we do, we do for our guests. And finally, we make sure that our whole team feels good. The end product will show if the atmosphere feels right.
Jonnie Boer: We are very fortunate to be able to work with a permanent team, many of whom have been working for us for years, some even for over 10 years. We’ve found out that it’s not always a bad thing when co-workers leave, although the team core must of course stay strong. Because when people leave, the generation behind them is full of enthusiasm, ready to prove themselves and to develop.
Chef’s Secret: Jonnie might well be one of the most renowned chefs in the world and De Librije is one of the most popular, unique restaurants in the world. Yet you stay out of the spotlights. Are you trying to stay out of the limelight consciously?
Jonnie Boer: I don’t think it’s a good thing to make a lot of effort to get into the big lists or be in the spotlight. You really have to make it happen by focusing on the restaurant and by keeping your personal life in balance. When our children, for example, were smaller, we really got a lot of invitations that we had to skip because we just thought it more important to spend time with our family. It’s essential to always keep the right focus.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t want to show the world that The Netherlands are doing well in the field of gastronomy. That’s why I sometimes cook at large culinary events, for example. These events will put our restaurant on the (world) map but are also good for the visibility of Dutch gastronomy in general.
We are the organizers of Chef’s Revolution, a gastronomic event that takes place every two years in Zwolle. This year it will be our fourth edition. As our guests, there will be many great chefs and sommeliers and we will be promoting typical Dutch products.
Thérèse Boer: All in all, we like to be in our business when it’s opened. The Librije is and remains our focus and we want to focus on that. It’s also what our guests can expect when they come here.
Chef’s Secret: Jonnie, you are far more than a star chef, because you also have developed a range of products that you sell, such as drinks and spices. And Thérèse has her own wine label. How do you choose which projects to accept?
Jonnie Boer: People ask us to participate in every project you can think of, but we only accept if it’s a real good idea. For example, I committed to the project with spices because I just thought that there were too few high-quality spices on the market and for this opportunity I got the freedom to make the very best selection.
On the other hand, our gin Gin & Jonnie was born from a joke. We once had a dish on the menu with that name, and then someone came along who tasted it and suggested making it a blend. Why not, we thought then. And we very much liked the result, both in terms of taste and concept.
Thérèse Boer: I started my wine line ‘De Kus van Thérèse’ (Thérèse’s kiss) as an ambassador for the Dutch viticulture. These wines have a lot of potential but were in need of further development. Only now we discover which grapes are best served in our region. And because the vines grow older, they also become better, which benefits the quality. Today we produce one red and two white wines, and we complement the series with a selection of my favorite foreign wines.
Chef’s Secret: It might be a pretty difficult question, Jonnie. But how would you describe your cooking style yourself?
Jonnie Boer: Indeed, that’s a difficult one. Maybe it’s better to answer yourself in a couple of hours, when you have tasted the dishes (laughs). Without a doubt, taste is the most important thing. I also want my dishes to be ‘manageable’, without too much fuss. It’s about honest products that I want to bring forward, mostly by joining four or five flavors. I want guests to know what they’re eating, whilst still having the idea that it’s a special dish. It is said that De Librije stands for a touch of rock’n-roll and humor. That is why our style may be difficult to describe. We’re not classic, but modern. Someone once called it ‘fun dining’, which is true, I think.
Chef’s Secret: What about trends and styles? How do you manage to develop such a unique style and still be stimulated by what the current trends that gastronomy brings, without copying them?
Jonnie Boer: Of course, there are always trends, but I have been doing a lot of things for a long time, long before they have become trends. Things like fermenting or using vegetables from your own garden or working according to the offer of nature. I have been working on that for years, so for me this never had anything to do with trends. The culinary evolution can be compared to fashion, because styles and trends always come back through time.
Thérèse Boer: Sometimes it can be a disadvantage that Jonnie has been using techniques that have suddenly become trends. It may seem – especially for people who might have less experience in the gastronomy field- as if Jonnie is going to follow trends, while it is reversed. For this reason, we sometimes describe things like ‘fermenting’ differently on the menu, so that it remains unique.
Jonnie Boer: I am, however, constantly on the lookout for new things to discover, so I am always actively looking. This mostly happens by traveling, because one can get a lot of impressions abroad. Furthermore, it is very important to pass on knowledge. That is just as much a part of the development of gastronomy. If we don’t pass on our experience, gastronomy in general and our team in particular can’t get better. Ultimately you can’t shield everything you do. And it’s nice to see that a leaving team member takes ideas and skills with him and then applies them in a different way.
Chef’s Secret: You were voted the 5th best chef in the world at The Best Chef Awards in Milan in October. What does this mean to you?
Jonnie Boer: Initiatives such as The Best Chef, but also other lists, ensure that De Librije is in the picture. These lists have a great value for us, because we have a team of about 60 people that we obviously have to pay. It is important to get enough attention so that we have enough reservations in the restaurant.
Thérèse Boer: However, we are quite selective in the partnerships that we conclude. We never let ourselves be put under pressure by people who promise beautiful advertising in exchange for free food. We won’t do game programs or things like big brother just like that, because that simply doesn’t mean anything to us. But of course, we do value qualitative pieces in the press, which are about our business and about our view on gastronomy. When similar stories are in the press, you’re top-of-mind again, so people will think of you more easily when they want to book a restaurant. Moreover, when your restaurant is included in the known international culinary lists, you will attract a different audience. Nevertheless, we don’t go to events very often, because we want to spend most of our time in our restaurant to welcome the guests.
Chef’s Secret: De Librije is undeniably at the culinary top. What are the plans and ambitions that keep you motivated every day to keep on going?
Jonnie Boer: As long as we still can and feel like it, we want to stay busy and uplift De Librije to an even higher level. And if eventually we’ll leave, we hope to be able to hand over our restaurant, perhaps to our children, who both have opted for a training at the hotel school and might be interested. Our children have experienced both the beautiful and the difficult moments together with us, so they really know what to expect.
Thérèse Boer: Our profession is only bearable is you’re not alone, if you can do it together and if everything is well organized. It’s a hard job, especially at the early start of your career. So Jonnie and I have agreed that we will continue as long as we can and want to. When we quit, we’ll also do that together, just as we have built up the business with so much love over the years.
Chef’s Secret: Thank you for your openness, Thérèse and Jonnie. We will continue to follow your plans closely and wish you good luck.
On the menu at De Librije
Throughout the years De Librije has developed a unique and distinctive style. The team strives to put out authentic local products and to combine them with the latest cooking techniques. The restaurant has an innovative kitchen, often sprinkled with a global touch. The owners say that they take you on a gastronomic journey in which all the senses are stimulated: ‘Eyes are the mirrors of your taste’, ‘The nose makes you curious’,’ In the mouth nothing remains unspoken’ and ‘The belly is the boss of the brain.’ We wouldn’t be able to describe the “De Librije experience” in a more striking manner.
Guests who prefer to eat à la carte dishes, will be delighted by a selection of eight ‘classics’. These creations can also be included in the De Librije menu. That menu was created to make choosing even more exciting and surprising, in order to experience as much of the kitchen as possible. Guests choose from different pre-composed menus with a specific ingredient combination, after which the chef adds dishes to complete a balanced five, six or seven course menu. Thérèse provides a lovely wine suggestion for every menu, whether people choose the option of a wine pairing or a specific bottle.
If the weather’s nice, guests can enjoy the aperitif on the terrace, after which they are guided to their table in the unique air-conditioned conservatory.
The table layout is at least to be called special. A classic tête-à-tête will never happen, because two guests will always sit side by side to stimulate the interaction in the hall. The culinary experience during the evening reminds us of a theater performance, where the eyes will be continuously pleased. You won’t be bored for a moment, because of the graceful and smooth servers, the music, the light that adapts to the atmosphere of the evening and the action of the team in the open kitchen or with the preparations at the table.
In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of De Librije a unique festive menu was developed, as an ode to the favorite flavors that have been passed through the years. This is also the menu that we were allowed to experience with The Best Chef.
Oyster, goat cheese, seaweed
Crayfish, foie gras, sweetgale
North Sea crab, chicken liver, calf heart.
Langoustine, kombucha, tamarillo
Young cod, blue cheese, spruce top, tulip
Monkfish, veal tongue, fermented corn
Ermelo’s duck, chocolate, orange
Epoisses, potato juice, rabbit kidney
Cherry beet, meadowsweet, black sesame
Sleep peacefully at De Librije
To complete your experience, book a table combined with one of De Librije’s unique hotel rooms. In the design of the hotel part of the building, the atmosphere of the former women’s prison was honored to great extends. A special vibe can be picked up from the cell doors, the bars on the windows and the “cachot”.
Every one of the 19 rooms has a unique decor and atmosphere. Upon arrival, you will be personally escorted to your room, where all kinds of treats await you and you can prepare yourself in peace for the gastronomic top experience that will follow.
Waking up with appetite
Even in the early hours, after a long night of sleep, the gastronomic experience can’t be stopped. You will be swept of your feet by an unprecedented, creative breakfast, served in a rich and attractive decor with reds and blacks. This truly is the icing on the cake when having a culinary weekend away.
Jonnie and Thérèse Boer pamper you at De Librije with a creative, tasteful cuisine of the highest standard that touches all the senses. This in the unique context of the green conservatory in the former women’s prison of Zwolle.