What’s in a Name?
Chef Ries Helsdingen of Qué Pasa? Is Breaking Culinary Barriers with his Caribbean, Asian, South American and European Cuisine.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
Don’t be fooled by the name, the casual-leaning menu and décor or
the low prices; the international food
at Qué Pasa? is a cut above.
Chef Ries Helsdingen laughs at me when I ask him why he won’t be going home to Holland any time soon. “The weather here. It’s better than Holland,” he says. “And I have an Aruban wife and child now.” All good reasons, especially when you have creative license as the chef of one of the best downtown Oranjestad restaurants.
His job includes exploring a world of cuisine and turning his curiosity into a menu featuring anything from Caribbean sweet potato-crusted pan-fried grouper with passion fruit sauce to Indonesian chicken saté to creamy vegetarian truffle pasta and his daughter’s favorite lasagna.
And despite being located in a 100-year-old heritage building on the Wilhelminastraat, there isn’t a hint of stuffiness. Vintage Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson and Pepsi-Cola posters, Aruban license plates and signs with encouraging phrases such as “Friends don’t let friends drink alone” decorate the coral stone walls. Who needs silk linens when you have a rainbow of upside-down flowers hanging from the entryway’s ceiling, and stained glass windows and drawers painted with a cornucopia of vegetables behind the bar?
Be warned – those flowers might start looking right-side-up after one of Bartender Gerry’s English Garden cocktail: a deceptively stiff concoction of Hendrick’s gin, apple juice, simple syrup, cucumber, apple and a squeeze of lime. It’s 50 percent off at the daily happy hour (rather, two hours of happy) from 4 to 6 p.m.
Before guests started arriving and before he had to go check the lemongrass and Kaffir lime chicken for that evening’s special, Chef Helsdingen took a break at a high top to talk culinary inspiration, his wife’s favorite dish and how he ended up on Aruba.
How did you end up at Qué Pasa?
I did cooking school in Holland and I was looking for a job outside of the country. Divi was recruiting, so I worked there for one-and-a-half years, then three-and-a-half years at Screaming Eagle before a friend I knew from a restaurant in Holland called me and asked if I’d like to work here at QuéPasa?.
How would you describe your menu?
It’s international fusion. We have a lot of European, Asian, Caribbean and South American.
What are some of your bestselling dishes?
The most popular dishes are the specials and anything with fish, like the grilled scallops, the pan-fried shrimp ajillo – shrimp with garlic – and the fresh mahi-mahi with home-made teriyaki sauce, sweet potato fries and banana cakes. The cakes are like fried plantains but I cook them for an hour with chicken stock, then smash them and mix them with flour, eggs and spices and make them crispy in the deep-fryer. The sweet potato fries are crispy from being breaded in flour, too.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
I like to cook everything. Like the hanger steak, it’s also called a “butcher’s steak” in English. It’s more flavorful and juicy than a tenderloin.
What do you cook at home?
I never cook at home! I get one day off, so I go out for dinner. I like to go to Café the Plaza for the chicken livers.
Qué Pasa? has a lot of weekly events, like Monday night tapas. What’s on the menu?
It’s four tapas and a glass of sangria for $29.50. The menu is different every week. Last week was mussels in garlic sauce, a smoked salmon bomba, a beef short rib with smoked mushroom sauce and shrimp in blue cheese sauce.
What’s a bomba?
It’s a thick-cut piece of smoked salmon wrapped around a potato and green salad and shaped into a ball, then served with caper dressing.
In addition to the daily happy hour, you have a daily Florin-for-U.S. dollar deal?
Yes, it’s also from 4 to 6 p.m. You save about 40 percent by paying in Florins.
Why do you love working at Qué Pasa?
I love cooking. And I like that I can make specials every two or three days. There’s really a motivation in that. I also love seeing local people coming back. There’s this one guy who’s very nice and always wants the beef tips, so I make them special for him even if they’re not on the menu that night.
What’s your wife’s favorite dish?
My wife likes the tenderloin. It comes with a choice of sauce and side and she gets it with mushroom sauce and French fries.
Why should people come here if they’re not staying downtown?
The prices, the cocktails, the food and the service. You won’t regret it.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received at the restaurant?
When people tell me it’s the best food they’ve ever eaten on the island. There’s no better compliment than that.
Restaurant – Art Gallery & Bar