Wanting to Make Simple Food
Photo by Tim Sugden
Chefs come in all shapes and sizes and that is no exception for 6-foot-8 chef and restaurant owner Paul Klitsie. Chef Klitsie is the owner and manager of Willem’s on Main (907 Main Street) in Vancouver, Wash., for less than two years.
Before this endeavor, Chef Klitsie worked with other chefs when he owned the Italian restaurant Fratelli in the Pearl District. In 2013, after 15 years of working at this restaurant, he decided it was time for a change. He closed up shop and opened up Willem’s on Main.
His new restaurant has an inviting feel. The chairs, which are from a local theater called Kiggins, make guests feel like they can sit back and relax while eating their meal. The tables are cut from trees and they are jagged on the sides giving its authenticity. The front windows allow natural light to enter the space; there are no florescent bulbs in sight.
The man behind this restaurant, Chef Klitsie grew up in the Netherlands and didn’t even know he wanted to be a chef until he was in his 20s. He grew up in a town called Rotterdam, but he decided that he wanted to attend college in Germany. He went to school for hotel management, but along the way he discovered his true passion was cooking.
What was it like growing up in the Netherlands?
The city where I grew up is comparable to what Portland used to be. Rotterdam is where I am from, born and raised as well. I went to hotel management school to go to the front of the house, except something along the way went differently. I did it in Germany, I just went to my regular schools in the Netherlands and when it came down to college I chose to go abroad to Germany.
What do you do in a hotel management school?
It was one year on campus, just learning about hotels and management. Chefs showed you how to cook and then eventually three weeks of cooking with chefs. Then you get this exam and you have to make a three-course meal with a menu. The most difficult one, lucky me, I got it. Everyone was trying to avoid that, but it was just the luck of the draw. Most likely it was destined for me to be like that anyway. It’s not only the dish itself, but it’s the table that gets the dish. My school was in the south of Germany and at the table were leading chefs in that area. One of them came downstairs after the test and asked for my name. It was like Moses in the ocean, everyone moved to the side and was like ‘there he is. The guy said ‘are you sure you want to become a general manager because your cooking skills are phenomenal.’ I was like ‘I don’t know?’ I was 21 and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I went on with it.
What did you do?
I went back to the Netherlands to a four-month course school for cooking. From there, I went into a very modern restaurant in Rotterdam. I went to Switzerland and I was blessed enough to work for an Italian owner and he took me to Italy. It was amazing.
Then I went back to Amsterdam. I worked in an Italian restaurant for two years and after that worked there for six years. In 1994 I hired this American. From there on I went to Portland. In 1998 that American and I, in the end, opened up a restaurant. We made it in Portland and he’s also the person I bought out 11 years later to run Fratelli for another three years before I closed it last year and opened up this.
Why move to Vancouver?
It’s where I live. I live in Vancouver. I have lived here for over 10 years and I made that choice on purpose. You know, I lived my whole life in cities and I wanted to be a little bit away from it. I really found out that this town doesn’t have a big food culture, I don’t think it’s because it can’t have one. This town needed a good addition.
I don’t try to be the best; I just try to be the continuation of really good food. If people tell me I have the best restaurant that’s fine, I’ll take it, but it’s not why I do it.
This is not a business where you make yourself a lot of money, but it’s a business that gives you, I think very fast, a great way of satisfaction. You cook it and it goes out there and in 20 minutes you pretty much know whether or not you succeed. The majority of my dishes are 4-5 components; a lot of it is based on how Italians cook because that’s where most of my experience comes from.
You have been here for a year in a half?
I opened it up in October (2013) and signed the lease in August.
How has it been?
It’s been a fight; it really has been a fight. It was, in a way, a fight in Portland because from a really flourishing start we just got ahead of ourselves. I didn’t want that to happen here, I don’t think it has.
One of my big selling points is that you can come at night. You can come at 6 p.m., park your car in the back parking lot, which is free, you walk in the door, you sit down and an hour in a half later you walk out of here. Basically, you are two hours on your way. Trying to do that going to Portland, it’s not happening. I just want to show people that there is a lot more.
Do you think there is a big difference from learning to cook in Europe than in the United States?
There are fresh markets in Europe where you can make your own choices. I would go three times a week to these places and bought what I wanted to have. You make the choice and it’s always fresh and you can get exotic products. What you don’t see around here is much variety. It’s slowly progressing.
Do you visit a lot?
No, not as often as I would want to. I try to do it once a year. My folks are still there, 90 and 85 years old. Do I miss it? Yes, I do. I think the longer I am here I kind of miss it. I’m blessed here.
What is different about Vancouver from Portland?
There is a different type of community in Vancouver. In Portland it’s young and hip and there is not many hipsters here. There is nothing wrong with it; this is just where people go because they want to raise their kids here. There is a pretty sizable older community in Vancouver. That’s what you aim for. I don’t aim for the same things when I was in Portland. I got my liquor license five weeks ago. Now you see that there are certain times of certain days where there is a younger crowd coming in, but prior to that it was 40 and up. I think I made the right move, but it’s not easy.
What were your inspirations, for opening this restaurant?
The majority of the interior is designed by my wife. We wanted a warm color, which is no different from what Fratelli was. We wanted to have light. We wanted to have something that would reflect the neighborhood we were in. That’s the way you are sitting in chairs that came from Kiggins. We wanted to have something that wasn’t too modern or too slick.
What about the food? How did you decide what you were going to serve?
I wanted to break free a little bit from Italian, but it’s very hard to do when you have done it for about 30 years. I gave myself some freedom to combine some Italian things, for instance, I serve a risotto as an entree, which is a big no-no in Italy, but you know to heck with it. For the rest I wanted to have food from farmers that I had in Portland and that worked out pretty well. I wanted to keep it close and somewhat responsible.
Are most of your ingredients locally sourced?
I try to, but I would be lying if I told you it was all locally sourced. Certainly not in the winter, the summer I try to as much as I possibly can.
Do you have a favorite on your menu?
I really like Spaetzle. It’s a very European thing and I made it popular here. So far I am getting away with making it better every time. I think it’s a great product. For the rest I love to make stews, slow cooked meats. A lot about making stews is what you put together and how you think it’s going to end up.
How do you get people to come to your restaurant?
I don’t pay for Yelp or Google. I think people need to be here because they want to have great food. It might not be the best and brightest idea, but it is what it is. You can’t teach this old dog. I know that people who come in and have the food will come in a week later with friends. I think that tells me a lot more than people stepping in here on a whim. That’s just me. I think word of mouth is the best form of advertisement. You build a much stronger clientele. That’s just how it works.
Everyone has his or her little things and for me it has always been my restaurant. Vancouver is a challenge, it really is. Time will tell what it will do, we made it the first year and that is always a good milestone. I see that a lot of people really like the place.
Are you still finding yourself learning about food and learning new things?
I think you always do, any chef that tells you he knows everything is lying. Even if it would be true, it means that there is no more progress, which is the last thing you want to be doing in this profession. Do I learn new things? Well, not as much as I did when I was in Portland, but I am still learning things, you know the little things. I always try to stay up to date and try to be eager about it. It still interests me.
When you did move to the US, what was your main reasoning?
The Netherlands is tiny and I wanted to see some of the world. The United States, I had been four times before and I really liked it. I came here for a lot of reasons and when I came to Portland it was because of my business partner. We decided to set up shop here simply because Portland was for people who wanted to have their own restaurant, it was affordable. That is why I ended up in Portland.
Had you ever heard of Portland or had visited before moving here?
I had heard of Seattle. When I came here and saw where we could possibly have a restaurant, I got really excited about. And to see how much Portland has changed in the past 10 years. Portland is cutthroat and I am glad I’m not there anymore. All in all, I have never regretted moving out here, I love the Northwest.
Did you find the transition from Portland to Vancouver to be hard?
No, I have lived here for the last 10 years; it didn’t make a big difference. It’s a work in progress. Just don’t panic, it will all work out. I think honestly, moving over here it is a whole new learning curve for me. Even though I have seen something like this before, it throws you back to what it’s all about, it’s not a given that it will be busy.
This town really wants to break out and show that there is a great old town feel. I like it. You have to take the culture away from quantity to quality. It will be awhile until we have created that.
How often do you cook at your restaurant?
I cook five nights a week. I will do brunch on the weekends. I want to. I also think you are the face of the restaurant and if you are not here they will see that. I told them when I opened it up that it will be an owner-operated restaurant. A lot of people expect me to be here.
What do you do with your down time? Do you have down time?
I go with my wife to a little cabin we have. We have two dogs that I like to hang out with. For the rest that I can make time for I do, right now it’s going home, hanging out with the dogs and my wife. I take it day by day. Eventually I hope that this will do what Fratelli did and gives me the time to step away for a little bit and get someone in here who really knows what they are doing.
What kinds of music do you listen to?
I listen to house music; I am a big old style house fanatic. A lot of electronics, just because I think it’s great. It takes your mind off from what you are doing. That is my second passion anyway. When I was in Amsterdam I started mixing up old CD’s. It just never really took off; there never really came a time for it. The passion is there for it too, but if I do something, I want to do it all the way or I don’t do it at all. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of your time. That’s what it is for me. I really want to see Vancouver with better restaurants. I want to be consistently good.
Do you have any future aspirations for this restaurant or yourself?
I just want to have this be successful. Do I daydream? Sure I do, but honestly, I don’t know, I don’t think I will own three restaurants. I don’t even know if I can do that. I know I can cook really well; the thing is, to be a chef owner of a restaurant is not a guarantee that you will be successful. I just want to do what I love to do, there must be a reason I do it because I am 50 years old and I am still doing it.