“There’s not really one thing or person that inspired me to become a chef. I came into contact with food and the food industry at a very young age. I started working as a dishwasher and the kitchen was always in need of an extra pair of hands, so I started helping out more and more. I always loved the kitchen environment – the tension, the focus on finesse and this romance between the chefs, you know one moment they are butchering each other down and then next they are almost crying on each others shoulders. This kind of collaboration really attracted me. The atmosphere of the kitchen was the first thing that really attracted my work wise.
“I went to Belgium, to a very good culinary school in Bruges, and from that moment on I was completely dedicated to the trade. It was very disciplined and lots of rules that you have to stick to. It was quite a hard attitude, but it was definitely something that I needed for me to develop into a strong person and chef.
“It was after I started doing stages at Michelin-Starred restaurants that I really came into the type of food that I connected with. My style constantly evolves and changes, but the finesse of fine gastronomy is still something that really intrigues and inspires me: the attention to the guests, the produce, and the details of the food.
“Another important turning point for me was when I started working at the Ould Sluis with Sergio Herman. At the time, he was a young chef with two Michelin Stars, but in ripped jeans and quite a rebel attitude. This was about 15 years ago, so it was quite uncommon in a world of fine dining that was still quite classic and traditional. I really liked it and it really gave me the motivation to become part of this new generation of chefs: a modern chef that works on a high level of gastronomy, but to also be open-minded when it comes to the fine dining experience as a whole. You know, traveling and opening yourself up to different cultures and cuisines is the best thing you can do. It helps you to constantly evolve and develop as a chef and avoids you becoming stuck in your ways.
“In terms of the restaurant, the initial idea was to have a modern brasserie that served high quality food. We had a lot of covers but we noticed that people missed the traditional fine dining experience with special attention to detail. I think the brasserie was a bit to rock and roll for people, to be honest. We heard various feedback, which included longer dining times, luxurious fine dining, explanations of the food and wine.
“So, bit by bit, we changed the concept back to the previous style but maintained certain progressive elements like contemporary music, casual outfits, accessible elements in the front of house. I think people enjoy that the experience is very casual but with the finesse and quality of fine dining.
“It was also a natural evolution for me as I realized I was far better at cooking fine dining food than rock and roll-style brasserie food.
“In fact, when people ask me to describe my cuisine or philosophy I find it quite difficult to answer, so I would have to just say that it is eclectic. It’s a 15-course tasting menu where you experience Thai influences, Japanese flavours; there is local, French cuisine and traditional cooking. It is a combination and reflection of me and my tastes and preferences. I just love good flavours and will adapt to whatever direction this take me in.
“I try to create a well-balanced menu within the different flavour palates that I explore, which I think works well as it avoids this feeling of repetition. The whole tasting menu is based on being interesting more than anything. At the moment, I am serving a local lobster that is only in season for 6 weeks. I’ve created a dish using this and smoked beetroot, caviar and a dashi butter sauce. It is my first and only signature dish that I have ever created. It’s actually a very simple to make but people are blown away by it.
“My protein ration has always been secondary on the plate. Vegetables and vegetable combinations always take precedence over the protein source. I like the different textures and colours of vegetables but I couldn’t skip these kinds of protein elements – I am a big fan of seafood and fish. It’s like telling a painter that they can’t paint in green and blue – I don’t want to be limited by food habits. There are people who are specialized in this but I am specialized in creating food, which is tasty and interesting with all food sources. I work alongside a lot of international suppliers but this is mainly for condiments, spice mixes or umami, for example. I need these flavour elements to get to the end result of the dish, but the protein and vegetables are sourced as locally as possible. We are also lucky in Belgium because people are producing a lot of great produce.
“We are actually currently working with Menabis Pork, which is a pork produced by renowned Belgium butcher, Henrik Ledendunk. He has found a pork species that has been lost for over 2000 years. They found the bones of the pig and have used the DNA to create a new generation of this old pork species. It’s such a great concept and is very special and unique product. It has all the flavours of dry-aged meat and you only need a small amount because it is so rich in flavour.
“We also have a rooftop garden, so I try and cultivate as much as I can from there. It is amazing to that we have access to this and that we can incorporate this into our menu.
“I think when people come to the restaurant they recognise my style of food. In the beginning, I really focused on showing what I can do and impress the diners. I made the dishes complex, with too many elements and too many forced directions on one plate.
“I have always tried to listen closely to the feedback from guests and I realised that the more simply I cook, the more I concentrate on pure, simple flavours and quality produce, the more people enjoy it. How I cook now, has gradually evolved into something that is far more natural and comfortable than showy and complex. I am very focused on who my clientele is and how I can enhance their experience and look after their needs during the meal.
“Nowadays everyone speaks about accessibility and a casual dining experience, but I think you can have this atmosphere and vibe and still produce an experience that goes beyond just going out for dinner. It has to be a complete and enjoyable experience that you remember. That is a strong aspect of what we try to offer and I try my hardest to keep the vibe of the restaurant young and fresh.
“For me, fresh inspiration comes from travelling but also looking at other contemporary creative industries. So, I like to be aware of the latest fashion, music and artistic trends because it keeps me on top of my own game. For example, I follow fashion houses that have young and fresh creative talent. The new generations of creative directors in fashion houses and music industries are at the forefront of these movements in lifestyle. They have great campaigns and initiatives that keep their brands fresh and for me this is very inspiring. They are people from completely different scenes and backgrounds but they are innovative and refreshing nonetheless. It really helps and motivates me to continuously update myself and open my mind to think about things in a different way, which ultimately benefits the restaurant and, in turn, motivates our guests.
“Recognition of the work we put in to the restaurant through winning awards is, of course, important, but mainly in the sense of maintaining and ensuring quality. However, they don’t block me creatively. I don’t create my food or come up with new concepts solely in accordance to what would win awards. Everything we create comes from the heart and we spend a lot of time working on this. Even though it might be simplistic, I make sure I properly research the background of the dish or if I produce a pasta dish, I try and make it as authentic as possible so that it’s not just simple pasta. Everything has a story and I think that something that people like and understand.
“I think it’s very important that chefs should not only focus on the food. Chefs should try to be good entrepreneurs and to be very aware that social media, branding, the overall restaurant experience from reception to farewell needs to be taken seriously and considered at every step. You know, from music to uniform, the chef needs to be aware of how this affects the diners. I think this is something we try to stay on the ball with, so I often try and come up with new and innovative concepts outside the food. It’s not enough any more just to cook nice food. This might have worked before but there is so much competition and so much on offer that you have to always try and go one step further.
“For young chefs, it’s important to start thinking as restaurateurs and not just chefs. You get a lot of emerging talent who cook great food, but you need to give a bit extra to your clientele. Like I mentioned before, if the chefs are willing to open themselves up to different scenes then this is something that will set you apart from the rest.”
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 05.18 Edition
Images © Kris Vlegels and Pieter D’Hoop