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Marente van der Valk

Freelance Chef and Food Designer, Maastricht, London

Marente van der Valk

Freelance Chef and Food Designer, Maastricht, London

Marente van der Valk

Freelance Chef and Food Designer, Maastricht, London

In this episode, Dutch chef Marente van der Valk prepares one of her recent favorite dishes. Her professional career started in product design, but quickly switched to the world of food. She worked in London for years, where she found an inspiring community aiming to connect people through food. Since the London culinary scene is an international melting pot of chefs from all over the world, the plates Marente serves are as diverse and eclectic as the people she works with, from The Guardian’s food styling team to migrant women of social enterprise Mazi Mas. In 2018, Marente embarked on a year-long residency at Van Eyck Academy’s Food Lab in Maastricht. Running the Food Lab enables her investigate new approaches and angles and creating flavorful dishes with lots of vegetables and seasonable products, prepared in a way that strives to have a minimal impact on the environment.

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Marente, when did your fascination with food start?

When I was a kid, my dad traveled to Indonesia a lot, helping a local community to set up a hotel, and he’d come back with recipes to cook for the family. He would use unusual ingredients and secret spice blends—unknown to me at the time. I think the exotic appealed to me even back then. Those were very precious moments.

On holidays in Spain, the strange foods you eat for the first time as a child, all those aromas and flavors you’d never tasted before... I loved that. Dishes like an entire rabbit cut into pieces and cooked on an open fire with fresh rosemary, paprika, peppers and garlic. I relished those discoveries and was fascinated by the impact the new flavors had on me.

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As a freelancer, you’re constantly working in different kitchens. Is it hard to get used to a new setting every time?

No, when you’ve seen loads of kitchens you can work anywhere—under the condition that your menu can be adjusted to an individual set-up. And I always bring the tools or ingredients I need to be able to cook at a professional level. Like wild juniper berries from Scotland, or juniper wood – so great for smoking dishes – and a box of knives and tools. Of course, it does matter what kind of oven you’re working with, whether you’re cooking on gas or induction, what mixers are available. You can work in a lot of situations, but a good oven is fairly essential. I had to make profiteroles for a wedding with 150 guests some years ago; a technical recipe that depends a lot on humidity. If your oven can’t hold a stable temperature, it just won’t work. And there we were, in a tent on a meadow somewhere with a rental oven and a recipe that really didn’t fit the environment. Situations like that make you pretty resourceful!

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left-com All appliances are very advanced and spatially well processed in the whole set up. right-com

What does your ideal kitchen look like?

It’s a functional, spacious kitchen with lots of storage, one where you can entertain friends, chat and cook at the same time. A kitchen island with a few chairs or bar stools would be perfect. And the space needs to have lots of natural light, so I can grow the veggies and herbs I use in my recipes right there in the kitchen. In terms of equipment, I like simple but high-quality, sturdy products. A good oven with a grill function, a strong blender, solid pans with a heavy bottom, and a few sharp knives.

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How did you like working at the kitchen in the FvF Friends Space?

I found it very exciting to cook in this kitchen; the minimal design fits my taste perfectly. All appliances are very advanced and spatially well processed in the whole set up, so that I can just go ahead and move freely.

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Which appliance did you like the most?

All of the equipment was very exciting and forward-thinking but I especially enjoyed using the cooktop with the integrated extraction fan. This feature is ingenious because it allows the kitchen to be opened up and gives you a sense of freedom whilst cooking. It’s also much more inclusive to others that may be joining you while you cook, not to mention the futuristic incongruity of watching your steam being sucked downward—that’s quite impressive. This feature also minimizes cleaning. Not only is the system itself very simple to clean, the way the extraction fan works prevents oil vapor from rising and then settling all over the surrounding worktop. You can have all your relevant cooking utensils and seasoning ingredients right next to you without being concerned with dirt.

In how far do functionality and technology support the cooking process?

It makes all the difference. Everything is more precise, more efficient, faster and more consistent. It's also much easier to notice subtle nuance in your recipes and fine tune things. Usually, technology doesn't inform my work but rather enhances my ideas and facilitates further exploration. When I am subjected to new and interesting appliances I really love to experiment and try weird and wonderful processes. Presently I am developing a bespoke outdoor kitchen at Jan van Eyck, for example. It is exciting to start something like this from scratch and take the time to think what elements to include for the perfect set-up.

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Do you have a favorite ingredient, or kitchen tool that you just can’t live without?

I recently bought a bullet blender. You can create smoothies or a marinade in just two minutes, it saves so much time. My cooking style is very herb-based, so fresh herbs are my favorite ingredient. Cilantro, mint, parsley, rosemary, and not the kind you find in 20 gram plastic packages in the supermarket; I’m talking about giant bushes of lush green herbs from the market. No one should be afraid to use too many herbs, it just adds so much depth. If you overdo it with dried oregano, you might have a problem, but you can never go wrong with fresh herbs.

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left-com It’s a personal experience to cook for someone, it takes a lot of love and attention. right-com

In London, you’re also involved in Mazí Mas, an organization that works with immigrants and refugees. How has that influenced your cooking style?

Mazi Mas works with women who have migrated to London with their husbands and often have to stay at home to take care of the family. Or refugee women with a less fortunate motive to start afresh. Often, these women have received an excellent education back home, and are unable to find proper jobs for many reasons. For the past two years, I have been involved with Mazi Mas and have trained a wonderful group of women to become professional chefs using their own cultural backgrounds to their advantage. It’s a wonderful concept, because you give these women the tools and strength to improve their situation. I have worked with three Iranian women, for example, and have learned so much from them about a cuisine that is still undervalued and not very well exposed outside of Iran. In a way, Persian cuisine is similar to Pakistani or Indian cuisine, but with the emphasis leaning more towards the diversity of herbs rather than that of spice and heat. The most important ingredient in Iranian cuisine has to be time. Some recipes take two whole days to prepare and cook properly. You need the time and space to get those recipes right. In this way, cooking becomes a group effort and lets you catch up and connect with the women around you.

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The Food Lab at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht is also all about slowing down, taking your time to cook and eat, sharing food as a social connection...

… Yes, eating is an act that can bring people together, a way to share a part of your day with the people around you. We’re so used to gobbling down something quickly and getting back to work, back to the daily grind. Creating connections is an important part of my work. It’s a personal experience to cook for someone, it takes a lot of love and attention. It’s not just a job for me, it’s something I give to people, and enjoy giving. If what I cook brings people together, adds to their joy and wellbeing; that’s what drives me. Creating a special moment that makes people happy.