At the European Food Summit organised in Slovenia last week between Saturday 16 March and Tuesday 19 March, I used the country I know second best (after my home country Malta) to make the point that collaboration today is key.
Why is Belgium not so well known as a gastronomic destination? Has it been a missed opportunity as interest in food peaks globally? Food can unite, it can also divide as very well able presented by colleague Georges Desrues.
The following is my speech at the conference:
I would like to thank Ana and Andrea for inviting me to speak today. It is an honour and a pleasure to be here.
I am not a Belgian, this is not about Belgian cuisine. I am not even a food writer if you go and look at my LinkedIn Profile.
So why am I here and how did a Maltese who left a tiny island in 2005 for professional reasons that have nothing to do with food end up here. More importantly what observations can I make that are relevant to you.
I’ll use Belgium, the country I know second best, as my canvas to make the point about the opportunity we’ve been given with food to make change. In a way it’s a clarion call for collaboration, communication and leadership.
We are lucky today to be able to use food as a medium and vehicle to tell stories, to connect humans, to shape identities and even politics. Food has never been more fashionable. We can use food as a driver for change. A change in behaviour and a change for a better society.
My mission, our mission, is not just to communicate but to also awaken, disturb, to instigate and provoke. In other words to try to be agents of change. And change is something we definitely need.
Maybe it would be good to set the context first. Belgium has a very rich history when it comes to gastronomy. A country that takes its food very seriously, A country of foodies if you want to put it in today’s language. It was the first ever country to get a Michelin guide and also the first to have a three Michelin star restaurant outside France. Those who know me, know I’m not really a huge fan of the red guide but it helps to set the frame.
For a relatively small country, Belgium can and does punch above its weight. The Belgian football national team, chocolate, beer, fashion designers, world famous artists are all sources of pride for Belgium.
Why then don’t we know much about Belgium when it comes to food?
Those of you who have children in the audience know that their questions have no inhibitions. They don’t censor their questions. They are innocent.
Call me naive but when I interviewed Peter Goossens who many consider to be the father of modern Belgian gastronomy around 4 years ago, I was definitely innocent, when I asked him why Belgium was not known internationally for its food.
He told me that no one had asked him that question before.
“Belgium has some of the best chefs in the world and its cuisine is among the best in the world but no one has said it before. Belgium needs to promote itself as a culinary destination but this has not yet happened.
What we need is for the government to push Belgium’s image abroad. Can you imagine, in Belgium we have frites but they are called French Fries worldwide. It is a bit mad to have allowed this to happen.”
He wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.
As a ‘foreigner’ living in Belgium I had heard many clichés about the country from its political issues, to people going to government departments in certain cities and towns speaking one language and getting a response in another.
But food? What could be political or controversial about that?
Little did I know I was stepping into a minefield.
If Peter Goossens was right about Belgium having this story to tell to the outside world, why was no one telling it? Was it complacency, a lack of funding, high taxes, high cost of labour, a lack of vision or something deeper?
Scratching below the surface I started finding the reasons.
The first is political.
Belgium is divided by language, by traditions and also by politics. Of course there are differences like there is a difference between the North or South of Italy, the North or South of Germany or every other country.
Things are taken to the extreme. It’s like having two countries that don’t speak to each other.
This year the Belgian team participated in the Bocuse d’Or. The promotion was in the hands of a regional tourism office because the winner happened to be from this region. Now this is a region, Flanders, which takes food very seriously. And that is really positive. They were the first to realise the potential for food tourism years back.
But what happens next year if the winner comes from another region? Doesn’t he or she also deserve to be given a fair chance? And how will the knowledge of what went right or wrong be transmitted to those responsible for next year’s PR? If I have to be frank isn’t the Belgian brand stronger?
The stories you hear are funny if they weren’t sad. Picture the scene of a journalist being left on the border between Brussels and a neighbouring town Tervuren because the representative of the Brussels tourism office cannot enter into the neighbouring territory. It’s not an exaggeration, it has happened.
Politics is an issue but the problems go deeper.
Take marketing, PR and events.
Very few if any marketing and public relations companies think nationally. Public relations companies focus on their little niches and cities as if the country comes as an afterthought.
I used to ask why I seemed to be one of the few to get invites from across the country for events and then I realised that I was seen as ‘neutral’ writing in English and hence for either the international or expat audience.
You have events with names like the Flemish Food Bash or Wallonia Festival. There is nothing wrong with these names but who is going to take the mantle to discuss the whole of Belgium and promote it as a whole.
I can keep going on, the list is endless.
There was a hulabaloo when Michelin promoted many Flemish restaurants two years ago but seemed to forget about those in Brussels or Wallonia. Of course, many on social media laid the blame on the difference in the budgets of regional tourism office. The language became aggressive. San Degeimbre, the most representative chef of the South had to call for calm. He said that ultimately the results were good for the whole of Belgium.
There is also a sense of introspection. As Kasper Kurdhal, a Danish chef who until a few weeks ago was working in one of Brussels’ top restaurants told me
“We can think that we can serve the locals. We can still be happy but that means staying local, being less ambitious and taking the approach that you want to stay below the radar.”
I don’t think that is what many people want.
Which brings me to the third point. For change to happen, each and every one of us needs to take the bull by the horns. And by this I mean those in the food community be it chefs, journalists, bloggers, influencers, you name it.
As Kennedy said ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.
It is not all bleak. Amid all this there are rays of hope. It is heartening to see individuals having big ideas and are trying to push them forward. They are the ones that can ultimately make a difference and trigger a change in mindset.
Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens may have closed their internationally renowned restaurant Hertog Jan but they are in search of the next big thing. They’ve just opened an impressive new restaurant called LESS Eatery in the centre of Bruges They are also introducing a more intimate dining experience for 14 guests at the old Hertog Jan. They’ve never fallen into the trap of following a trend. They know a new direction is the only direction.
The most representative chef in Wallonia San Degeimbre of two Michelin star L’Air du Temps has opened three very successful concept restaurants, two in Brussels and one in Gent. The latter has been well received. It is a first small step in bringing down barriers, in breaking walls.
Sergio Herman, Dutch but with strong Belgian connections including the acclaimed The Jane in Antwerp considered by many as one of the most stunning restaurants in the world has ventured into Brussels.
Christophe Hardiquest opened the doors of his Brussels restaurant Bon Bon to host 20 chefs for the GELINAZ! Headquarters in 2016 and has embarked on a project to reinvent Brussels cuisine. In the process he is trying to promote Brussels not just locally but also internationally.
Filip Claeys has created North Sea Chefs, a nationwide collective of chefs to promote sustainable fishing and use of uncommon fish species in restaurants. Chefs from across the whole country have subscribed to this initiative.
In recent months there have been more collaboration dinners among Belgian chefs from different regions than I can remember. Some of you will say the world does not need more four hands dinners but in a country where a chef may not be invited to an event because of the region he comes from, that’s an important first step.
Collaboration and communication can only bring about good things.
There is enough material to build a narrative that can turn Belgium into a culinary hotspot. It requires leadership. It requires ambition. It requires courage.
Most of you will know Belgian artist Magritte and his Treachery on Images painting in which he showed a pipe and painted ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, french for ‘this is not a pipe’.
Is it time to say ‘This is not a French Fry’ and reclaim the frites back?
More importantly who is going to take the lead?
The message I want to leave you with:
Let’s forget our differences, let’s forget the petty politics. Let’s focus on what unites us. And let’s use our energies to work on today’s and tomorrow’s pressing problems. We all can be the change we need.