Recently arrived from Amsterdam, Mark Vaessen is the new executive chef at Hotel OKU Ibiza. Vaessen, together with Bulgarian Aleksander Teodorov (head chef) and Portuguese Tiago Silva (sushi chef) form a trio that promises a culinary revolution by fusing flavours, colours, aromas and textures from around the world using thousand-year-old Japanese cooking techniques.
Dutch chef Vaessen, who comes from the renowned Sushisamba in Amsterdam, is an inveterate traveller who has voyaged half the world, soaking up the culture and culinary techniques of every country he’s visited. He trained in Holland, his country of origin, in traditional French cooking and perfected his skills and techniques in Japanese cooking alongside famous chef Oshima in the Dutch capital.
He’s a great enthusiast of the colours and aromas of South American cuisine, particularly Peruvian and Brazilian, and also Mediterranean food. His personal vision of cooking is to fuse them all together, using the techniques and skills of Japanese cooking as the basis.
At FaceFoodMag we wanted to learn more about the new season at OKU and the impact that Vaessen joining the team will have on the project, so we met him to find out more details first-hand.
Hi Mark. You’ve travelled around the world, you’re executive chef of the branch of a successful London restaurant, and now you’ve come to Ibiza to launch a new project... How did you make that decision?
Last year, the managers of OKU contacted me at the restaurant where I was working and suggested creating a signature restaurant together with them based on the Japanese food concept, because the concept of OKU hotels was already a bit Japanese.
What new things will we find at OKU Restaurant? What does Mark Vaessen joining this project mean?
Well, at OKU everything we do is based on the cuisine of Japanese culture. And we fuse it with every kind of cuisine from around the world; right now I’m focused on Mediterranean and South American food, especially Peruvian and Brazilian. Essentially, what we do at OKU is use the techniques, the skills, of Japanese cooking to create far more vibrant dishes than those found in Japanese cuisine because that cuisine is deeply focused on technique, whereas we want something more colourful, different flavours, more...
Yes, perhaps more fun, more... Perhaps using all the experience and techniques I’ve learned on my travels around the world, everything I’ve seen in different cultures. For example, I love what I’ve seen in Brazilian cooking, all that colour, that naturalness, where the food seems to shine more. That’s exactly what I want to achieve in my dishes.
Talking of travels, you already knew Ibiza really well...
Yes, I’ve been to the island lots of times before. I even did some training here for a season, a few years ago.
What surprised you about Ibiza?
Well, I love the local produce, it’s really good. But more than anything, what I love about Ibiza is the Spanish way of life, especially sharing (food), which reminds me a lot of what the Japanese do. That way of connecting around a table, that’s what I like most about Ibiza. Here social life, contact with friends, meeting to go out for lunch, dinner, drinks, to have fun, but always together, is so important.
And what I like a lot, referring specifically to my food, is that, even though I’ve spent years making it, here people are free, on holiday, carefree, and that means they enjoy my cooking a lot more. Of course, the surroundings help a lot too. Serving sashimi in Ibiza isn’t the same as serving it in Amsterdam.
So, you’ve said you really like produce from Ibiza, but what’s your favourite? What would you highlight above the rest?
I love the prawns in Ibiza, those little ones... They’re so sweet! I also really like the red prawns.
And talking about the OKU menu, which dish would you draw our attention to?
Balfegó tuna tartare with crispy potatoes, fried egg and caviar oil. I love that dish and if you ask me for a star dish, it’d be that one. It’s mixed at the table, it comes on a tray with an impressive presentation and then...we destroy it.
Changing subject, we’d like to hear your opinion about what makes the difference at a restaurant. What’s the decisive factor that contributes to the success of a project?
I think the team is essential; my head chef, Aleksandar Teodorov, is a young Bulgarian with masses of talent and I’ve been working with him for four or five years. And Tiago Silva is an exceptional sushi chef. In fact, I sometimes think he’s more Japanese than Portuguese. Without them it’d be impossible to do what I do. That’s just talking about the cooking but excellent service is, of course, vital to the success of a restaurant. And, naturally, a good sommelier, a good manager. Basically, you need a good team.
What goals have you set yourself this season?
Well, what’s most important to me is that we insist on a very high standard so customers are given great service and excellent food and leave saying: “Wow! The food at OKU is amazing!”
I’d love it if people could start enjoying themselves more now, it seems like we’re coming through this slowly but surely and, although I don’t want to talk about COVID, I hope that after all we’ve been through people start to be more aware of the wonderful world we live in and to realise how food is an essential part of enjoying life. It’s important to emphasise that. It seems like it’s going to be a good season, especially after last year was a disaster for most people. I truly wish that we have a fantastic summer.