Quality over innovation.
Restaurant Sens at the Hotel Vitznauerhof, located on the shores of the beautiful Swiss Lake Lucerne surrounded by the Alps, offers its guests a dining experience like no other. The high cuisine at Sens is focused on fermentation, giving the imaginative dishes bold and memorable flavours.
At the heart of it all is the young Michelin-star chef Jeroen Achtien, passionately leading the team at Sens to carefully craft the unique culinary combinations to surprise the clients at the restaurant.
We spoke to Jeroen Achtien about his challenging career path, passion for high cuisine and the importance of culinary craftsmanship in his line of work.
Journey to Michelin
Jeroen Achtien’s career as a chef was never an easy path. He started working at the age of 14 and never gave up on his dream. “When I was 14, I had no idea what I wanted to do. But my brother is a chef as well and has his own restaurant in Holland. When he came home, he was always so enthusiastic about his work, it was amazing” – Jeroen recalls.
He began his journey by helping his brother at the restaurant and, just after a year of work, came to a realization that becoming a chef was his life’s dream.
“As a chef, you have to be baker, a fisherman, a butcher, a gardener. You have to acknowledge so many different things, you always have to learn, and for me, it was very exciting.”
Over the course of his career, Jeroen worked for many different places, from catering companies to Michelin-star restaurants. Shortly after taking part in the culinary competition held by Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, he received his first experience with a Michelin-star restaurant. Soon, he was offered a position at a different restaurant in the Netherlands, De Librije, which by the time also held three Michelin stars.
The job at De Librije demanded working up to 80 hours a week, in which the young chef had to cut vegetables into cubes and sort through herbs. Jeroen recalls that, at first, he was discouraged. In his previous jobs, he was doing much more, and he was convinced he could handle more complex tasks as a working chef.
Everything changed when, one day, he was allowed to take part in plating dishes with twenty other chefs at De Librije: “This was the moment I finally saw what I was cutting vegetable cubes for every day. Something changed, and I realized that this was exactly what I wanted.”
Since that day, Jeroen spent over eight years at De Librije, gradually working his way up from a junior chef to a station chef, and then to the sous-chef. In his last year at the restaurant, he finally became head chef.
One could say his career at the Hotel Vitznauerhof was a result of a coincidence. While travelling around Switzerland, he decided to visit the place and suddenly fell in love. “It is a magical place. When you walk in, it’s like a fairy tale,” – Jeroen says. Soon, he met the chef at the restaurant and the director of the hotel, and so his career at Sens began.
“It is really exciting when I can manage to bring the harmony in all those difficult flavours, all together in one plate. It feels like a symphony.”
Brown crab, veal tongue, 'nduja, fermented red cabbage juice Photo/ Ron Greve
Finding Harmony in Complexity of Flavours
For Jeroen, high cuisine is all about the balance between a variety of flavours. At Restaurant Sens, his team is working with fermented foods, which creates an additional challenge to marrying strong and bold tastes together. “It’s like you are travelling the world in your mouth,” – he says, adding: “You have so many intense flavours but, at the end of the day, it all fits together.”
Jeroen explains that developing the perfect flavour combinations take a lot of patience. The process of refining each dish is intricate and thoughtful.
“You have to ask yourself questions: what could make the dish even better? Should you add something? What should it feel like – is it like a cracker, or maybe a vegetable? Is it a raw vegetable or a pickled one? What flavours are you missing? Do you need something fresh, something crispy? There are so many elements you can think of and dig deeper,” – he explains.
However, the final result is always worth it, Jeroen adds: “When you come to the point when you say, ‘all right, we have it’, it's an amazing feeling because you put so much effort in it.”
Because of this, Jeroen says, he makes sure to never rush when developing a new dish.
“What you see a lot from other chefs is that they do not have the patience to wait for perfection, they are so focused on change. But I think our guests appreciate that we do not just change something just for the sake of changing, we do it to achieve quality.”
For Jeroen, the feedback from the guests is also of high importance. He explains that it is key to pay attention to the ways in which the guests experience the food and listen to their thoughts.
Photo/ Ron Greve
Craftsmanship above creativity
Jeroen stresses that talent is not enough to become a great chef. In his view, craftsmanship is what matters most. He recalls that, when working with De Librije, he was responsible for the sauce and meat sections for over three years. In this period, every day at lunch and dinner he spent at least 40 minutes tasting every single one of over 30 sauces to check whether they needed reworking.
“Craftsmanship is all about the hours. We start from the bottom to move the top, spending hours doing the same thing over and over again,” – he summarises.
“At the end of the day, you have to spend hours repeating again and again, and then you achieve craftmanship.”
Jeroen concludes that he always encourages his team to “never start their day without the tasting spoons in front of them”. “You cannot start the day without a bottle of water, you always need to have a clean palette, and you can do that with just a small piece of bread,” – he adds.