Low-Key Excellence in a High-Rise Forest
► A Q&A with Chef / Owner Patrick van der Donk of Amuse Sunset Restaurant Aruba
It has been many years since you were last in France. That may not be true but it seemed that way last night when you ordered another bottle of wine in a moment of infatuation. This morning you woke up swearing it would be many more years before you returned to France.
— By Timothy Dugdale
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
But now, after a nap on the train, you’re back on holiday. The train pulls into a small unsung town along the French Riviera. Hard to believe but the conductor tells you the train is ailing and is being put out of service. You exit the station, knowing you have to wait three hours for the next express back to Nice. You go down to the harbor. Everything looks well shut, except for a small restaurant with blue awnings and a casual air about it.
“Are you still serving lunch?”
The man at the door shrugs. “Why not? I’m always ready to cook.”
You sit down. You order the smoked duck with croutons and truffle mayonnaise and then the duck ravioli crammed with gorgeous confit and set in a beautiful mushroom sauce. lt is a meal that cures your sour mood and will be the highlight of your trip.
That man may as well be Patrick van der Donk, the owner and chef of Amuse Bistro. His menu embraces classic French cuisine. Van der Donk is not doing business, however, in a quaint French village. He’s in the belly of the beast that is Palm Beach. In the winter, his clientele includes habitual visitors to Aruba who are habitual visitors to the finer restaurants of New York. They have a quick and certain eye for his five-course tasting specials, a classic adventure that calls for patience and is rewarded with some of the finest cooking on the island.
In the summer, van der Donk must entice a different clientele. They eat fast and they eat to win. They want more and are unforgiving when presented with less. Van der Donk learned this the hard way. When he opened Amuse three years ago, after a successful run manning the kitchen at Flying Fishbone in Savaneta, van der Donk offered a simple tapas menu. Much grousing ensued. Necessity is the mother of invention and van der Donk expanded the menu and let Amuse begin to drift into the upper echelons of Aruba’s dining market. “I worked at two Michelin-starred restaurants in Holland so that altitude is in my blood,” he notes. “But we’re still very open, very approachable.”
TD: How do you smoke that duck? It’s a masterpiece.
PVDD: We have a little round smoker that’s manual. It’s simple but effective. I’d like to try doing other things with it.
TD: You don’t do lunch?
PVDD: We are only open for dinner. We are next to the beach and it’s only my guess but people are sitting in the bikinis and Speedos and don’t want to go out and eat a fancy meal and let it stew inside. They want a hamburger.
TD: Go back to your room for a shag, a drink, a power nap.
PVDD: Exactly what you do on a vacation.
TD: When you look at the menu as a whole, it’s not too big. Have you designed it around your food costs and your sourcing?
PVDD: For me, it’s a pretty big menu, especially considering the size of my kitchen. We’re doing the menu with only three or four cooks. Every dish has its own character, its own accompaniment. That means there is a lot of preparation.
TD: Ideally you’d like to have a smaller menu.
PVDD: Oh yeah. We are going to make it smaller so we’ll have the ability to go more with the seasons.
TD: So you’ll keep the classic Amuse and the larger dishes and then use the chef specials for experiments.
PVDD: Let me tell you something. Cooking on Aruba is a terrible thing. I was just in New York and it’s amazing the inspiration you get from all the other restaurants there, not to mention all the great markets.
TD: You drive just outside the city and there’s all kinds of farms raising great produce and great animals.
PVDD: It’s the same thing in Holland. We have restaurants there that will only go 30km away from their place to look for ingredients. No further. Very, very local. If you want to eat something outside of that region, you go to another restaurant. And you eat a totally different menu.
On Aruba, because everything comes off the island, it is very hard to be inspired. You have to work the Web, you have to talk to your fellow restaurant owners, you have to travel. If you want to order nice stuff, you have to manage the clock. From Holland, it takes a week. And then you have to build that expense into the menu. That’s why Aruba is so expensive.
TD: What do you see as the future for food production and locavore culture, then, on Aruba?
PVDD: In Holland, you see a lot of hydroponic growing. Cactus grows very well in Aruba but that’s where it stops.
TD: Amuse is a very warm, inviting place. Tell me about what you do with your staff to promote hospitality.
PVDD: When you have servers come over here from Europe, they go nuts. It’s very fast here, there’s no time to build a relationship over a long dinner. People want their food and get out. That means a lot of stress on the kitchen.
TD: It’s like YouTube and the relentless posting of concert videos. Musicians have no room to breathe or make an occasional mistake. People are defeating their own pleasure.
PVDD: That’s why we encourage people to make a reservation so that they can really enjoy a great meal, relax, take their time. We want them to have the best we can offer them. During the high season, that’s when we get a lot of people who do exactly that.
TD: Is there any dish that you make that is Aruban?
PVDD: We have a Caribbean Rock Lobster but really for us to be strong, we have to do what we do very well. And I do think there are a lot of restaurants that get a bit confused in the Caribbean way of cooking. I’m not a big fan of putting fruit in sauces or main courses.
TD: Where do you see Amuse Bistro in two years?
PVDD: I would like to have a spot away from here. Perhaps a house, with parking, so we become a real destination, a night out. We could really focus on beautiful wines to complement the 3- and 5-course dinners. Perhaps 40 or 50 seats. A place where everything is balanced and controlled and you can send out the very best of the kitchen night after night.