By Jonathan Thompson, Dinner Party Critic
Schinkelkerk, Amsterdam: 8th October 2015
Erik van Loo is considered by many to be the most talented Dutch chef of his generation. So it’s a surprise to discover him slaving over a tiny oven in an old Church, 40 miles from his double Michelin-starred restaurant in Rotterdam.
But this is no ordinary Church – and no ordinary meal either. The handsome Schinkelkerk, towering over Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark, has been Timothy Oulton’s flagship European gallery since 2012. And tonight it’s hosting the latest dinner party on our global mission to revive the ancient art of hosting.
After the show-stopping glamour of China and the clandestine sorcery of the Blue Room in Los Angeles, this is a complete change of pace yet again. On a blustery autumnal evening in Amsterdam, the Schinkelkerk’s stern Victorian exterior appears somewhat imposing from the street. But within, all is warm and welcoming as champagne is poured, candles tremble and Holland’s design denizens mingle, excitedly discussing the evening’s menu.
Fittingly – considering the Dutch reputation for congeniality and laid back, unflappable cool – tonight’s theme is ‘Casual & Hearty’. And the place settings instantly communicate that: the chunky warmth of the wooden Museum Table is complemented by alternating dining chairs: black Angeles with their hand-applied studs alongside the homely oak and hand buffed leather of their Sansa stablemates.
Predictably – considering who’s doing the cooking – the food is delicious. Van Loo has prepared an astonishing feast, kicking off with lamb spare ribs and pork belly squares, served with confit of lemon. In keeping with the evening’s theme, this is very much a shared course: plates are passed and conversation sparked as a result. Soon, friendly chatter seasons the atmosphere from every side of the farmhouse-style table.
After a lipsmackingly perfect lobster soup (while conversation scuttles from William of Orange to West End Musicals), it’s time for the main event: Cote de boeuf served with crispy beef bacon. Van Loo is the son of a butcher and prides himself on his ‘real’ ingredients, so the meat is paraded before he cooks it – like a magician showing us the inside of a crate before he uses it to slice his assistant in two.
When it arrives, the beef is magic: rich and succulent and – yet again – served via sharing platters, with generous helpings of van Loo’s Vietnamese long pepper gravy. The selection of desserts which follows – presented exquisitely at a candlelit side table – is equally as delicious, if decidedly more delicate. (The raspberries filled with white chocolate mousse are undoubtedly the stand-out stars).
It wouldn’t be a dinner party without the “party” after the dinner and we all unwind comfortably around the Museum Table, leaning in and out of pools of light as we swap tales and perspectives while passing the Cognac. The atmosphere is so relaxed that it’s easy to forget we’re in a gallery, in an old Church – even in Amsterdam at all – as waves of laughter break across the old wood between us.
Tonight has been all about people coming together: plates shared and relationships built over good food in a welcoming environment. This is nobody’s home, but there’s a definite, tangible sense of belonging here.
Hosting is a craft. As with painting or playing a musical instrument, it takes practice and careful tuning. And based on tonight’s evidence, Timothy Oulton’s Dutch masters have it down to a fine art.