Yello Talks Shop with One of Curaçao’s Top Chefs, Justin Niessen
by Lou-Ann Jordan Dec 4, 2023
Justin said it, and we endorse it: food is a wonderful bridge between cultures.
It’s an invitation to learn about people—to experience their creativity and tastes. Certainly, as an accomplished restaurateur with thriving businesses in the Netherlands and here in Curaçao, if anyone would know, Justin Niessen would.
Justin has much acclaim under his belt. In addition to having previously owned two restaurants on the island, he has established a successful franchise in the Netherlands along with his other restaurant, Just Restaurant. The latter has locations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Additionally, he was a notable contender in the 2016 MasterChef competition. He’s also a published author, with a new cookbook on the market.
Warm and friendly, the busy chef and restauranteur took time out to chat. In this article, he recounts his start in the food industry, gives us a sneak peek into his current endeavours, ‘dishes’ on his favourite foods and shares sage words we can all keep in mind.
Please share a little about your background. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Curaçao but moved to Holland when I was 18 to pursue my studies like every other Curaçao child. I attended hotel school, and then I started my career in ‘front-of-house’, as a waiter. I actually worked at several restaurants in Curaçao at the beginning of my career.
What made you interested in cooking initially?
My dad was a baker, a very good pastry man. He was one of the first Dutch bakers on the island. So, I was born around food. My mum was also very good in the kitchen. However, it was expected that my sister and I cook on a Saturday. It was our job every Saturday and as my sister didn’t like to cook, I always ended up doing it. So, that and the response; it’s always very satisfying when you make something and people like it, inspired me.
Briefly share your progression from your early interest in cooking to becoming a chef and restauranteur.
Cooking was my passion. I didn’t study it formally at cooking school. I had a passion for it, and it became my hobby, and from there I made it my work. Interestingly, it wasn’t the plan, though. I went to hotel school hoping to become a hotel manager, but I always had it in mind to own a restaurant. I went to MasterChef in 2016, and I got far in the competition. After that experience, I realised cooking was something I really wanted to develop further, and so I did that. I started a catering company, Just Food Solutions. Initially, I worked front-of-house, but I stopped and went into the kitchen because I wanted to learn everything from scratch. There, I stepped into the role of ‘chef’, and following that, I started my first restaurant.
Tell us a little about your restaurants in Curaçao and the Netherlands. In what ways are they distinct from each other?
I owned two restaurants in Curaçao and five in the Netherlands. However, in November 2022, Bambu by Just, which offered Caribbean-infused Asian cuisine, closed because I was involved in a new project and wanted to focus on it. The new restaurant will feature Caribbean soul food, but upscaled.
Just Restaurant in Amsterdam, one of my pearls, is a very small upscale restaurant that seats about 50 people. My other restaurant in the Netherlands, Mondi, was transformed into a franchise. There are four of them, and everyone has a different signature. Usually, we first look at the location and the architecture to see what we can incorporate into the restaurant’s décor. Then, with those elements, we build a new restaurant. Of course, there are always consistent colours—our brand colours. Also, a few dishes come back. That is the way we operate our restaurants.
How do you determine which meal goes on the menu for the different restaurants?
At Just Restaurant, most of the time I make a one-year menu. At the beginning of the year, I meet with my chefs and my other cooks, and we brainstorm. We decide what we would like to have on the menu. We look at the previous year to see which dishes gave the soul food feeling, and which other foods we can uplift a bit. We do this in January so we can have the new menu out in February.
At Mondi, which is Caribbean and Latin American cuisine, every six months I create a new menu. We pull dishes from the region; like we have a very good jerk chicken on the menu. We also have a delicious truffel risotto with stoba which has nothing to do with Curaçao but it’s one of the dishes with which I have won a few competitions. So, I have some of my favourite dishes on the menu too.
As a chef, what is your signature dish? What do people love about it?
I have a few signature dishes. First, stoba, the stew beef. It’s one of my favourites. I make it in different ways. I make it as a stew and as a salad. There’s also one of the dishes I made on MasterChef, tuna tatami. I have a new cookbook, De Nieuwe Caribische Keuken that’s going to be published soon, and all my signature dishes can be found in it.
Your time is likely to be divided as a restaurant owner and a chef. What takes up most of your time currently?
Presently, as I mentioned earlier, I’m working on opening a new restaurant, so this restaurant takes up a lot of time. Also, making a franchise on your own is time-consuming as there’s a lot to think about and plan. I’m very glad I have a good team, and together we are building an empire.
My focus is to take Curaçao and Caribbean food all over the world. I want to put Curaçao on the world’s stage, and one of the ways to do it easily is with food. Food is the best way to have people experience another country, and that’s what we do. The atmosphere of the restaurant, our food, the way we talk, and the warmth of the staff make our customers feel like they are in Curaçao. We even present our menus in Papiamentu.
What is one of your kitchen pet peeves?
One annoying thing is if people come to my restaurant, and they have allergies and they don’t tell you—upfront. They don’t say but begin to pick it apart expecting a gluten-free, Lactose free, no-nuts, vegan meal. When you go to a restaurant, you’re going so the chef can share his creativity with you; so, they can cook for you. But this is mainly at Just Restaurant because we only cook off the menu.
What is one dish you have not yet attempted but look forward to preparing one day?
There’s a dish—Yambo. It’s a traditional dish from Curaçao. It’s made with okra. I made it once in a dessert style, but I really want to cook it on a high level and do something different with it.
What is one cooking method you learned early on that you continue to use?
Stewing. In Curaçao, we stew everything!
Which kitchen appliance do you consider to be an absolute necessity?
A stove! The only thing I need is somewhere I can have heat. I need the stove.
Chefs often have a country they would love to visit because of the cuisine. What is yours, and why?
Japan. Japan because they have a very different way of thinking and cooking. Vietnam would also be another place.
As an owner of several restaurants and a chef, when you do have spare time, how is it spent?
I love spending my spare time with my two children. I enjoy taking them to restaurants so they can experience the culinary world, and I show them how to eat. I want them to learn everything about food. My son of four and daughter of three eat oysters, sushi, sashimi—the whole shebang!
Owning a business has moments of incredible victories, but it also has its challenges. In challenging times, what keeps you motivated?
“Everything is always working out for me!” That’s my mantra. I believe everything happens for a reason, and so there is always a solution. If people understand we are made to solve problems, then it changes how they view challenges. They won’t see them as obstacles but as a victory in the waiting.
What is your favourite local dish?
Steak’i Wea! Some people like steak rare or short-baked, but this is steak cooked in a pan. It’s stewed and eaten with rice, bananas, and a salad. That’s my favourite dish!
On the countdown to Christmas, what is one dish that is likely to be in high demand?
Ayakas. I like to make ayakas. It’s not from Curaçao but we used to eat it a lot on the island. It’s corn dough and we put stew chicken or other types of meat and raisins in it. Then, we boil it in banana leaves. We offer it in the Netherlands, with a bit of culinary flair. It’s one of my favourite dishes.
What is one Christmas dish you always add to the menu?
Every year in the Netherlands, I make Ham di Pasku which is a typical Christmas dish in Curaçao. I made it once and posted it on Instagram, and it started selling like hotcakes. Since then, we always offer it.
What is one tip for the home cook to try over the holidays?
Over the holidays you’re eating a lot of heavy meals, and some may consume a lot of wine or other alcoholic beverages. It’s nice to have a light soup, like a fish soup in the late evenings to clean your palate before you go to bed. Then, you can start fresh the next morning. It’s something I usually do.
Yello thanks Chef Justin for an insightful and animated chat. Haven’t experienced Just Rotterdam or Mondi’s yet? Well, it’s time you did. Stop by with your family or a loved one and enjoy the relaxed ambience, artfully presented and delightful dishes, and friendly service. Just Rotterdam opens Monday to Friday and on Sundays from noon to 11pm, while on Saturdays the opening hours are noon to 12am. At Mondi’s, you can dine between the hours of noon and 12am from Monday to Sunday.