The Tastemaker - Rob Baan
Frans Hals' The Laughing Cavalier may still have something to smile about in 21st century Holland: forget jaded impressions of polders, dykes and vintage Gouda, a new wave of Dutch gastronomy is gathering momentum. The Netherlands may be a flat country, famed for Van der Valk and greenhouses, but its steep ascent in modern cooking is enough to give any knowledgeable gourmet vertigo. There is nothing sous vide about it: these relatively unsung heroes of the hotplate are refining their native cooking faster than any other European nation.
The Dutch are now at the cutting edge of haute cuisine; Sauerkraut and herrings are well and truly back in the pantry. Chefs like Sergio Herman, Jonnie Boer, Robert Kranenborg and Niven Kunz are making an indelible mark; watching and learning from their European neighbours, Adria, Blumenthal and Barbot. They are developing their own unique style built around local produce and traditional ingredients of the past - though their approach is far from reclaimed. Our near neighbour from across the grey North Sea is rapidly becoming a gastronomic destination of choice: Holland has moved from being an epicurean never-Netherland to a place where excited chefs exchange ideas and confidently express their brilliance on the plate. This culinary creativity extends beyond the confines of the kitchen and encompasses others in the food chain, one man in particular exports his genius around the world, touching many who dine in the elite restaurants of Paris, London and New York.
Modern restaurant food is like contemporary art, it is there to shock and challenge our senses. In the elite realm of haute cuisine Dutchman Rob Baan is hard to ignore, from his fluorescent cherry red spectacles, shoulder length locks and positively floral Hans Ubbink wardrobe, echoing shades of 1967, he stands out from the culinary crowd. More Percy Faith than Thrower, this horticultural genius rarely uses jargon, with an accessible effervescent vocabulary he waxes lyrical about the health legacy of the Berlin wall and why, to him, sprouts are every bit as sexy as the designer curves of the latest Lamborghini. The legendary Ferran Adria describes Baan as "the Christopher Columbus of vegetables" and leading chefs Blumenthal, Arzak, Ducasse and Jamie Oliver, all use the products of his Dutch based company Koppert Cress.
With a sharp but gentle intellect combined with an esculent delinquency sufficient to overshadow even Anthony Bourdain, Baan, a great horticulturalist and highly skilled cook, has compiled a massive knowledge of seeds and edible plants across 70 countries and is known to all in the restaurant trade as the tastemaker. Having developed stunning natural flavours encompassing liquorice, ginger, aniseed and even fresh oysters, there seems no limit to what he can achieve and as a result, the greatest Michelin chefs value his unique range of micro-vegetables, using them to complement, enhance and make their porcelain plated creations sing. When defining his role in gastronomy Baan says, "we are producers of micro vegetables - germinated plants with extreme tastes, textures and flavours. They are fantastic to finish off a dish and great ingredients to make a sauce with a unique taste. I like my clients and customers to be surprised and experience a ping-pong sensation of flavours in the mouth"
Like a bottle of garagiste grade Pomerol, these greens ooze concentrated flavour and with judicious use might accent a sophisticated dish or provide an essential nuanced touch to raise a meal to Michelin perfection. I recently sampled this at Moshik Roth's one star restaurant in Holland. A rising talent in molecular gastronomy (no longer a fashionable term among chefs), Roth prepared an extraordinary minimalist dish of supremely fresh Oysters together with Koppert's latest Oyster flavoured vegetables - this subtle combination was startlingly original, providing a tribute to the chefs skill and his intelligent application of an exciting new product. These acute flavours provide an extra taste dimension for chefs: challenging their creativity and enabling them to develop stunning dishes. Quique Dacosta, the Michelin two star chef whose youthful brilliance has secured his position in the vanguard of European cuisine says, "Koppert Cress has changed our way of thinking about vegetables, their embryonic plants have given us a new vision of taste along with a completely different way to eat vegetables on the plate. They have won themselves a place in the history of contemporary cuisine"
"I like my clients to be surprised and experience a ping-pong sensation of flavours in the mouth"
A policeman's son from Haarlem and one of four children, Rob Baan began his career in development and marketing for Dutch seed giant Syngenta: over a period of 25 years he travelled worldwide, most notably he was responsible for building their Asian market. "I was thrilled by the local textures and smells...the crunch of Asian vegetables. I always ate local food from traders along the roadside, my white colleagues stayed with hamburgers and hotel salads but I loved to experiment". He continues, "I learnt why Japanese cabbage has to be thin - the Asian vegetable is often used for salad and remains uncooked, you don't want a thick cabbage like the Dutch equivalent, which is used for sauerkraut - an entirely different purpose" Baan's comprehensive understanding of food flavour and texture has enabled him to develop a constant stream of new and exciting vegetables for the restaurant trade. The product range has grown from 4 to 16 in a four-year span and his company turnover increased to several million Euros.
Intensely flavoured micro-vegetables fit modern and classic cuisine very well: Sat Bains, one of Britain's most imaginative culinary talents and star of television's Great British Menu is enormously enthusiastic, "these vegetables allow a great range of flavour marriages in sweet and savoury cooking. I've never been one to use ingredients for decoration alone, each element has to taste fantastic. I believe micro-vegetables take certain dishes out of the ordinary and into the gastronomic" At his eponymous restaurant in Nottingham, Bains explains just what he means, "we like to surprise diners; in dessert cooking I use micro basil with strawberries and olive oil sorbet, or liquorice cress with white Peach and vanilla". One of the first to use Koppert Cress in the UK, Bains does offer a word of caution "we do not want to use micro-vegetables on everything, the phrase ‘too much of a good thing' comes to mind. At my restaurant 90% of diners go for the tasting menu, this consists of up to 15 separate dishes. Balance and excitement are key elements in providing our guests with a memorable experience, micro-vegetables do just that"
These vegetables certainly provide a stunning lexicon of taste conundrums, some of which defy imagination. Koppert's Basil Cress is perfect for home made Pesto, their Borage derived from the herb and having a fish like taste combines well with steamed Mussels and salted herrings. Daikon is spicy and often used with raw fish in Miso soup, it has a very strong taste of horseradish. Garlic flavoured Rock Chives, though too fragile for cooking, can be used simply and effectively in omelettes and as a perfect topping for tomato soup or goose liver paté. Micro-vegetables are also making their mark with modern Asian cuisine: Cyrus Todiwala, chef proprietor of top Indian restaurant Café Spice Namasté in London is a big fan, "visiting Koppert Cress was an absolute eye opener for me, a fantastic experience. What they are doing is unimaginable and the flavours quite mind-boggling, but one needs to find the right balance. Once achieved, you have magic on a plate" When speaking of practicalities in the kitchen and combining such extreme vegetable flavours with Asian spices Todiwala says, " Asian cuisine is very complex, with so many strong flavours on the plate these micro-vegetables can make the dish go ‘wow' or totally change its character. One might imagine extreme tastes will be camouflaged or suppressed by others, but this idea is wrong. Meddling with strong flavours can spell death to any dish so caution must be exercised". Todiwala is in the process of developing a regular flow of Koppert products via his Asian supplier as well as creating a brand new pickle made with their Pepquino micro-melon, a vegetable he also uses as a base for a tangy bruschetta with sliced onion, garlic, tomatoes and green chilli. "I top off the mixture with grated 12 month matured goats cheese, I grill it slowly until gooey - the results are exhilarating" So intensely flavoured are Baan's vegetables, one might be forgiven for questioning their authenticity or naturalness, but astonishingly, there is no genetic slight of hand. One of his proudest achievements is the development of a new Liquorice flavoured vegetable, Atsina. He explains, "this is the perfect example of taking a product from seed to plate, through a comprehensive process of research and development".
Walking around Koppert's 1.7 hectares of vegetables growing under glass, one is soon engaged in this fascinating game of taste. At first sight the endless sea of green and purple does not set the imagination on fire. The growing process is modern, in fact no soil is involved and the organic environment spotlessly clean, Baan has developed his own method of machine drilling and growing plants in beds of white cellulose. The giant greenhouse is bright, temperature controlled and conducive to speedy growth - most plants attain full maturity within an incredible 5-7 days. The only bugs allowed are pest-controlling Ladybirds and the process seems scientifically clinical. With evangelistic human warmth, Rob Baan ignites passionate interest among all who visit Monster - like a bespectacled Billy Graham, he is brighter than the halogen lamps supplementing those short winter days on the Hook of Holland. Strolling between the eclectic assortment of plants in his R & D department, he reaches for a branch of an extraordinary tomato ‘tree', standing perhaps seven or eight feet tall. Removing a pendulous under-ripe looking tomato he penetrates its tough outer skin revealing the succulent flesh within - the taste is unbelievably sweet and delicious. Humour also plays a large part in everything Baan does, whether demonstrating the oral electric shock of his extraordinary Sechuan Button, a flavourless and rather benign looking yellow flower used to tame egotistical chefs (startlingly similar to licking the top of an Eveready battery), or Eggplants grown not just for flavour but also to resemble the shape and form of real eggs!
"An above average cook": Rob Baan (left) in his professional kitchensAn above average cook, Baan is well placed to venture informed opinion to the catering profession and comment on every aspect of the vegetable cycle. He loves the world of fine cuisine and has built a state of the art professional kitchen at his base in Monster. The consummate marketing man, Baan calls this facility ‘Cressperience' and invites professional chefs from around the world to come and experiment. The centrepiece is a €250,000 Molteni induction cooker of epic spaceship proportions. This experimental playground enables visiting cooks and caterers to work together developing ideas - it is the ultimate in gastronomic R & D. Moustachioed three star chef Pedro Subijana, has been using micro-vegetables at his famous Basque restaurant Akelarre ever since their introduction, "after visiting Rob Baan I understood the concept: Monster is a town dedicated to growing plants and flowers with a perfect commercial structure, so why not culinary products? Installing a professional kitchen in the middle of a greenhouse is amazing, it demonstrates the huge interest these people have in cooking. I value Koppert's ability to listen to chefs - they are always open to our opinions in the search for new flavours and varieties"
The subject of healthy eating is important to Baan, females in his family are genetically prone to cancer and he is always keen to promote vegetables containing high concentrations of anti-oxidants. Working closely with American colleagues and using medical research carried out by Johns Hopkins (University of Medicine) he has been licensed to offer a product in Europe under the brand name ‘Broccocress'. It is well known that certain types of Broccoli have high concentrations of Sulforaphane Glucosinolate (SGS for short). Baan says "youthful Broccoli ‘sprouts' are undoubtedly the most effective variety and this is what we have concentrated on". Research shows that SGS detoxifies carcinogens in the body and he is keen to develop more products with the same qualities, "there are possibly many hundreds of SGS vegetable varieties to be developed in the future". Encouraging and convincing the public to consume the healthiest vegetables relies heavily upon research and medical evidence. Fascinatingly, Baan explains how the Berlin wall helped provide this and as a result made a major contribution to the future of world health. This most tangible manifestation of the Cold War has now provided food scientists with a massive case study. "The Iron curtain was just that, a forty year division of two communities and two national diets: East and West Germany". The haves and have-nots - the affluence and junk food excesses of the West, versus the deprivations of the iron rich and vitamin filled sprout munching East. Statistics confirm this enforced human experiment resulted in East German colon and stomach cancer levels being many times lower than those of its immediate neighbour.
"the Berlin Wall... made a major contribution to world health"
The EU currently forbids any printed promotion of health claims for specific vegetables, powerful lobbying from drug companies and other vested interests maintain the status quo, suggesting this Dutch horticulturalist is in for a rather bumpy ride in his battle to change policy. Koppert Cress has recently launched in the United States and is preparing to test the owner's convictions on an American market. Setting up shop on Long Island - near health conscious Manhatten, he may well be pushing at an open door. The most exciting collaboration is in Spain with living legend Ferran Adria, arguably the world's greatest chef. Adria is an admirer of Koppert products and although known for his prominent role in haut cuisine, he endorses Baan's health conscious sentiments at his restaurant el Bulli. Koppert Cress will open its new Spanish division in Barcelona and with an ambitious eye fixed on Dubai and Japan the Koppert brand of gourmet vegetable products is set to grow and grow. The research done by Baan and his team now places Koppert Cress at the forefront of gastronomy, evidenced by his company's prominence at Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia, the world's leading food congress in San Sebastian, northern Spain. This annual culinary event attracts up to 50,000 visitors with over fifty of the world's leading Michelin chefs in attendance. In 2006, Baan made the opening address and was subsequently presented with a prestigious achievement award by his peers.
It appears Rob Baan has made altruism in business profitable: sleeping with a notebook on his bedside table he even takes calls in the middle of the night from enthusiastic young Chefs eager to share their thoughts. Clearly concerning himself with ideals as well as ideas, his passion increases our enjoyment and in his own special way Baan is making the food world a better and more enlightened place.