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The Gretjes of today: Fareeda van der Merel

Grain gin from Hooghoudt started with Grietje Hooghoudt-Farmer. Together with her husband Hero Jan, she started her own practice in 1888 in a cellar in the Oosterstraat in Groningen. Here they prepared liqueurs and regional drinks. When Hero Jan dies of pneumonia, Grietje continues the company after ten years. Recently, in celebration of 100 years of women's right to vote, Grietje was added to the register of top women in Groningen. Before we have to wait another 100 years, Yvonne Zeegers looked up the Groningen top women of today. What are their sources of inspiration and ambitions?
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“SOMETIMES I SEE BEAUTIFUL COLORS TOGETHER, AND THEN I THINK: HOW WOULD THEY TASTE TOGETHER?”

Fareeda van der Marel is a self-taught cook and works at the Achterwerk restaurant in the Oosterstraat in Groningen. The restaurant existed two years last September. And in those two years, Fareeda has put the vegan kitchen of Achterwerk on the map in her own way. In addition, she makes new plans all the time, and still organizes enough dinners for her friends. Because, as she says herself: “When I experiment with cooking at home, I want as many people as possible to be able to taste it.”

Text: Yvonne Zeegers
Image: Erikjan Koopmans

Fareeda and I have agreed to meet in Achterwerk, where she can be found at the table and in the kitchen for more than half of the week. Prior to the interview, she was still preparing the menu for the upcoming weekend with sous-chef Stefan. It takes some getting used to, because normally she only worked in the kitchen. Stefan has recently arrived, and that is nice. When we sit down in the lounge of the restaurant I tell Fareeda the story of Grietje Hooghoudt and the birth of the family business. Why I went looking for the current Grietjes – special women in Groningen. And why I want to interview her now. What strikes me about Fareeda and the other 'Greetjes' is how they worked on their own success completely autonomously. Where does such a thing start?

At a young age, Fareeda had ambitions in the 'culinary' field. The first idea for a real company came from her mother in the kitchen:
“When I was very small, I was already interested in the combination of flavors. My mom made homemade Kentucky fried chicken on Sunday. And then I got to come up with the sauces: ketchup, sambal, I threw everything together… I thought that was fantastic! And I thought: I already know what I want to do later, I want to start my own sauce factory. I was young, of course, and I wasn't very good at coming up with names. So I would call that Fareedia, after the famous company Remia.”

Quite creative at this young age, she also learned to cook the more complicated recipes in her mother's kitchen. From colorful memories, Fareeda tells me how she first had to stand on a small stool - with a picture of Tom & Jerry on it - to reach the sink, and what she learned:
“My mother was a very good cook, especially Surinamese dishes. That really is a range of tastes, because you have many ethnicities in Suriname. The cuisine is very mixed. And she also comes from a mixed family, so she also got different things. When I wanted to help her I started cleaning with onions, because I was still too young to handle a knife. At one point I was allowed to cut the onions myself. Later on I was allowed to add them to the meat. And then also prepare the marinades for the meat.”

Once in high school, her attention shifted to other kitchens. She got to know best friend Merel, whose father also loved to cook, and so a new range of dishes was added:
“I was a bit of an adolescent, so I didn't just want to eat Surinamese anymore. I remember well the moment I ate a kale with bacon at Merel's house, and that those bacon slices were different. The rind that my mother would normally take off was still on it and it was so extremely crispy. I wanted to try that at home too.”

She continued to cook in her parental home and took it with her into her student days: “That was of course nice for my friends, because when they came to eat with me, there was real food, and not always a student pasta with pesto. That can also be nice, but different.”

Fareeda studied law for a while, later on Dutch. In addition to her studies, she worked in the ministry. But even in those days the kitchen was already beckoning, and her friends knew what to do with it. No challenge seems too crazy for the now-professional chef, and that brought her to interesting places:
“At that time, when I was still studying law, friends of mine said that if there was a new season of Topchef – that was a TV program in which non-professional chefs under the leadership of Robert Kranenborg and Julius Jaspers had to do all kinds of competitions – that I had to do. I had laughed a bit and bluffed 'yeah that's good'. Then suddenly that season turned out to be for professional chefs. I was nevertheless asked to be present at the pre-selection. You had to do all kinds of tests there: smell tests, knowledge of ingredients, etc. I was very interested, of course, so I knew a bit about what. And I think they also thought, okay, she's not a professional chef, but she might do well on the program, so I was invited. I was pretty much thrown to the lions. Such a setting with professional chefs, that was exciting. During that time I met a friend, Sytze. Sytze currently has a very good restaurant in Zoutkamp, ​​and at one point he said to me: 'Fareeda, you have taste, but you are really not a professional cook. If you want, you can join my company from time to time.'”

And so it happened. Sytze then worked as a chef in 't Korensant, which was still located in Molenrij, a small restaurant owned by a self-taught chef Wicher Werk. But despite the fact that the extreme concentration in the kitchen, the flames under the pans, and the bustle in the restaurant attracted her attention, at first she kept thinking that she couldn't handle it yet. Every now and then she worked in Kloosterburen, but also continued to study and serve in the hospitality industry. It would be another three years before she would go into a kitchen again: “I worked at wine bar Barrel, and at one point people from the Gym asked me if I wanted to start a pop-up restaurant at the front of the building. Then my enthusiasm started to grow again.”

A good friend had tipped her off to the founders of cultural center de Gym and they then blindly trusted that it would work out. The pop-up restaurant was part of coffee salon Bed, and the evenings on which Fareeda cooked were baptized 'At the table in Bed':
“Well that grew quite fast. I really liked that. I cooked vegetarian. There was no other way because of the hygiene regulations. There was also no hot water so at the end of the evening I stood there with a kettle on my own until 3.00am washing up. Just before the evening started I put a picture of the menu on Facebook. I always put that off, because I find it quite difficult to make a promo for myself. Still, there were always about 30 people to eat. I then provided them with a three-course surprise menu for €8,50. Of course I hardly earned any money from that, but I just liked it so much when a lot of people came that I didn't want to raise the price either."

That is how Fareeda got to know Bram Steenhuis and Rob van den Ham from nightclub Oost. They had moved into the building near the Gym and regularly came to eat at the table in bed on office days. Eventually, they took over the Gym's location. And when Fareeda got wind of Bram and Rob's plan to start a restaurant there, she sent them a message:
“I wanted to continue working in the hospitality industry, but also to take on a new challenge. It was not just service. So I also indicated that I would like to go back into the kitchen. I didn't have much experience as a professional chef then, but I thought I could offer some creativity in the menus. Then they ate on the roof of my house a few times. I explained to them what kind of menus I would like to make, and what plans I had. They were quite impressed with that.”

Fareeda tells modestly about the beginning at Achterwerk. After the circle of acquaintances had come to eat, of course other unknown guests also arrived. That was exciting then. And yet, despite these exciting beginnings, the restaurant quickly grew into a place where people return regularly, more and more new faces appear and everyone can enjoy extensive three, four and five course menus that are completely different every three weeks.

Nothing has been lied to about Fareeda's promise, because the menus are certainly creative. We got a little insight into her thought process:
“Sometimes I see beautiful colors together, and then I think how would they taste together? I'll look for ingredients for that. And if I'm somewhere and I see an ingredient I don't know, I want to discover it. I'm preoccupied with flavor and texture in my head. I can sit on the couch all afternoon thinking about what will taste good. This week, for example, I want to make prawn crackers from pointed cabbage. So that's how I think, how does it taste when I put this ingredient in that texture? Or how does it taste if I serve it cold? A beet, for example. I think vegan food also makes me more focused on texture. I don't want to serve people meat substitutes, but you do want to give people something interesting on the plate. Texture is very important for the taste.”

Although I didn't want to talk about being a woman per se, but more about the motivation and ambition of these special Groningen women, I was curious about the culture in the kitchen at Fareeda. How it is now to work as a woman in the kitchen, where I have not seen many female chefs in the hospitality industry:
“Haha that is of course the joke, because I was always alone in the kitchen. But I've also seen it a bit. Although it was also different at my 'learning schools'; because Sytze is very open to students and outside input. And is definitely for women in the kitchen. What I sometimes notice about myself, what I find exciting, is that I would like to do an internship somewhere. And that I dread asking beforehand. That is not necessarily due to being a woman in the kitchen, but also to the hierarchy that prevails. To then go somewhere and say: Fuck it! I'm just going to go there and I'm just going to do that internship. That's exciting. I think it has more to do with being self-taught than with being a woman.”

But it is precisely this self-taught nature that intrigues me about Fareeda's story. For example, during the time of Topchef, she visited the fishmonger on the market to ask if they could teach filleting:
“Then I stood there for a few hours filleting. One uglier than the other. Things got better and better, but they couldn't sell the first fillets. I still think that's special. That they let me do that. But they loved it so much.”

A natural curiosity with a healthy dose of ambition. In short, Fareeda does not shy away from a challenge, but in the meantime also ensures that she can learn something from every moment to grow further. In any case, I hope that she will keep this passion for now and for the future, and that she can continue to surprise us with special experiments!