What does a 10-year-old ask a chef? How does the conversation go? Most importantly what can one learn from a conversation between a beginner, in this case and someone who is on top of his game.
For a school project, my 10-year-old son had to present to his class a topic related to food. It could have been anything from the food pyramid to wine making. He decided to choose to speak about the Michelin guide and top chefs. Without any prompting his decision was clear from the start. Talk about following in someone’s footsteps. He asked me whether it would be possible to interview a chef as part of his project. Christophe Hardiquest, of Brussels 2 Michelin star restaurant Bon Bon kindly accepted.
On a late spring afternoon, we headed to the leafy Brussels commune Woluwe St Pierre to meet with the chef who has a 19.5 Gault & Millau score, the highest in Belgium together with Peter Goossens. And this time, I took the back seat as I sat behind the camera to record the conversation.
What follows is the conversation between Lukas and Christophe.
When did you start to cook and why?
I started cooking when I was around 12, 13 years old with my grandmother. My grandmother had a house in the countryside and she had everything around her from vegetables to pigs, goats and chickens. There were lots of things. My grandmother cooked from morning till evening. She cooked everything from jams to tarts, making apples in the oven to prunes in vinegar, hams, black pudding. She would cook all day.
I stared by giving her a helping hand. I started by cutting the beans, preparing the jars where she would store the jams, chopping vegetables. That’s how it started.
You were quite young.
Cooking is something that has to come naturally to you when you are young. It is not something that you should force. Everyone likes to eat, everyone enjoys time in the kitchen. But you should do it if you like it. On the weekend, I cooked with my son and daughter but it is because they wanted to cook. Cooking is something you do on a daily basis at home.
That’s a long story. Which was your most important star, the first or the second?
I think they are all important. The first was important because it means that you have been discovered and recognised for your work. The second confirms the work you’ve done in the previous years. The two are important. When you receive awards, it is always a pleasure. Even though we don’t work for this, recognition in your work is important and this applies to whatever career you are in whether you are an architect, a film producer, a footballer. It helps the ego. But you need to keep the ego in check, you need to keep your feet on the ground, remain zen.
How did you become good at cooking?
You need to work relentlessly. You need to learn from others, you need to start from the principle that you never stop learning and you need to work hard. You should not count the hours when you are working to find the right taste, the right texture. It is about working hard. There are days when I work 16 hours without resting. This is because I am determined and this happens particularly when I want to achieve something but I find I am not necessarily succeeding.
I prefer to work 16 hours a day and be happy my job than work 8 hours and not be happy
This is impressive. 16 hours is a long time
It is impressive. Sometimes you have to do it. I prefer to do this and be happy in my job than work 8 hours and not be happy. When I am working it does not feel like work. They say choose something you love to do and you will never work a day in your life. Remember this.
What is the difference between a gastronomic restaurant and a normal restaurant?
In my opinion, whether you are working in a snack bar or in a three Michelin star restaurant the most important thing is to do what you do well. You can go and eat a pita and it is amazing because the bread is chosen with care, the lamb is excellent, the person who is making it has decided to make the best pita in Brussels. This is the spirit that you should have. I don’t think there should be no distinction between a Michelin starred restaurant, a bistro or a shop selling fries because once you’ve decided to do something really well, there should be no difference. The difference is the experience. In a gastronomic restaurant people come not just for the food but also for the experience. They come for the ambience, the service, the food, it is an experience that they will always remember. There are people who spend a lot of money to eat in a gastronomic restaurant and it is for the experience. It is something they will not forget. When you are eating fries, even if they are excellent, it is just for eating. That’s the difference.
What is the most important in a kitchen?
For me it is passion. The passion for produce, the passion for your suppliers, the passion of colleagues, clients. This is extremely important.
How do you create your new dishes?
There are different approaches. For example, when I recreate old Belgian dishes, I am inspired by old but popular recipes which I make contemporary. Otherwise it is the produce which inspires me. I can try to make a lot of experiments. I start to reflect, test, textures and will not stop until it is perfect. Sometimes, if I am not happy I may not work on something for six months and then come back to it. There are no rules to create something. Sometimes you can create something in half a day, other times it might take six months. You need to accept the game. If we are thinking about something we might not be at our creative best. But I am always thinking about cooking, even during holidays, this is my obsession, my passion. I ask questions and work until the creation is ready.
What things do you like to cook?
I love vegetables. But I love everything particularly humble produce like sardines.