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Paul Klitsie can remember the moment he knew he should become a chef.
The Netherlands native was attending a college in Germany studying hotel and restaurant management and for an assignment; he’d made braised veal shin, liver dumpling and red cabbage. One of those grading the student’s work, a Michelin starred chef, came back to the kitchen to ask who had made the dish.
“Like Moses, everyone stepped aside, then there was me,” Klitsie, now 51, said. “He told me, ‘with as little experience as you have, this is amazing.’ ”
That, Klitsie said, was his “aha” moment.
Up until then, he hadn’t known what he wanted to do. Though the idea of preparing food didn’t appeal to him at first, Klitsie decided to go for it anyway.
“You’re stuffed away in a basement, slaving away. There’s no charm in that,” he said. “But when opportunities fall in front of your feet, you can either ignore them or you can take them.”
After graduating, Klitsie worked at a restaurant in his hometown, Rotterdam, Netherlands, then went on to work in Switzerland. Then he took a job at an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam, where he rose to the level of head chef. After eight years, he decided he wanted to go out on his own in a big way — by opening a restaurant outside of Europe.
“I wanted to see something else in the world,” he said. “I wanted to give it a shot.”
So in 1998, he went into business with an American he worked with in Amsterdam and the two decided to open an Italian restaurant in Portland: Ristorante Fratelli in Portland’s Pearl District.
He said that for the first six months, he didn’t have time to reflect on his accomplishments because Fratelli was so busy bringing in around 100 people a night, he said.
“The only way you can start a restaurant is if you really believe in it,” he said. “I believed in what I was doing. Of course, it’s exciting when it’s well received and it’s busy.”
John Gorham, who owns several Portland restaurants, including Toro Bravo and Tasty n Sons, worked for Klitsie at Fratelli when he first moved to the area from California.
“A lot of the philosophy I have in a restaurant started with Paul,” Gorham said.
For example, Gorham said that Klitsie made his own bread and pastries to go with the dishes.
“It’s not about being thrifty, it’s about also about being cohesive,” he said. “If the pastry chef is not in tune, (the cuisine) didn’t flow.”
Over the years, Klitsie bought his partner out and moved to Vancouver, but kept his restaurant in Portland. The commute, lack of parking and the saturated market in that area kept him eying various spots around Vancouver.
In 2013, the building that Fratelli was in sold to new owners and Klitsie said he saw that as an opportunity to move on. He signed a lease in downtown Vancouver, at 907 Main St.
“I was just done with Portland,” he said. “I wanted to have something in the town where I live.”
That fall, he opened Willem’s on Main — Paul’s true first name is Willem, though the name is also a nod to his father, also named Willem, who helped him start the restaurant.
The locally sourced menu that Klitsie describes as American comfort food with European influences is adding to the upscale food scene in Vancouver. He gets his produce from Millennium Farms and Quackenbush Farm, both in Ridgefield, and his meats from a ranch in Dufur, Ore., as well as brisket and bacon from a butcher he raves about, Mayer’s Custom Meats in Brush Prairie.
“No Sysco trucks stop in front of my door,” he said.
Though he said he’s trying to get away from Italian, Klitsie said it keeps sneaking into his dishes.
“I can’t really get away from it,” he said. “I make Italian food like a peasant, like people do at home. I go to the market, see something and make a whole meal around it.”
One of the biggest perks of having dinner at his restaurant, he said, is that Vancouver residents don’t have to go far to get quality food and that Willem’s on Main has a parking lot for customers behind the building.
“You can be in and out in an hour,” he said. “Try to do that in Portland.”
At times, he said, having a restaurant in downtown Vancouver is difficult. One weekend morning can bring 24 people in for brunch, while the next will bring 70 hungry customers.
“It’s a great town, but it’s still difficult, it’s still growing,” he said. “I see this area as what the Pearl District was in 1998 … there’s just a lot of promise. People want to be in a downtown. Slowly but surely, there will be more restaurants opening up.”
At the end of the day, Klitsie said he’s happy to have a job where he shares his passion with others.
“I really love what I do. … Everyone who works in my kitchen loves what they do,” he said. “You can taste that.”