As a 44 year-old chef with a Black Achievement Award, she makes the most of the assets of the Rotterdam-based tokos, such as salted fish and cassava, but also of the oyster mushrooms from Rotterzwam (featured on the new menu from December!) or the algae and vegan shawarma from Blue City. How to define her style of cooking? ‘Tokological with a touch of Rotterdam’, says Manuela Goncalves Tavares.
Manuela is sitting outside on a bar stool in the Museumpark next to Het Nieuwe Café, where she is in charge of the kitchen. What did she eat yesterday? ‘A Turkish pizza with döner and salad’, she admits, ‘a take-away meal because I got home late’. She tries to enjoy two days off every week, but on the remaining five days she indulges her guests, providing cultural diversity with a touch of Rotterdam. She explains: ‘A tokological kitchen works quite well in a city like Rotterdam, because it features so much diversity in terms of ambience, culture, people and products’.
Vegan Pom is a typical example of Manuela’s tokological style of cooking, and from December it will be listed on the new menu of Het Nieuwe Café: ‘We created this dish using tempeh and mushrooms from Rotterzwam. Traditionally, this Surinamese dish is made from salted meat and chicken, but we have given it a vegan and Rotterdam twist. It’s great accompanied by a home-made lemonade and some Surinamese dried prunes’. The kitchen of Het Nieuwe Café has a vegan signature, but Manuela’s cooking is not limited to vegan dishes: ‘At Coco, my Afro-Caribbean catering business in Rotterdam, meat and fish are also featured on the menu’.
Manuela trained to become a chef from sheer necessity; she was no longer welcome at any school other than the culinary school on the Oostplein. She says with a smile: ‘I liked the pastry lessons best at the culinary school, simply because you were allowed to eat everything you made’. She learned the trade from Herman den Blijker during her traineeship in the kitchen of restaurant De Engel: ‘I loved the action of the real-life kitchen, the cooking with grown-ups and the reactions from the guests. I learned a lot in that kitchen: French cooking techniques, peeling onions and cutting French fries. Herman insisted that each and every fry had to be exactly the same length and thickness. I am still using the cooking techniques that I learned there. It was a high-grade traineeship and something that I can definitely recommend to all apprentice cooks’.
In 2021, Manuela received the Black Achievement Award: ‘I was given the award for my work in the hospitality industry, but also for my social activities; I used to cook with and for teenage mothers and homeless people. I also visited the girls from the Keileweg with Rotterdam icon Carrie, who inspired me to engage in social work. I have continued with these activities with varying degrees of involvement. Two months ago I also made a podcast with girls aged between 12 and 18 who are living in a safe house in Rotterdam, all with a background of abuse and “lover boys”. I had dealings with the Child Protection Institute myself in my youth. That experience makes it easier for us to talk to one another, and we shared our stories, sometimes in tears’.
In addition to her activities in the hospitality industry and her social work, Manuela is also a volunteer at Baroeg, the oldest pop music theatre in the city, where rock, metal and punk prevail. She has recently also become a member of the Supervisory Board of Roodkapje. Notwithstanding her cramped schedule, she also frees up the time to organise an Afro-Caribbean food festival featuring music and art: ‘After all, this is something that is still missing in the city’. She doesn’t know yet when the festival will take place, but the venue is already known: close to museum Het Nieuwe Instituut, home to Het Nieuwe Café.
Since her childhood, Manuela has always loved the Surinamese and Chinese tokos on the West-Kruiskade and Binnenweg in the neighbourhood where she grew up. Her mother took her along when she went shopping there: ‘Then we used to meet our Turkish upstairs neighbour, who invited us to dinner with her family. Or she would come by with a plate of food for sharing and tasting, which was something we also did with other neighbours. We were a very close-knit group, always tasting a multitude of dishes, all made with products from the same tokos. That is how you got to know other cultures, along with their recipes and music’.
Manuela’s favourite food is cachupa, a traditional Cape Verdean festive dish with corn and beans as the main ingredients: ‘Whenever my mother used to make this dish, my little brother and I would hide our plates under the couch! Now you could wake me up for it at night, just as you could for Korean food or any seafood for that matter’. When asked if there is any speciality from her kitchen that we simply must try Manuela nominates the vegan burger. Why is it so special? ‘Our guests often compliment us on this burger. They are really fond of it, particularly because of its combination of flavours: the home-made sambal, the freshness of the pickled blue skin radish and the sweetness of the onion chutney’. Enjoy!