TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Agus Hermawan believed that luck has been on his side. One April morning in 1997, right before he left for his interview at Spandershoeve Restaurant in Hilversum, his Dutch permanent resident card came in the mail. "The first thing they asked me when I sat down at the interview was: Do you have a resident permit?"
It might have been luck that landed Agus-who at that time had no formal cooking experience-in the first Indonesian kitchen to be awarded a Michelin star, the most coveted attribute in the culinary world. Ultimately, though, it was just hard work, determination and a total passion for food that have made him the most visible chef of Indonesian food in the Netherlands.
Agus, a native of Tasikmalaya, is the 10th of 12 children. His earliest memories, he recalls, were of his mother cooking. "She loved to cook and was very good at it," he said. "Everyone from the neighborhood would come to our home when there was a slametan (celebration) because they knew they'd be served great food." She might not have dreamed that three of her sons would become international chefs: Agus in the Netherlands, one brother in France and another in Scotland.
His father was a tax official and while Agus started to study finance in Bandung, he gradually became more involved in the family-run guesthouse they rented to vacationers in Pangandaran. "I would often cook there, mostly Chinese food," said Agus.
Love brought him to the Netherlands. He had met a Dutch woman who worked at an international firm in Jakarta. "I went back and forth between the two countries for a couple of years once she went back home. And finally in 1996, I decided to settle in Amsterdam."
He was determined to make a living in his new home, and was not embarrassed about getting his hands dirty. "I started working for some restaurants in Amsterdam. I was willing to do anything. Sometimes I'd wash 6,000 dishes in one day." Then his break came when he heard that Spandershoeve, one of the best-known Indonesian restaurants in the country, was looking for new people to work in their kitchen.
"I started from the bottom over there, but I was determined to learn everything I could," Agus said. "I didn't stop, not even on my breaks. At the end of my trial month, I was hired as a permanent staff." With his first salary, he bought cookbooks.
As fate would have it, Spandershoeve's chef resigned less than a year after Agus started there-and restaurant owner Anita Boerenkamp asked him to take on the job. "It was a huge responsibility, as there were many people that had already been working there much longer than I had."
Anita had made the right decision, as Agus stepped up to the challenge and maintained the establishment's Michelin star during all the years he worked there. "Achieving success is not nearly as difficult as maintaining it," said the tireless Agus, for whom a 12-hour working day is business as usual, adding that, "Up to this day, I still consider Tante Anita as my mentor. She's past 80 now and still regularly works in the kitchen."
Seven years later he left Spandershoeve and joined Amsterdam's Blue Pepper and Tjoe Tjoe Mas in Huizen, before in 2007 settling at Blauw, a new Indonesian establishment with branches in Utrecht and Amsterdam. Blauw was different from most other Indonesian restaurants: no more old batik cloths and wayang puppets. Instead, the decor was stylish, almost austere, with one wall covered by a black-and-white print of a Chinese family from Indonesia's colonial years.
Again, he recalled with a smile, he was lucky: A few months after Blauw opened, it received a glowing review from Johannes van Dam, Holland's most famous food critic. "After that, we were almost always fully booked."
It was, however, Agus' cooking that kept the tables booked. He would serve traditional Indonesian dishes with a twist: spek-koek (Indonesian layer cake) with a creme brulee filling. Scallops with salted-fish sauce and whipped coconut cream. Blauw subsequently got favorable writeups in premier international media like The New York Times and The Guardian. (*)
Read the complete story of Chef Agus Hermawan in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine