ONNO KOKMEIJER & ARJAN SPEELMAN
CIEL BLEU, AMSTERDAM
Ciel Bleu Restaurant is the culinary flagship of Hotel Okura Amsterdam. Awarded two Michelin stars – and certainly ambitious to get the third one – chefs Onno Kokmeijer and Arjan Speelman treat their guests to a ‘guestronomic’ experience offering them only the best of the best culinary creations, presented in a refined, aesthetic and tasteful way. With the restaurant’s large windows offering a one of a kind view of the city of Amsterdam, its luxurious interior design and the attentive service every haute cuisine experience at Ciel Bleu ought to be a night to remember.
A stunning setting
Located at the 23rd floor of Hotel Okura Amsterdam – situated in the vibrant area of De Pijp, loved by locals – Ciel Bleu Restaurant offers the most breathtaking views of the city of Amsterdam. When entering the top floor guests can enjoy bites in the lounge before taking their seat to savour the courses of their chosen menu. The kitchen serves international flavours cooked with the very best techniques. The stunning view and personal hospitality create a unique atmosphere.
In 2016 the restaurant has been redesigned by the renowned Dutch architect Bert Verwey. A classic chic, yet contemporary and stylish atmosphere is created by combining white table linen and warm, soft fabrics like velvet with luxurious chandeliers, art pieces and vases with fresh flowers. The balanced design with global appeal matches the quality level of the food and service perfectly.
For a rare glimpse into the workings of a two Michelin-starred team, there’s the Chef’s Table overlooking the heart of the kitchen. It is possible to have a private dinner for four to ten people at the Chef’s Table. Guests will find themselves in the middle of the kitchen, keeping an eye on the kitchen team without missing out on the gorgeous view or the excellent service of the waiters. In addition to the Chef’s Table, there’s also the option for private dining for 10 to 16 persons. The Starlight is a space where groups can dine in complete privacy and the stunning view makes you feel on top of the world.
Guestronomy at Ciel Bleu
The team at Ciel Bleu works tirelessly to create a world-class dining experience, garnering two Michelin stars and a great reputation for their creative international cuisine and cosmopolitan dining experience. The team’s lofty ambitions and skills have helped inspire and nurture their peers, playing a vital part in the transformation of Amsterdam into the truly European culinary capital it is today.
Their mission is to achieve the ultimate taste from top quality ingredients. The salty-creamy oysters from Brittany, but also the purest cacao from the Amsterdam Chocolate Makers and cheese from Fromagerie Kef. They also embrace the organic herbs, flowers and vegetables from the region’s suppliers. At Ciel Bleu they are proud of the stunning ingredients from the Dutch land and feel a deep passion for the bountiful fish and shellfish from the surrounding seas and lakes. History also plays an important role, especially the golden century with shiploads of spices has a strong influence on their kitchen. In addition, the centuries-long relationship with Japan offers a lot of inspiration.
At Ciel Bleu, the team will never stop looking for ways to improve the guest’s experience. This experience can by no means be achieved by the quality of the food alone. The sense of touch is indulged by the comfort of the chairs, and ears are caressed by the music that will underscore the flow of the evening. The art of understanding the guests’ needs is mastered to perfection by the service team, headed by Pasquinel Kolk. He conducts the service like a dance, while head sommelier Noël Vanwittenbergh pours wines of incredible lushness, easing the guests into a relaxing and uplifting experience. At Ciel Bleu they expend a lot of energy perfecting the overall sensory experience of the guests. And that is what they call ‘Guestronomy’.
Guestronomy is also the title of the second cookbook by the restaurant’s team of chefs Onno Kokmeijer and Arjan Speelman, and maître Pasquinel Kolk. This book contains more than fifty mouth-watering recipes that evoke the magic of Ciel Bleu to inspire one to recreate them at home. Far more than a collection of tantalising dishes and images, it includes personal anecdotes from its vendors, founders, and staff that transform it from mere cookbook into a colourful portrait of the restaurant, and the realisation of a dream. Guestronomy immerses the reader in the world of Ciel Bleu by providing an exclusive, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the experience of high-end dining.
Teamwork by Onno Kokmeijer and Arjan Speelman
Onno Kokmeijer’s and Arjan Speelman’s journey in Ciel Bleu Restaurant started sixteen years ago. Onno used to work at restaurant Merlet back then, while Arjan worked at De Hoefslag. When Onno was asked to lead the restaurant, he immediately knew that he wanted to have Arjan as his right-hand man. Their friendship dates back to their college years, when they worked together during various traineeships. The mutual respect grew and they realised they could learn a lot from each other. Thus, a bond of trust has grown since then. When Onno Kokmeijer became Gault&Millau’s Chef of the Year 2019 (as an appreciation of his perfection in product, balance and craftmanship) he immediately
attributed it to his team.
Chef’s Secret (The Best Chef & Hungry for More): Let’s start with the beginning. What has been the road to success for Onno and Arjan at Ciel Bleu?
Onno Kokmeijer: It’s nice that you instantly mention Arjan and me as a team of chefs. Since the beginning, we’ve taken on this challenge as a team. I started my career at Ciel Bleu in 2002. But to be honest, I immediately knew this was something I didn’t want to do on my own. Before taking on this role at Hotel Okura Amsterdam I had been cooking at the highest level, but on a much smaller scale. A hotel of 18 rooms is simply totally different from a hotel that has no less than 300 rooms and a variety of restaurants. The latter requires more than just cooking, the perfect organisation is just as important. So I called Arjan to encourage him to join me at Ciel Bleu and so that’s what he did.
Arjan Speelman: Indeed, I was happy to join Onno’s team. But to be frank, it was a step in the dark.
Onno Kokmeijer: Back then there wasn’t happening much in Amsterdam when it comes to gastronomy. Rotterdam – where the approach of chef Cees Helder at restaurant Parkheuvel was getting much attention – was more the place where things were moving. We were perceived as just two chefs who were hired to get a Michelin star at an ordinary restaurant in a fancy hotel. But that’s not how we saw it. From the beginning we’ve seen the bigger picture, our goals and the direction we would need to follow to achieve what we envisioned.
There was so much work to do. Both in the kitchen and the service, things had to be done differently. So we started off with six new chefs. Many of them have become very successful. The hotel was prepared to invest substantially in the restaurant and at the same time they gave us the trust to follow our own path. When we received the first Michelin star in 2005, just two years after we had opened, we knew we were on the right track.
Chef’s Secret: But your ambitions only got bigger after getting that first star?
Onno Kokmeijer: Definitely. Things were moving in the culinary landscape back then. There was much to do about some very good chefs who decided to quit their jobs at renowned restaurants in Amsterdam. But that was also the moment when we got that recognition from Michelin. It gave us more visibility and more guests, so it was a good time to talk about our future plans with Mr Van Aelst, the former General Manager of Hotel Okura Amsterdam. We knew we wanted to strive for more, for the best. Luckily the hotel management believed in us, so they provided us with the necessary resources to take things to the next level.
The interior of the restaurant got fully refurbished, our current maître Pasquinel Kolk (who worked at restaurant Merlet before) joined the team and the renowned sommelier Noël Vanwittenbergh (ex-The Grand) also came to work at Ciel Bleu. It was the ideal moment to optimize the service in our restaurant. In the kitchen we promoted Arjan from Sous Chef to Chef de Cuisine, and we gave our best young chefs the opportunity to develop their talent by increasing their responsibilities. One year later, our efforts were rewarded with a second Michelin star. And we’ve stayed ambitious ever since.
Chef’s Secret: What’s the philosophy and style of Ciel Bleu? What do you stand for?
Onno Kokmeijer: Our philosophy is to bring the best from all over the world to Amsterdam and to present it in a refined, balanced and flavourful manner. Passion and finesse can be tasted in every plate. Just like our guests, our cuisine is international. Our guests simply want the best of the best, and that’s what we want to offer. We know that it might be trendy to work with local produce as much as possible. And although we do use top quality products from local suppliers, that’s not our single focus. However we do have much respect for other chefs who cook with only local produce and recipes, like Joris Bijdendijk at RIJKS for example.
Arjan Speelman: It’s all about flavour. That’s the best way to bring our philosophy to our guests. That’s also why we’ve decided to stop the à la carte offering and to focus on our set menus. However we still want the guest to be able to choose, so we present two different menus and one caviar menu.
Onno Kokmeijer: We had noticed that guests rely on us to give them the perfect fine dining experience. So when entering the restaurant, we limit the amount of questions (e.g. Which menu do you prefer?, What would you like to drink?, Where would you like to sit?, and so on) to a minimum, so they can focus on the experience. We’re happy that our guests are flexible and that they can afford the best quality. And we must say we’ve only had positive feedback after changing things to our current menu offering. We do everything we can to give our guests the best experience, so we even take into account the weather forecast when working on the menu. Nearly every two weeks some dishes might change, as we know guests like some foods less or better when it’s cold or hot outside. And that’s also why we launched our book Guestronomy (written by Jurriaan Geldermans). It’s not about what you want as a chef. It’s about what the guests like. In the past years we’ve been cooking from that guest’s perspective, which is a shift from the traditional approach. So we decided to write a book about it.
Chef’s Secret: Don’t you think that the decision to serve only menus and no à la carte dishes might be risky, regarding to your ambitions to get a third Michelin star?
Onno Kokmeijer: No, I don’t think this decision would have an impact on getting that third star or not. We still offer three menus, so our guests have a choice. We’re fully focussed on giving our guests the best experience, and we truly believe that’s something they really appreciate. There are many examples of three star chefs who decided to serve only one menu, while most two star chefs are a bit cautious or even afraid to make that decision. We decided to give it a go and to learn from the feedback. And we must say we haven’t had any negative reactions. Our guests seem to like the approach and we’re confident that we can reach our goals if we keep working hard enough.
Chef’s Secret: What have been the most important milestones in your careers?
Onno Kokmeijer: I think it’s all about continuity and balance. The past 16 years we’ve been working very hard to get Ciel Bleu to the best level. And recently we’ve been asked to develop the culinary strategy and the implementation for the Elements restaurant at Hotel Okura Bangkok as well. In general we can say the F&B-offering at hotels has become much more important since the recession back in 2008. It helps of course that The Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular is really booming when it comes to gastronomy. About 80% of our clientele is international – both business and leisure guests – so Amsterdam has become a top destination for travellers that love top notch fine dining.
Chef’s Secret: Arjan and Onno, you work as a team. How do you divide the tasks and roles?
Arjan Speelman: Onno is the Executive Chef (or ‘patron’), who also manages much of the organisational aspects of the restaurant and the administration. I’m more involved in the management of the kitchen, including innovation, quality control and team management.
Onno Kokmeijer: It’s always a matter of collaborating, that’s how we create and perform the best.
Chef’s Secret: Isn’t it difficult to see that your team is always changing? Talented chefs often go chase their own dreams, starting their own businesses, after having been trained at Ciel Bleu.
Arjan Speelman: Saying goodbye is part of the job. We’re very proud of our team and to see what they have established. For our anniversary last year we had invited our former colleagues to cook together at a unique dinner called Chef’s Favourites. These young chefs are Ciel Bleu ambassadors, they promote us as well by doing what they do since they have been trained here.
Onno Kokmeijer: We’re lucky enough to have a good team. We have people on board that have already been working here for many years and we’re always open to provide them with new opportunities so they can take the next step in their career. They can get the opportunity to develop their management, service or cooking skills at our brasserie Serre for example. And if they’re ready they can start at Ciel Bleu. Developing your organisational skills and discipline is often a challenge in the hospitality sector, so once they master that, they’re ready to bring the same perfection in the plates and the service. The service is just as important as the cuisine as it’s the link between the cooking and the guests.
Chef’s Secret: Where do you find the inspiration to come up with new culinary creations in every menu, especially given the fact that you want everything to be perfect?
Arjan Speelman: It’s a challenge to innovate continuously, that’s certainly true. I believe it’s very important to be involved in the service and cooking process every day. But it can be difficult to find the time to develop new dishes. Sometimes new recipes just seem to emerge, and then it’s a matter of working on the new ideas to perfect them. Our Chef’s Table is a great place to test new dishes, as we accommodate many regular guests or people that are open to new experiences there.
Onno Kokmeijer: We also believe some dishes can be put back on the menu when the main ingredients are in the season. But we’re always trying to improve and optimise that dish. Many guests are disappointed when they come back and their favourite dish is no longer available. For us it’s key to guarantee top quality and that criteria plays an important role in determining what is put on the menu and what is not.
Chef’s Secret: Do you have a favourite ingredient or signature dish?
Onno Kokmeijer: There are three elements that define Ciel Bleu’s signature style: an international approach – looking for the best products and preparations from all over the world –, herbs and spices (which refers to the history of The Netherlands and its Golden Age in the 16th Century) and a subtle homage to the Japanese heritage of Okura.
Arjan Speelman: Our signature dish is our king crab. It has been on the menu since 2007 and we’re still improving it continuously. Since everyone seemed to want to have that dish, we decided to serve it as
an appetizer, so it can be integrated in all menus we offer.
The build-up in the menu is something that also characterizes a dining experience at Ciel Bleu. We start with fish and seafood and add up the flavour every course, which is logical looking at the large number of courses. Our pigeon in a crust of salt – the last course before cheese and dessert – is also one of the signature dishes. In any case the ingredients in the dish must be recognisable both in looks and taste. At Ciel Bleu we serve ‘real dishes’, with a good portion of fish or meat, instead of serving a tiny piece of fish with too many condiments and garnishing.
Chef’s Secret: What do you find the most difficult in your profession?
Onno Kokmeijer: Every day is like winning a contest. You have to keep your whole team motivated and we have to rely on young people. Today we see many young chefs who are very inspired by social media or tv shows like Chef’s Table, yet they lack the skills to execute the exciting preparations they’ve discovered via that new media. And that’s why we need to help the younger generation in developing their skills and techniques, so they can create what they have in mind. Besides a change in skills there’s also a change in mentality. Working in a restaurant is a very hard job with long hours, and unfortunately we see that many people drop out. So to care for our team is our strongest motivation.
Chef’s Secret: And what do you like most about cooking?
Arjan Speelman: Being a chef is my way of life. My wife is a chef as well and everything I do is related to cooking. The moment you don’t like it anymore, you need to quit. It’s as simple as that.
Chef’s Secret: No lack of culinary awards at Ciel Bleu. Two Michelin stars, the award for Chef of the Year, Best Sommelier, and so on. How important are the awards and positive reviews?
Onno Kokmeijer: It tickles you and it’s the best PR you could ask for with many new guests and job candidates as a result. Last year we’ve won almost everything there was to win, so that was great but also a bit surreal. The awards and recognition keep on motivating us to strive for more, day after day. We stay ambitious, but we always keep in mind that it’s about the guests and not about us.
Chef’s Secret: What are your further dreams and ambitions?
Onno Kokmeijer: Our goal is clear. We want that third Michelin star and we’ll do everything we can to get there. That’s why we decided the reduce the number of seats in the restaurant to only 40 to 45, while we used to serve up to 70 people on busy nights in the past. If you really want to treat your guests with the perfect service – what is expected by our clientele – you need to make sure your team can manage it. And we have seen that less seats doesn’t have to mean less revenue, as a more attentive service will encourage people to try new or extra food and drinks. So we believe the brave choice to have less people in the restaurant is better for everyone. Our team is much more relaxed and the guests are pampered like never before.
Ciel Bleu Experience, Guestronomy or Caviar Menu
At Ciel Bleu they offer two extensive menus: the Experience and the Guestronomy Menu. Both menus consist of mouthwatering creations that continuously change depending on best quality and availability of products during the seasons. There’s also a third menu with caviar in a leading role.
A full flavour experience is also the key at Ciel Bleu when it comes to wine. There’s a selection of the most exclusive wines – a harmonious complement to refined cuisine – to be enjoyed. The expert sommeliers are always on hand to give personal advice. In addition to a selection of classics from major wine regions, sommelier Noël Vanwittenbergh has come up with a wide range of innovative wines, especially from up-and-coming wine estates in the New World. The gustatorial expertise of Noël Vanwittenbergh has not been left unnoticed: Ciel Bleu received the ‘Best of Award of Excellence’ by Wine Spectator, an award created to give special recognition to restaurants that exceed the requirements of the Award of Excellence, and the sommelier Noël Vanwittenbergh has also won the Michelin Award Sommelier Netherlands 2019.
We start the menu with an exciting selection of aperitif bites, ‘influenced by a love of travel’.
First stop: Vienna, presenting gugelhopf, olive & za’atar.
Next is Amsterdam with a sort of croquette made of celeriac, bay leaf and cassia.
Off to Aachen with forest mushroom, tarragon and five spice.
In Ghent we sample head cheese, foie gras and allspice.
From Saint-Tropez there’s lobster, fennel and malabar pepper.
Osaka is represented by a creation of dorade royale, shiso leaf & clove.
Last stop: Tromsø, showcasing Ciel Bleu’s signature dish made of king crab, Baerii caviar and ‘beurre blanc’ ice cream.
Dutch shrimp, Oscietra caviar and flat beans make up the first starter.
Next we have lobster, rhubarb, coriander and tandoori.
The last dish with fish is turbot with salty vegetables, pear and mace whole.
The main course is another signature dish of Ciel Bleu: pigeon Miéral ‘prepared in salt crust’ with pistachio, pomegranate and trappeur spices.
The first dessert is made of lychee, Earl Grey tea and spiced Scotch ale.
An extra dish is made of green apple, buttermilk, caramel and spices.
Cacao 52%, liqueur ‘Advocaat’, caramel and spices are the perfect end of an amazing menu.
Tea and coffee are up last, combined with fine creative mignardises packed in a gift box, and Ciel Bleu’s famous apple pie. All pastry is freshly baked when the service starts, and that’s something you’ll taste instantly.