Interview with Rob Hagen & Isabel Casallas, owners of Elkaar
- 5 min read
How did a young lady from Colombia and a young man from the Netherlands end-up opening a fine dining, Bid Gourmand restaurant in Amsterdam? Curious? Then read their story!
Isabel and Rob met at Hotelschool The Hague, they were living in the same house in Skotel. Isabel enjoys being around people from different cultures and Rob enjoys creating new dishes. The perfect combination for a successful restaurant.
The COVID-19 outbreak is of course affecting the restaurant, but Isabel and Rob are taking this as an opportunity to think out of the box: They are challenging themselves to create a weekly 3 course fine dining menu for take away! Check out their website!
Interested in their story? Then keep reading this truly inspiring interview:
Did you always dreamed to start your own restaurant?
Rob: Isabel and I met in Skotel, we lived in the same house! We then decided to move to China once we finished school. It was a great opportunity to go completely against what we already knew and discover a new culture. It was clear we wanted something of our own. We just did not know what exactly yet. I was doing a corporate leadership internship program in China at the time. Afterwards we moved to Abu Dhabi for two years. We were working really hard, and we thought: “why wouldn’t we put this much energy into our own business?”.
Isabel: This is when we decided to come back to the Netherlands. It was easier for us, as Rob’s family used to have restaurants here. We didn’t know the market in other countries either. We started thinking about it in Abu Dhabi and then came back to the Netherlands, and then started looking for restaurants. We wanted to take an already existing restaurant over.
Rob: We didn’t realise it would take such a long time to find a suitable place. Isabel also needed to apply for a visa and therefore was abroad for eight months. Meanwhile, I was still looking for restaurants in the Netherlands. I found Elkaar, and we decided to go for it, even if Isabel had never seen it, she trusted me!
Who does what and how many are you?
Rob: It is not always easy to work together since we are so close. We have been doing this for the past 3 years and a half and have found a good way to divide tasks. I am mainly in the kitchen and Isabel in the front of the house. There are 3 of us in the kitchen, which gives me a little bit of freedom to help out in the restaurant.
Isabel: I’m by myself but there are a few part-timers. And yes, Rob comes to help me. Normally we are 2 in the front of the house. We also have a person for stewarding.
Rob: We want to focus on quality and do not want guests to leave unsatisfied. I’d rather have one extra person to avoid this situation. Often my brother is very available to help, or even my parents want to help sometimes. Whenever we do receive a complaint, we really take it into account and act careful upon it. This is probably why it is going so well. We take all feedback seriously and we handle it personally and attentive.
How has Elkaar evolved?
Rob: The interior has changed a lot. We like it this way. Also, we have just been growing and growing. We have finally gotten used to our positions within the restaurant. We got several awards too, such as the Bib Gourmand, Gault & Millaut, the Lekker 500 and the participation in the Michelin event at the beginning of the year.
You participated at the Michelin event in January, in collaboration with Hotelchool The Hague. Could you tell us more about that?
Rob: It was crazy! We had to prepare 25 portions of a dish inspired from the onion. Hotelschool The Hague rescued 1.000 kg of onions and suggested to create an amuse-bouche with those. We found out afterwards that all the other restaurants had cancelled. We then had to prepare 200 portions, but we were on holidays. We arrived on the day of the event at 6:00 am. It was definitely a good and fun cooperation!
Isabel: We serve a rescued onion amuse-bouche now at the restaurant too. We tell this story to our guests and students. I am quite close with Robert Gallicano [HTH gastronomy instructor] and when he is on field trip with Hotelschool The Hague students in Amsterdam, they stop by Elkaar to talk about sustainability and share our story.
What is your inspiration/concept of the restaurant?
Isabel: Within the whole Elkaar experience, we want to share a story to our guests. Our international environment is very beneficial to come up with new ideas and dishes. I try to bring my Latino background to the kitchen by telling the team some of my typical Colombian dishes, ingredients and ways of preparations. They try to implement some of these into our kitchen and with this we get that international twist.
Rob: We want to have a high quality. Also, a very relaxed and cosy ambiance. We want people to come to talk with us if they wish. We want to retain the quality without making it too “fancy”. I really cook what I like to cook. On holidays I try to bring back what I discover and turn it into something a bit more “fine-dining”. We are running a restaurant in which we’d love to eat. All our basic sauces and stocks are all French gastronomy oriented, with a certain twist.
Do you have plans for the future?
Isabel: This year we really want to focus on the branding of the restaurant. We started refreshing the logo and we are focusing on really creating and sharing our story. We wish to focus on marketing, as we have never really done that so far. Word-of-mouth is definitely something we are aiming for. We are searching for more concepts and ideas. We started potentially thinking for example of a pop-up. We need to be careful though. Our restaurant Elkaar is a success because we are both on top of things. Having to step back a bit to focus on news ideas is delicate. We want to continue growing Elkaar to get a new place or develop a new concept. We also would like to cooperate more with Hotelschool The Hague, and maybe also cooperate with other restaurants. For example, go to other restaurants, switch chefs. This is a famous concept now.
Rob: For the last three years, we have been in the ‘’analysis phase’’, evaluating how we are doing it was the analysing phase and knowing how we are doing. Through this process we know which roads we have to take. You find out certain things by doing. We are trying to do more events to increase the streaks not only during Thursday to Sunday. We organised wine tastings with local suppliers in last April, and I am starting to do catering now too. This is all small options we can look into for the future. In the longer run, we are thinking of our second place, or a pop-up in Colombia, or a wine bar. You need to feel when it is the right time. We do not like to do things half-way. Therefore, it is good sometimes to let it go and take the time.
Are you aiming for the Michelin Star?
Rob: No, it comes with a lot of pressure. It is not our mission and it comes with a lot of expectations. It is a super award to have, but we like that we can exceed people expectations. With a star, they’d be even higher. We want to keep it the way it is.
And last question, you met at Hotelschol The Hague, how come you chose this specific school?
Isabel: I am a relationship person. I enjoy being with people and different cultures. It is one of the things I enjoy the most. I like Hotelschool The Hague because it is so broad, and I can do anything I like. Hotelschool The Hague is a very complete package that teaches you how to deliver the right service and relationship with guests. I came from a very international family, which comforted my choice. My aunts and part of my family lives in Sweden and Spain. My mom also did a Hotelschool, but in Colombia. My brother is an HTH alumni, and my little sister is also joining Hotelschool The Hague in the August intake, it is really a family thing!
Rob: For me Hotelschool The Hague was the obvious choice from the beginning. I think I already knew from a young age that I wanted to work in hospitality. My parents used to have a lot of restaurants. I was 11 when I started helping my dad in the kitchens. I mainly worked with them but also in a 2 Michelin stars restaurant to broaden my skills.