Sergio Herman On Perfection And Surviving In Restaurant Kitchens
On his recent trip to Hong Kong, Sergio Herman dropped his luggage as soon as he arrived at his hotel, and headed straight into the kitchen of Le Pan, Goldin Dining Group’s French fine-dining establishment where he and chef Edward Voon were due to present a dining collaboration that very night. Even then, the 48-year-old chef showed no sign of jet lag, and even had time to sit down with us to discuss how he survived decades in the food business, and his secrets for being a successful chef in today’s kitchens.
Born in 1970, Sergio Herman gained exposure to cuisine at a young age, “I was very little when my parents took me out on weekends to enjoy good food,” he tells us. When I was 13, I signed on to work in my parents’ restaurants, where I did every dirty job in the kitchen, I then attended culinary school in Belgium for two years – it was the best time of my training where we learned the basics first and background on Classic French cooking. “
The collaboration between Herman and Voon was the result of a miraculous coincidence. “I met Edward on my first night. Over late supper we chatted about cooking and philosophy. I had a good feeling about working with him,” says Herman. Voon’s talents reminded him of how he began in the business. “When I started in 1990 at my father’s Oud Sluis in Zeeland, I had a lot of pride and wanted to be creative and invent all the time while trying to polish my cooking style. There was quite a bit of showing off too. After close to three decades of cooking and managing restaurants, I am reducing my style to focus on appetite and palate, and stay close to oneself. I can conclude that my cuisine today is more balanced than I have ever made it to be, and it never felt so good doing it this way. It is good to see at a young age, [Voon] is already heading in that direction.”
Aside from being creative in the kitchen, Herman is a pioneer of the modern French trend he practises. “Creativity aside, I think it is crucial to start from yourself, by polishing your own taste palate and to feed your curiosity in what you eat and how you eat them,” he explains. “I believe knowing your palate banks in the money and the future of your own cuisine. Ingredients are important, but you need an emotional element – your feelings and connection the chef needs to have with the food he cooks, and the guests should feel it in your food." This connection is unique and nobody can change it, or call it inauthentic if you know how to present it. In short, evolving our style, is all about trusting your gut so that you can polish your style. Be close to yourself and you can conquer it all.”
Developing one’s own style isn’t the only thing chefs need to be successful, and Herman shares his two cents from personal experience. For one, Herman believes that regardless of whether you have or doesn’t have innate talent is irrelevant—you just have to push yourself to be better, and to grow, and be part of a team. “I feel that in all those years I have done enough good for my team to learn from my experience and create them on their own. I may be their leader most of the time, but at certain times I am also part of their team. Being a leader is not just about yelling in the kitchen and checking quality at the pass, it is about trust. You need to have their backs so they will have yours.”
and a half years of the chef's life leading up to the decision to close his esteemed restaurant Oud Sluis in 2013. The film showed the real struggles of Herman on a tight rope juggling a career of running a celebrated restaurant while keeping the standards at tip-top shape and trying to enjoy a family life outside of the kitchen. His quest for perfection in the kitchen eventually led to his decision to close his restaurant to chase yet another form of perfection for a better future. Despite his conquest for perfection, being in an unscripted film that showed not only his success but also weakness and an emotional side is something the chef knew all to well. “Being a chef has never been a sexy job, but it is a good thing to glamorise it because I think it is one of the best jobs in the world. The satisfaction lies in how you make guests happy by creating memories for them. The media helps others understand our business too. It is not always about yelling across the kitchen banging pans, or turning our perfect meals like you see from the screen. The fun of our business is beyond what you see. It’s about what you feel.”
As kitchen dynamics are different today, chefs live a very different life now as opposed to the times when Herman entered the business. Having experienced the hard training passed on from his father who was also the owner of Oud Sluis restaurant before Herman took over, the transition from being a subordinate to becoming the boss was inspiring but painful at times. and Herman had an epiphany on the change. “Shouting and swearing really are not always necessary in the kitchen setting. Young people are changing too. In the old days we did 18-19 hour days, but now you need rest, some down time where you communicate and chill out with them so they don’t get burned out. You want your chefs to stay in the business, not getting fed up the minute they hit a hurdle.”
After nearly three decades, Herman has the future in mind, and it may or may not involve being in front of the stove. “I am 48 now, and I want to cook for the rest of my life, but there is so much more I want to discover. I want to travel too. I used to think that being hardworking and focused is good in your life. It still is, but life is too short to chase only one goal. I think for the next 10 years I can still see myself inside the kitchen, but I’d quit the second I don’t feel the connection anymore.”
Outside of his restaurant kitchen setting, the happily married father of four is enjoying family time, where food plays a crucial role. “My kids are beginning to show appreciation for food, and they are eating the right food which we can be thankful for,” he says. “I’d cook Sunday dinner for them, with lots of vegetables and we would all eat together at the table.” Herman also has a special rule at the table when he is in charge. “There will be no mobile phones allowed. When we eat it will involve talking and sharing and often times we find ourselves engaging in it more than our screen times. It is all about conversations and food for us.” Family responsibilities have tamed Herman’s tantrum-throwing old self, and in many cases, his life outside of the kitchen is helping him connect to the life he is growing into, the same future he sees himself enjoying for decades to come.