Interview Brian Boswijk / Vuurtoren eiland
"Just trust in your own idea."
A creative wanderer with an audacious character and relentless drive that find expression in adventurous restaurants, Brian Boswijk and his creations continue to enrich Amsterdam. After wowing diners with Mamouche, Amsterdam Plage, Interdit, ‘11’, restaurant As and Trouw, he outdid himself with his current venture: Vuurtoreneiland, a close-to-nature culinary experience on an island just outside Amsterdam. Few peaks escape a crash, though. Not only did Boswijk lose Vuurtoreneiland in a fire, he also discovered he needed to re-examine his very being. “I’m like a boxer who always rises at the count of 9. It’s in my nature, and constitutes the ultimate battle with myself,” he says.
Interview Dorien Franken Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
You’re considered something of an adventurer. Were you one as a kid, too? Yes. My most treasured memories from my youth have to do with adventure: strolling through forests and along rocky shores with the nervous anticipation of what you might discover, hoping it might be something like a wooden castle. When we lived in England, my dad lived in the former livery stable of a country house, on a huge estate with its own woods. That was a big adventure.
You lived in England? I’ve lived in lots of places. I was born in Rotterdam, where we lived on a farm with sheep and horses along the Maas river — it was idyllic. We also lived in Amsterdam for a bit, but I moved to England with my brother and my mum when I was seven and my parents got divorced. That’s where she was born and she wanted to live closer to her family. In retrospect, my parents never really worked as a couple. I think they had a period of being in love, but in the six years we had as a family I mostly recall quarrels and stress. My mum was physically exhausted by the time they split up. My dad got his act together and came after us, but they couldn’t patch things up.
How did that affect you? It was a lot to take. I had to keep up a brave front and be Olaf’s big brother. We couldn’t have a cathartic cry — there just wasn’t room for it. Experiences like these contribute to your resilience later in life, but the flipside of this capacity is that you tend to bottle things up instead of asking for help.
How did you find moving to another country at such a young age? Terrifying. I still remember my first day at school. There you are all of a sudden and everybody’s speaking to you in English, some of which I understood because my mum is British, but not enough to say a word in response. It was quite intimidating, and I was relieved when we returned to the Netherlands three years later, where I felt a lot more comfortable. I felt freer here. I was immediately enrolled at a Montessori school in a new residential neighbourhood, and didn’t have to wear a school uniform.
“I was a smart kid, but school didn’t bring out the best in me; I found it boring and lacking in adventure.”
How would people have described you as a kid? Smart, adventurous, creative, sensitive and incredibly stubborn. I could also be a bit of a spoiled brat. I’d often defend my opinion even after I knew I was wrong.
What did your parents do for a living, and how did they influence your character? My mum is natural healer. She’s seventy now, and still plays the violin; she’s always been musical. I inherited my love of music from her. My dad is a jack-of-all-trades. He’s been a wine dealer, a door-to-door salesman when things weren’t going well, but he found his swing working as an independent management consultant, which involves a programme he uses to research the ‘experience’ economy. He’s a real entrepreneur, a go-getter, and I got some of that from him.
He wasn’t especially keen on my switch to the restaurant business. It wasn’t until he had lunch at my first restaurant project Interdit in an old warehouse, that I sensed his approval of what I was doing and his pride in me for doing it. That marked a significant turning point in our relationship, but we still don’t call each other as often as we should, which is typical of us — he and I are equally bad at keeping in touch.
How did you train for the business? I’ve got a HAVO diploma from the LOI College [self-study programme]. I was a smart kid, but school didn’t bring out the best in me; I found it boring and lacking in adventure. So I devoted my attention to everything but my studies. And then to show the world that I was actually capable, I breezed through my HAVO, and didn’t stop there: I'm almost qualified to teach yoga, and I’ve also taken a maritime training course. I love learning, just not in a classroom.
How did your interest in catering and the restaurant business develop? When I was 16, my brother and I got these awesome temp jobs through an employment agency. It involved helping out in one of the beach clubs at Bergen aan Zee during beach volleyball tournaments. The guys that owned the club asked us to come and work for them. And then while serving behind the bar one blazing hot 35-degree Saturday, surrounded by thirsty customers standing three deep, the penny dropped. We manned the beach club for another couple of seasons and have remained in the restaurant industry ever since.
“We had 80 people tucking into their starters when the police turned up. Our license wasn’t valid, apparently, and they ordered us to stop serving immediately.”
What was your first independently owned restaurant project? That was Interdit, a pop-up restaurant I set up in 2003 with three friends, Tido, Niels and James. Interdit was about serving fantastic food in extreme venues without a license. It was basically an illegal restaurant. We opened in a former discotheque; but we also occupied an old warehouse at one point, one of those places where you have to watch out for pigeon shit. We set up tables and chairs and served six-course meals, and were gone again within a week. We usually got the word out by text messaging all our friends and acquaintances, and the news would spread like wildfire. We earned almost nothing — maybe 500 euros per person per week — but it was fun. I realized then that the appeal of eating out had little to do with fancy decoration and chic cocktails; it was about people.
Any setbacks? Of course. One time, we were three days in at the old warehouse and had 80 people tucking into their starters when the police turned up who ordered us to stop serving immediately. But we already had reservations for the entire week, so I dashed to the neighbouring warehouse, which had an empty basement, and we were up and running again within a day. An insane thing to pull off, but it worked. You just have to carry on. If you want a 'yes', then 'no' is not an option.
You seem to have a knack for repurposing old venues in far-flung places, such as the former post office building (now demolished, unfortunately), which you repurposed as became ‘11’, before doing something similar in the former printing press of the Trouw newspaper building in Amsterdam. What’s the attraction? These old buildings lay bare the passage of time and the accumulation of character. I don’t stroll around town with preconceived ideas of where I’d like to set up, but when I spot an interesting old building, it often triggers location-specific ideas. For ’11’, we thought it’d be interesting to fuse modern art and nightlife, two activities that in the zeitgeist of that particular period had been moving closer and closer together. It was, incidentally, a somewhat improbable undertaking.
Improbable in what way? We were asked if we’d be interested in setting up a catering business on the 11th floor. The Stedelijk Museum would be using the rest of the building as a temporary base while its permanent home was under renovation. Fine. But an asbestos clean-up was underway, and we were expected to open in May, though wouldn’t have access to the building till March. Absurd. We’re talking about committing to a two-year operation in a 1,500m2 space under these conditions.
“You need to be able to think creatively about how to get the job done. No one’s going to hand solutions to you on a plate.”
You took it on anyway, which takes guts. No safe choices for you. Yes, that's indeed so. But you don’t do things like this to show you’ve got guts. You go for it because you believe in it.
Besides perseverance, what other qualities are important? You need to be able to think creatively about how to get the job done. No one’s going to hand solutions to you on a plate. You need young people who have what it takes to get things done, and you need some wise heads to help you guard against the biggest potential mistakes. And then you have to make your own plan.
As you did. In 2011, you, your wife, Ester, and your two children sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Where did you get this idea? I’d dreamt of sailing the world since I was a kid. And after ‘11’ and Trouw, I needed a break. Ester came into my life, we had two children, I bought a boat with the profits from ‘11’, and we looked at each other one day and said: “Let’s go travelling, discover beaches and meet new people.” Ester had once travelled to China by bus, so we had wanderlust in common.
Did the trip go as planned? No. The first months of the trip were exhausting. My expectations had been too idealistic. In reality, you’re not carried along gently by trade winds while being entertained by dolphins. It's seriously hard work. Plus, we were making the trip in one of those old wooden schooners for that 19th-century feeling, but I soon found out that this was far too ambitious an idea. The boat was quite a lot for me to steer alone. We were buffeted by opposing winds and Ester got really seasick. We’d underestimated how much money we’d need, and so couldn’t afford to dock, and the weather was awful. I began to think: “Christ almighty, can we actually carry on?” Now that’s the kind of thing that tests your capacity to endure. Things got better once Ester recovered, and we arrived in Grenada (from Cape Verde) on Christmas day.
That’s quite an experience. What was the most important lesson you drew from it? That I needed to stop worrying so much and relax more. I’m quite anxious by nature, which is the last thing you’d expect from someone who does what I do. The experience brought us closer together as a family, and I have Ester to thank for that. My natural inclination is to try to plan everything, whereas she’s a more ‘let’s take things as they come’ kind of person. She can derive enormous pleasure from playing with the kids and making things with them all day long. And you really need that when you’re cooped up on a boat.
“While we were at sea, my dad mailed me a newspaper article that said: “Island for sale”. I was immediately intrigued.”
Such trips demand careful preparation. How unprepared were you? I didn’t really have everything mentally under control. I wasn’t relaxed enough and didn’t have enough confidence in myself, the boat or in Ester, all of which made me worry enough to strain the atmosphere on the boat. But I soon learned that we don’t actually need much as a family and that we’re quite capable of doing just fine beyond the confines of how we normally operate. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean is a pretty major undertaking, but we did it, the four of us together, and were at sea for a whole year and a half.
You seem to have a thing for small spaces because shortly after your trip, you bought and moved to Vuurtoreneiland, where you now run a restaurant. The national forest service put it out to tender in 2012 and attracted more than 300 proposals. What was the attraction for you and your business partner, Sander Overeinder? While we were at sea, my dad mailed me a newspaper article that said: “Island for sale”. I was immediately intrigued. Sander, with whom I had run Amsterdam Plage, ‘11’ and Restaurant As, had already spent 10 – 15 years exploring the idea of preparing meals from ingredients sourced from local farms, meals seasoned with nothing but natural herbs and spices, meat dishes that used every part of an animal, serving home-baked bread, etc. And that’s precisely what this island represented: an opportunity to keep meals as close to nature as possible. It took a while to convince Sander that this could really work. He wanted to be sure it was feasible and not just another one of “Boswijk’s” crazy ideas.
It turned out to be a sound idea. How did your plan take shape? It was during the trip that I got the idea of dining in a greenhouse on food prepared in a wood-burning oven. And that was the starting point of our proposal. We received a thick tome spelling out an astonishing number of conditions and requirements that you had to meet to be even considered a candidate. We were allowed a single visit to the island, which we found absurd — that’s nowhere near enough to get a good feel for a place. But we gave it a shot anyway. Besides, I had nothing else to work on. I didn’t have anything waiting for me when we got back, and we’d run out of money, so this was a sort of do-or-die moment. I didn’t want to have to acknowledge that I could have arranged things more carefully. So this had to work.
You had a lot riding on this. Oh absolutely. If it’d failed, I’m not sure Ester and I would have made it. I really do take irresponsibly huge risks. I’m starting to realise that I don’t need the rush of repeatedly betting everything on red; that one should also enjoy the journey. I’m slowly learning to trust the system. I'm learning and my approach to things is becoming less fraught with drama, but I’m not quite there yet [bellows with laughter].
What did the forest service think of the idea? It was all very formal in the beginning. Any questions had to be submitted in written form, so we hardly ever saw them. Sander and I weren’t holding out much hope. So we were stunned when they agreed to our suggestion to run a 12-week pilot. We launched the pilot, people loved it, the Parool newspaper wrote about it, and the next thing we knew we were fully booked.
“I was at home when the phone rang: “The island is on fire.” I arrived to find that everything had gone up in smoke.”
You’ve had your share of setbacks, too. The original restaurant burned to the ground. It did, and it was quite a blow. I was at home when the phone rang: “The island is on fire.” We lived in Spaarndam at the time. Ester worked in the restaurant, but I couldn’t get hold of her that evening. So I breathed a sigh of relief when she arrived home unscathed, and jumped straight in the car and arrived to find that everything had gone up in smoke. That’s that then, I thought. But the forest service’s response was so cool: “Shit happens. We’ve had other log cabins burn to the ground, so get this cleaned up and we’ll sort something out.” And that created a bond of mutual trust, followed shortly after by a vote of confidence from the public. Half of those with reservations said they’d rather wait to dine with us when we were back on our feet than take a refund. And a year later, we were open again.
How did the experience affect you as a human being? It made me feel very responsible. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it was a hell of a blow to absorb. It’s in my nature to carry on, though. I’m like a boxer who always rises at the count of 9. I never accept defeat, which is in my nature, and constitutes the ultimate battle with myself. Thus I won’t be defeated by something like that fire, but I also refuse to be defeated when the staff takes last orders early on a slow Tuesday night. I’m too demanding of those around me, too much of a control freak. I need to learn to trust more. The place burned down and things turned out fine, so a slow Tuesday night will probably turn out okay, too.
You and your family have since moved to the island. It sounds idyllic, but is it? On the one hand, it’s absolutely wonderful, because we live on an incredibly beautiful island that allows us to create our own world, and on which the kids are free to run around, look for snakes, and so on. On the other hand, it creates serious complications. The constant and necessary trips to the mainland can make you feel a bit like a logistics manager. I have to ask Ester several times each day about her plans for the day, because once I take the boat, she’s stuck on the island.
“Just trust in your own idea. Don’t spend too much time gazing at what others are doing and take charge if you find yourself being blown off course.”
Is that the main thing people overlook when they imagine what it might be like? Yes. It is very demanding and much more so than people might expect. The team arrives at noon and doesn’t leave until midnight, so there are always people around. The minute you think you can relax, you can count on something happening that needs your attention. Or there’s thick fog, or my best friend’s coming to dinner and I can’t get out of it to chill on the sofa. So then it’s off to the restaurant again.
Which aspects of being an entrepreneur do you find difficult? The day-to-day running of a company is not my greatest strength. I’m not very good at mentoring people, setting clear frameworks for learning and letting people make mistakes. I set the bar too high and expect people to reach it far too quickly. Perhaps I expect people to turn into perfect copies of me, and that's not a good thing. So we’re hiring an operational manager, which will leave me free to think up ideas and keep the orchestra together.
What advice would you give someone considering the leap into the uncertain waters of self-employment? Just trust in your own idea. Don’t spend too much time gazing at what others are doing. You have to create the world you want to create. You can fly to the moon in 10 years if that’s what you feel like doing, but then you need to start laying the groundwork now. And take charge if you find yourself being blown off course. I just remembered as I said that that I once offered advice in the hospitality industry, and I was rubbish at it.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Empathise more with others, and base your decisions more on what you need. But more importantly: enjoy the journey and don’t focus solely on your destination.
You’ve initiated lots of projects. Anything new in the pipeline? No. I’m concentrating solely on the restaurant and the island. We’ve signed a 30-year lease with the forest service, so we won’t be leaving anytime soon. The only other ongoing project is myself. I've lost a lot of my old lack of inhibition, you know that pure feeling of joy that you have as a kid, that easy happiness … I’ve lost quite a bit of this on account of being an entrepreneur and because of all the things you experience over the years as a result, and I’d like to find it again. And as I mentioned earlier, I need to trust more, so that I can let others make what they will of the music I hear in my head. And allow myself to discover that it can still sound great.