Small World Catering has brought a Melbourne-style deli concept to Amsterdam and changed local taste buds in the process, writes Danny Corvini.
“A mozzarella and pesto sandwich was as exciting as they got,” says Melbourne’s Sean Wainer of the food offerings in Amsterdam when he started his catering business here 19 years ago.
Today, the locals’ tastes have improved markedly and it’s in no small way thanks to Sean’s venture, which is now a catering business and cafe that he describes as having “hippie chic” vibe.
Set on a laneway corner in the Jordaan, once a rundown area but now one of Amsterdam’s prettiest, the cafe’s display counter overflows with a wide spread of global foods that Sean boasts are on every street corner in Melbourne. It’s a global scene behind the counter too: accents from eastern Europe, South America, Africa, England and Northern Ireland are mixed in with the three Aussies that work there.
The cafe has precious room for indoor seating and so the outdoor benches that wraps both sides of the cafe are full of relaxed, happy customers when I visit. I’m impressed when Mario from Mario’s cafe in Brunswick Street in Fitzroy drops by for a chat with Sean.
But it wasn’t easy to get people into the cafe at the start, says Sean.
“They didn’t understand the ‘deli’ concept like we have in Australia,” he says.
“They had cafes with croissants, coffees and lighter snacks and the French concept ‘traiteur’ where you go to buy food in the evening. But they didn’t understand our food,” he says.
“They were like, ‘Is it French? Is it Italian? Oh, it’s mostly Spanish, but you do other stuff?’
Small World was one of just two cafes at the time to offer New York cheesecakes and then Sean introduced carrot cake to the Dutch, which baffled their sensibilities at the start but has since become one of their most popular items.
It was a glowing review by legendary Dutch food critic (but now deceased) Johannes van Dam that changed everything for his burgeoning business, says Sean.
“He gave Small World 9.5-stars,” says Sean. “That’s the highest that any lunch-room had got.”
Sean says that his approach has always been to offer his favourite foods, no matter how eclectic the mix. Everything is made in the shop with ingredients that Sean has plucked from a local market and the catering orders, which still makes up 40% of his business, are made in the same kitchen.
There’s always an Australian beef pie on the menu but you won’t find anything from Holland, says Sean. “I’m not big fan of Dutch food,” he admits.
There are 22 permanent varieties of sandwiches on offer including a sashimi tuna with wasabi mayo and avocado; and a homemade grilled pesto chicken sandwich with roast vegetables.
Other popular items include a ricotta pesto and grilled vegetable wrap, Lamb burritos, a French goat cheese quiche and Thai fish cakes.
Also reflecting Melbourne’s cultural character, there are lots of Lebanese and Greek foods on offer and Italian taleggio cheese pops up in many food items.
But Sean admits that he seriously thought about closing up Small World and returning to Australia during the global financial crisis, which hit Amsterdam hard.
“Everything slowed down and everybody was scared of spending money,” he says. “The first thing to go was the advertising agencies that we were catering to. They just kept the lights on and the staff they needed and dropped the fancy sandwiches.”
He says that he didn’t notice for the first year because it was still busy in the shop, “But by the end of the year I was like, ‘Where’s all the money?’. It was a really dark atmosphere in Amsterdam that lasted for a couple of years.”
Sean believes that the city has now well and truly “caught up” with Melbourne and now he’s more concerned that the food back home has become more mass-produced.
He says that it’s very competitive running a food business in Amsterdam and that there’s a lot of red-tape involved in running a business in The Netherlands generally. Crucially, you must make special efforts to “keep in good with your neighbours”, he says, because businesses and residents are squeezed in so tight in The Netherlands, which is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
However, Sean is content with his lot here and harbours no expansion plans. “I’m not a very ambitious person, really,” he says. “As long as I can take a holiday a couple of days a year and pay all the bills, I’m happy with my little shop.”
“Love Your Lunch – The Small World Recipe Book” by Sean Wainer is available through Murdoch Books.
Small World Catering, Binnen Oranjestraat 14, 1013 JA Amsterdam, Netherlands
Photo: Pablo Lavino