ANTWERP: Seppe Nobels still remembers the first dish he served on the night Graanmarkt 13 opened for the first time 10 years ago on 13 February.
It was a carpaccio with old Brugge cheese and truffle. Little did he know that this dish, while representing a beautiful memory is not a dish that he would be serving nowadays in the restaurant in Antwerp.
“Today, I work a lot with vegetables. We have our own fields 20 kilometres away from Antwerp and we have a farmer there who lives on the farm and supplies us with produce which is completely biodynamic,” Seppe told Food and Wine Gazette.
For the 10th anniversary of the restaurant opening, Seppe has looked back at dishes he has prepared over the past 10 years and created a unique menu that is being served for just 10 days.
“When I took some of the most important dishes over the past 10 years I ended up with 25 dishes. But now I only work with seasonal produce and local ingredients from Belgium (and the Netherlands which is less than 100 kilometres away). So I ended up choosing the best dishes for winter time with produce which is in season,” he said,
Today at Graammarket 13, Seppe is one of the chefs in Belgium pushing a more vegetable centric cuisine.
He acknowledges that the start was not easy. “When I look back to eight years ago when I really started to involve more and more vegetarian dishes in the menu, it was not successful. A lot of people were not yet ready for it. They would tell us we are not vegetarians. Now even people that are used to eating meat on a daily basis accept vegetable dishes. The most important thing for me is to use techniques that we use for meat and fish to enhance vegetable flavours.”
Seppe said that he grills, pickles, ferments and marinates the vegetables. “You can have a beautiful seabags that is cooked in salt. We do the same thing with vegetables like beetroot and celeriac,” he said.
Apart from his farmer which supplies him with most of his needs, Seppe also has the possibility to use a herb garden he has on the roof of Graamarkt 13 which has over 80 micro herbs as well as 110 beehives for honey. “I also support several projects from micro leaves that grow in containers in the Antwerp harbour to mushrooms that are created in the basement of a school in the city centre. I think it is extremely important to support a lot of urban farming projects.”
He believes the future is more local produce. “When you look at menus abroad, many are doing the same team, working with the same ingredients. We work as much as possible with local ingredients. While I like soy sauce for example, you will not find it in the kitchen. If you look around you can find things that are local. In Zeeland, 60 kilometers away, I can find gram made with mackerel and sardines. They don’t sell it commercially because they do not produce a lot but if you look you can find local suppliers. I’m now working with a vegetable museum director who is introducing me to farmers that cultivate vegetables from the past.”
He is happy that more and more customers accept vegetable centric dishes and more chefs are working with vegetables. “It is important for the ecological footprint. I really like meat and miss it on the menu and at home but I prefer to buy a beautiful cut of meat at 30 or 40 euros a kilo and eat it one a week rather than eat meat daily but knowing that it was not grown or raised in good conditions.”
While Seppe looks at Asian and South American cuisines which put forward a vegetable centric cuisine he laments that there are very few vegetable classic dishes in Belgian heritage. “In Belgium we might have asparagus cooked the Flemish way or hop shoots but most of our iconic dishes like eel with green herbs, carbonnade or stew and many of the classic dishes are based on fish and meat. “This is something we need to change.”
He is encouraged by the fact that the top chefs in Belgium are starting to serve more and more vegetable dishes so there is a chance that there will be more vegetable dishes in Belgium’s culinary heritage in future.
Today, Seppe is using 80 per cent vegetables in his kitchen with the remaining 15 per cent and only 5 per cent meat. He works with vegetables whether it is winter or the spring and summer months. “Every season is interesting and you are always waiting for the next season.”
This winter season he has made use of more than 500 kilos of beetroots.
When he was 15 he had an idea of either becoming a chef or a farmer. After visiting farming schools and hospitality schools he ended up studying as a chef. He forgot the ‘farming’ side during his classical training working in restaurants in France, Italy and Belgium. He became interested in cooking with vegetables a few months into his work at Graanmarkt 13.
So where does he see Graanmarkt 13 in 10 years time? “I think we will go on with this story. I believe you cannot really grow opening 12 restaurants. It is difficult to multiply restaurants but we want to grow. We want to become more international and I think that I am growing as a chef. Over the next years, I want to invite chefs here and also go to cook in other places. I am working on a new book and maybe it should be a memory of the last 10 years. Looking around me in Antwerp, there are not many restaurants that are open since 10 years. It starts to become exceptional to be in the market for 10 years,” he said.