Interview with Rob Hagen & Isabel Casallas, owners of Elkaar

How did a young lady from Colombia and a young man from the Netherlands end up opening a fine dining, Bib Gourmand restaurant in Amsterdam?

Isabel and Rob met at Hotelschool The Hague where they were both living 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 affecting the hospitality industry, but Isabel and Rob are seeing this as an opportunity to think out of the box: they are challenging themselves to create a weekly three-course fine dining menu for takeaway. Check out their website!

Are you curious to learn about their story? Then keep reading this truly inspiring interview!

Did you always dream of starting your own restaurant?

Rob: Isabel and I met in Skotel, where we lived in the same house! Then, we 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 exactly what that was 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 don't we put this energy into our own business?"

Isabel: That 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, where we started looking for restaurants. We wanted to take over an already existing restaurant.

Rob: We didn’t realise it would take us such a long time to find a suitable place. Isabel also needed to apply for a visa and 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 though Isabel had never seen it, she trusted me!

How have you divided the daily tasks and how many are working at Elkaar?

Rob: It is not always easy to work together since we are so close. We have been doing this for the past three years and a half, and have found a good way to divide tasks. I am mainly in the kitchen while Isabel is in the front of the house. There are three 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, it is two of us 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 or even my parents are available to help. Whenever we do receive a complaint, we really take it into account and act carefully upon it. This is probably why it is going so well; we take all feedback seriously and handle it personally and attentively.

How has Elkaar evolved?

Rob: The interior has changed a lot. We like it this way. Also, we have 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 onions. Hotelschool The Hague rescued 1.000 kg of onions and suggested creating an amuse-bouche with those. We found out afterwards that all the other restaurants had cancelled. We then had to prepare 200 portions, but 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 behind the restaurant?

Isabel: Within the whole Elkaar experience, we want to share a story with 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 sharing with the team some of my typical Colombian dishes, ingredients and ways of preparations. They try to implement some of these into our kitchen and this is how we get that international twist.

Rob: We want to have a high quality, very relaxed and cosy ambiance. We want people to come and talk to us if they wish. We want to retain the quality without making it too “fancy”. I really cook what I like to cook. When 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 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 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 have 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 new 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’’. We have been evaluating what we are doing and how we are doing it. 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 last April, and I am starting to do catering now too. These are all small options we can look into for the future. In the long run, we are thinking of a second place, 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 go and take your time.

Are you aiming for the Michelin Star?

Rob: No, that comes with a lot of pressure. It is not our mission and it comes with a lot of expectations. It is a great award to have, but we like that we can exceed people's expectations. With a star, they’d be even higher. We want to keep it the way it is.

And one last question. You met each other at Hotelschool The Hague. How come you chose this specific school?

Isabel: I am a people's person. I enjoy being with people and getting to know different cultures. I like Hotelschool The Hague because it is so broad, and I can try anything I like. Hotelschool The Hague offers a complete package that teaches you how to deliver the right service to guests, and form meaningful relationships with them. I come from a very international family, which comforted my choice. My aunts and part of my family live in Sweden and Spain. My mom also studied at a Hotelschool, but in Colombia. My brother is an HTH alumnus, and my little sister is also joining Hotelschool The Hague in the August intake. So, it is really a family thing!

Rob: For me, Hotelschool The Hague was the obvious choice from the beginning. From a young age, I think I already knew 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 kitchen. I mainly worked with them, but also in a two-Michelin star restaurant to hone my skills.