Utrecht is home to many nationalities. Every week, DUIC features an Utrechter with a different background. The concept was inspired by ‘180 amsterdammers’.

‘The mainstream can take a running jump’

Allemaal Utrecht with Tomek Szugzdzinis

Tomek in the kitchen of restaurant Vaartsche Rijn. Photo by Robert Oosterbroek

He has a salami in one hand and a salted cow’s heart in the other. “Dried them in my own attic for an experiment.” Who knows? Diners in the Vaartsche Rijn restaurant on Westerkade might see the results on their plates this evening.

Tomek, a chef from Poland, didn’t set foot in an Albert Heijn all last year (‘dreadful, tasteless food’). Every Monday, he walks from his home on Graadt van Roggenweg to his favourite part of Utrecht (Kanaalstraat) to buy from the small specialist shops there. He’s a familiar face to the greengrocer and Tomek always stops for a chat in the delicatessen. He appreciates the personal touch. Unlike most chefs, he only buys the products he fancies (“Purely seasonal!”), and decides what to make when he gets them home. In his opinion, everyone should spend more time on food. On everything actually. “The Dutch are far too busy. Look at the centre of Utrecht; cyclists run down pedestrians (and each other), because they’re in such a hurry to get to the shop or home. Relax; enjoy life!”

Things were much calmer in Poland. Tomek’s mother dug up potatoes for the neighbours and tended her own vegetable patch in the garden. “There weren’t any shops, so we became self-sufficient. That’s why Poles are so practical; they had to be.”

Tomek grew up in a small village set between lakes and forests, with a population of a thousand. “Nowhere in Utrecht is completely quiet.” After qualifying as an electrical engineer, he spent a few weeks picking strawberries in the Betuwe as a summer job. Then a Polish friend ‘possibly’ had a job for him in Utrecht. Tomek never left – apart from family visits.

Integration

He saw more opportunities in the Netherlands, and clung to this thought when things got tough. “It was four years before I felt integrated; learning the language wasn’t easy, but a kind Dutch neighbour was a great help. But I realised that as a Polish country bumpkin, I had to learn more than just the language to get on the same wavelength as the Utrechters.” Training to be a chef and lots of evenings out soon did the job.

“SJU or Stichting Jazz Utrecht, was my favourite haunt, but it’s closed now. They had live jazz and good hip-hop by some lads from Overvecht. I go to the ACU on Voorstraat these days. The people are great, not run-of-the-mill. You won’t see me in a Filemon club. The mainstream can take a running jump as far as I’m concerned!”

Tomek has found his niche; in restaurant Vaartsche Rijn, where he cooks passionately using good, honest, local products. He’s not only one who appreciates food like this. “People understand that you don’t have to eat meat or fish every day. I’m delighted to see more enlightened restaurants opening in Utrecht.” But Tomek will be off again in a year. He and his girlfriend are planning world trip, keeping an eye open for somewhere to settle as they travel. “Perhaps somewhere a bit less Western with more nature and tranquillity.”

Passport
Name: Tomek Szugzdzinis
Date of birth: 26 September 1983
Place of birth: Wojcieszyce, Poland
Motto: ‘Be yourself, but take care of each other’

Allemaal Utrechters is a series of interviews with people who moved to Utrecht from another country. We ask them about their background and their impression of Utrecht, revealing the true diversity of our city. The ‘Allemaal Utrechters’ series is a collaboration between DUIC and Culturele Zondagen, and has been made possible with help from Stichting Dialoog and the Municipality of Utrecht. We hope to showcase every nationality in Utrecht.

Click here to view the other articles.