A conversation with François Geurds, Michelin star chef with three businesses, and Michel Radjiman, known for being a gourmet as well as for selling boats for Damen Trading. These businesses are more similar than you might think.
I still hire staff myself because I have to see the fire in their eyes
Age: (40, “but actually forever 30”)
Is: Chef and owner of three restaurants in Rotterdam: FG (2*), FG Food Labs (1*) and FG Noodle Bar.
Favourite dish at home: Salads.
Is proud of: “My staff. Without them, I am nothing.”
Is: Senior Sales Manager at Damen Trading in Gorinchem since 1997.
Favourite dish at home: Indonesian rice table.
Is proud of: “The sale of the Stena Discovery ferry in South America. That was a very special deal.
A Michelin star chef and a keen domestic cook, how did you both learn to cook?
François Geurds: “My mother is from Aruba and my father is a Dutch farmer. Potatoes, vegetables, cows, horses – I learned to cook everything from A to Z. The decisive factor was my mother’s Aruban influence – she cooked all day.”
Michel Radjiman: “There was always something on the stove, I recognize that. Cooking played an important role in my upbringing. My mother is Dutch, but my father Javanese- Surinamese.”
François: “The South American food culture is so different. Eating is something that you enjoy with family and friends. Everyone around a big table.”
Michel: “Different indeed – those Dutch parties were everyone sits in a circle in the living room…”
François: “… eating potato salad!”
Michel: “At a party at our house, the first place you go is the kitchen. And the first question you hear is always: ‘Have you eaten?’ And then you’ll be given a plate of food.”
Isn’t there a big difference between home cooking and Michelin star cooking?
François: “The standards are slightly modified, but the foundation is, and always will be, a passion and love for food. The Dutch are beginning to understand it, very slowly.”
Michel: “You can really see the change, just look at all the ingredients available. Twenty years ago, you really had to look hard to find certain spices. Today, ginger and lemon grass are found in any supermarket. For my work I travel, of course, all over the world and I really like grabbing a bite of street food.”
François: “I had this idea in mind when I started my noodle bar. It’s not about the money, sometimes you just don’t want to eat food at Michelin star level. I find it important to show that you can cook at different levels. Or FG Food Labs, for example. Here you sit on stools at the bar. It’s not tapas, but high-level cooking.
It was a dream to accomplish this – good food in a very relaxed atmosphere, but with zero compromise on quality. We earned a star within half a year!” Your first restaurant, FG, with two Michelin stars, is just down the road from the Port of Rotterdam. Was that a conscious choice?
François: “The location is very pretty – right on the water! The port epitomises Rotterdam. What’s more, I love the no-nonsense mentality that you find in Rotterdam. They really make it happen.”
Michel: “Indeed, they tell it like it is! We also like to grab the bull by the horns. There are only three of us at Damen Trading, but the advantage is that we can gear up faster. I’m really proud of what we have achieved with our small team in this company.”
A kind of ‘Asterix amongst the Romans’?
Michel: “Ha ha, yes. Standing bravely in the midst of our 9,000 colleagues worldwide.”
François: “Wow! The team here is now 70 strong. I still do the hiring because I have to see the fire in their eyes. Education is less important than willpower.”
Michel: “Exactly. We sell an average of 15 to 20 boats per year, but we still want to reach the 20. I think that you have to be stubborn to be successful. Especially if someone says to me, ‘You’ll never sell that boat.’ Then we move up a gear and keep going till we succeed.”
François: “Ha ha, that’s very recognisable. If someone says to me that I won’t achieve something, I’m going to do all I can to make it work.”
Do obstacles determine the degree of success?
François: “I just want to make the most beautiful things for my guests. I do things for pleasure – because I like to – not as a form of opposition.”
Michel: “The best thing is when customers leave with a smile. Last week I sold a ship, and I was standing there with the buyer, the seller and the notary and everyone was happy. That’s why I am in the business.”
François: “And yet, a comment from someone who is not satisfied can keep you awake at night more than all the compliments put together.”
Michel: “I sometimes tell a customer that they shouldn’t buy a certain vessel. It’s important to be open and honest, and sometimes to go against the grain, to keep a good relationship.”
François: “We were the first to use olive oil in a dessert. Everyone thought I was crazy, now you see it everywhere.”
Michel: “You are trying to distinguish yourself from the rest. Sometimes you can get strange looks – people thinking ‘what’s he up to now?’. That happens here too. We are a bit of the odd-oneout in the organisation, which of course focuses on building new vessels. Those second-hand boats – where’s the business in that? But I see it as a form of customer loyalty. I try to make customers aware of Damen and the services we provide, so they will think of us if they ever need a new ship. People often don’t make that connection.”
François: “It’s the same with table linen. We were the first Michelin star restaurant without tablecloths, but it’s all about efficiency. I had drawers built into the tables for the cutlery. That saves a lot of time, so you can pay more attention to your guests. Other restaurants copy us, but they don’t understand the essence of why they are doing it.”
How do you make sure that you stay the best in your field?
François: “Always keep looking for ways to make things better. In terms of taste but also about processes. You must dare to invest.”
Michel: “When the Internet came on the scene in the late 90s, we fully intended to be the first in the group to create a website. We got a lot of comments. Things like, ‘How are you going to sell a ship with that?’ But now it is valued that we did so much at the time. You must strive continually to improve yourself. And don’t forget the personal touch. I still go to see every single customer. Clambering onto their ship in my overalls, flashlight in hand, making my own notes. You need to know exactly what is going on.”
François: “For that very reason, all my restaurants have open kitchens – so you have direct contact. The guests come for you. It’s a people’s business.”
Michel: “Sure, customers come back because they have been treated well in the past. Then they say, ‘I could go to someone else, but you deserve it’.”
François: “Also typical Rotterdam.”
Michel: “Whether it’s a guest who comes to eat at one of your restaurants or a B2B customer who buys a boat with us, that personal touch is definitely very important.”