ANTWERP: When Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens announced the closure of Hertog Jan at the end of 2018 it was a shock to the Belgian gastronomy scene. At the helm of a three Michelin star restaurant, one of just two in the country, they were at the top of their game.
Many could not understand how two relatively young entrepreneurs, a chef and host, could quit at the peak. But the two had very clear ideas and over the past years they have emerged as two exceptional entrepreneurs that have created a unique L.E.S.S. Eatery in Bruges (the concept has been copied by others since) and Bar Bulot.
Today, they have announced the return to fine dining with a restaurant that will create a new chapter for Hertog Jan. Gone is the 70 cover restaurant. It will also move to Antwerp from Zedelgem on the outskirts of Bruges. Instead they will create a new restaurant with just 12 seats.
Ivan Brincat sat down with Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens to learn more and also to delve deeper into their journey.
Ivan: Over two years ago you closed Hertog Jan. You were at the top and the decision came as a surprise. Here you are reopening Hertog Jan again in a new city. What has changed?
Gert: When we stopped Hertog Jan in Zedelgem, we were at our peak. It was like sitting on a roller coaster, working for 15 years on the same project. It was like being in a tunnel and not being able to see the exit. It became such a big company. We had between 40 and 50 employees and I think we needed to take a break.
We had a lot of other plans and other ambitions like creating new concepts such as L.E.S.S. and Bar Bulot. We also had other things in mind. We wanted to have some space for ourselves, also for our families and friends. To create new things, it was impossible to combine Hertog Jan which was too big with anything else. But now, two years later, everything is working, L.E.S.S. is doing very well, Bar Bulot is doing great so we have some ‘spare time’. (laughing).
We received a call from Antwerp to open a Bar Bulot here. They had three locations. We were interested right away, decided to rent one place and open a Bar Bulot here. I think that this style of cooking is missing in Antwerp. There is of course Flemish/French cuisine but a lot of young chefs want to give it their touch. We serve our veal kidneys with mustard sauce and that is what you get on the plate. Of course we use the highest quality ingredients.
As time passed, Marc Alofs spoke about another space for rent and asked if we were interested in creating a fine dining space. I got excited immediately but Joachim was not convinced. Probably they realised I was more interested so they called me a few weeks or months later and then we came over. I talked with Joachim and told him that it will be something very small, intimate and he started to get interested and that is how Hertog Jan at Botanic came about.
We will open for just two weeks in a month. Probably it will be the first two weeks of the month but we are not sure yet. During those two weeks we will be open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. It will be a very cosy restaurant 12 seats only.
Ivan: I recall that when you announced the closure of Hertog Jan you had said you would consider a pop-up, cooking for just a few people. Is this a continuation of your thinking from then? Have things changed?
Joachim: It will be a next chapter for Hertog Jan. It is not going to be a copy paste of our old restaurant in Zedelgem. It was good that we could reflect for two years and that we were busy working on other projects. What is different for me is that years ago we dreamt of having a real ‘maison’ as you have in France, but now, and I speak for both of us, we get the feeling that things needs to be more human. More intimate and more human. When it is too big, you lose the human connection. When you work for 70 or 80 guests, it is totally different to having to pay attention to 12 guests. This is my personal feeling but in hospitality and gastronomy, it will be more and more important that things are a bit smaller again.
This is something that changed in our minds. On a personal level, we don’t want to have the same rush as we had in the big Hertog Jan. When we open for two weeks, it will give us the time to reload a bit and to think about things, how to improve, how to change things, this is an important difference about the old Hertog Jan and how we will do it now.
Gert: Even for me as a chef it will be different. We were serving 140 people a day. If you take 10 dishes on average that’s serving 1,400 dishes. At the end, as a chef, you need to let some things go. Here we will be cooking for 12 guests, we will have a team. With just one eye you can see everything. We can pamper our guests, we have full control, a complete overview. We can have a certain level of detail that is different to when you are creating the same thing 140 times a day. There always used to be the question of whether the quality of the dishes was the same, whether a certain member of the team could deliver the same consistency. With 12 guests, I can do the most important things myself. The cuisine will reflect out soul but we will take it to the next level.
Ivan: You’ve been travelling to Asia a lot pre-COVID. There it is very common to have very small intimate restaurants and maybe we are not so used to this in Europe. I agree that there is something special about eating and service in such as a small space. How are you designing the restaurant?
Gert: It will be an open kitchen. We are inspired by Asian restaurants and the intimate feeling of small restaurants. In the beginning, we were thinking about counter seats but at the end, we have counter seats in L.E.S.S., we will have counter seats in Bar Bulot and we thought that we would end up with all our restaurants being counter seat restaurants. And this is not our goal so we are looking for an intimate space with 12 seats with 6 tables of two but guests will still be connected to the kitchen but it will be at table. We will give the feeling of a living room, of guests that have arrived at home.
Ivan: Antwerp is one of the most vibrant cities in Antwerp. How exciting is it to move to a new city. There is a more international vibe to Bruges.
Gert: This is a vibrant city as you say. There is an exciting vibe. We have been here in Antwerp for a few days and when you walk in the evening you realise that it is much more alive than Bruges. For sure, it is a positive thing that we are surrounded by other famous Belgian chefs. We can make each other stronger. Antwerp could be a metropole. It is big enough for chefs to collaborate and make a statement. Economically there is the harbour, there is clearly more business than in Bruges. On a normal Tuesday evening or Wednesday evening if you call a restaurant one hour before in the evening it is full so there will be enough space for us to enter.
Ivan: We are in the middle of the pandemic and travel is a problem. But do you think that Antwerp can become a destination city. The difference I see with Belgian restaurants is that they have a strong Belgian clientele. In Antwerp, I get the impression that it may become a city worth travelling too.
Gert: This is a beautiful place. The hotel Botanic is really special but even the neighbourhood is good.
Ivan: These are tough times in the hospitality business. You moved from being a chef/restaurant owner to entrepreneurs with a company that runs restaurants. How does it feel to be thinking of expanding at a time when colleagues around the world are closing their doors?
Joachim: When COVID-19 forced us to close our restaurants for three months it was really hard. At the same time, the forced stop gives you the opportunity to think about your organisation, how you did before and how you can improve things. It is important to not sit back and just wait. We always had the idea to handle the crisis proactively and to see what we could do in summer.
There was no point in stopping. It is hard to hear that a lot of colleagues are suffering. But crisis also leads to opportunities.
Gert: You really have to believe in the future. As Joachim says, crisis also creates opportunities. Also in a situations of crisis, you need to push forward because if you don’t you end up going backwards.
Joachim: If you start to work when the crisis is over, it is too late. I think this is important. It is really hard sometimes because you start to act and organise some things and then there is a brake like COVID. I see that cafes are closing in Brussels. You need to be very flexible to be able to handle this situation.
Gert: Today we are operational with two restaurants and the farm. Next year this time we will have double that. We need to start investing now, we need to recruit people now to be able to train them. If we don’t do it, we will not be ready on time. We need to believe in the idea and go for it.
Joachim: You have to invest not just time but also money. If you employ people you need to pay them. It is the only way to be ready at the time of opening.
Ivan: When is the opening? Will it be May or June?
Gert: We hope in May.
Ivan: Antwerp is scheduled to host the World’s 50 Best Restaurants next year. I presume you want to be ready by then.
Gert and Joachim: We hope so. It depends on the builders.
In the beginning it was good to take a rest and to look at the business from another point of view. But I realised that I started to miss the heat of the stove, working during the service. I miss it but I don’t want to do it every day anymore.
Ivan: It has been over two years that you closed Hertog Jan. In the meantime you’ve opened L.E.S.S. Eatery and Bar Bulot. How much do you missed the cooking?
Gert: I am of course still cooking, sometimes in Bar Bulot, sometimes in L.E.S.S. But you are entering a space with really good chefs. Both Pieter and Ruige are really great chefs and they are taking care of the two businesses so it feels like I am a guest that is coming over. They are of course happy that I go, that I dress some plates but it feels like I don’t have my own space or position. In the beginning it was good to take a rest and to look at the business from another point of view. But later, I realised that I started to miss the heat of the stove, working during the service. I miss it but I don’t want to do it every day anymore. We are getting a bit older (laughs). Not that we are old, we have other things on our mind. We are becoming more mature, we see things differently. We are proud of our talents and we know what we are good at so this gives us an opportunity to create something special.
This is why we have decided to do it this way. We do it for two weeks every month with not too many seats because we want to enjoy what we do. We will cook and serve with a lot of joy and create a magical experience.
Ivan: And you Joachim. Same question. Did you miss the service side of things? Did you miss the human contact with customers?
Joachim: If I had to be honest, at the end of Hertog Jan, I did not miss that because it was so big that it took a lot of energy. It is always a pleasure to have the human contact. I enjoy the coaching aspect, I enjoy the contact with customers but in the beginning I did not really miss service and this even when we first started discussing the project. But it grew on me. Gert kept telling me abut the project, he was talking on his own but bit by bit I was thinking of the things that were annoying me in the old Hertog Jan. Here we start a new chapter. It will be smaller, we can do our job. We will relearn what we did. At the end, I do a lot of the organisation of the restaurant group so it is really a nice thing to go back to the roots and to where it all started.
Ivan: Have you considered the challenges of operating a restaurant two weeks out of a month. I presume that in many cases you can roll over some preparations from one week to the next. But how do you cope with a two week break every month?
Gert: The advantage is that we have our preparation kitchen in Zedelgem. If we are open in week one and week two, maybe we will not have to do anything in week three but in week four, we can start work in the prep kitchen to start things for week one again. If you are open on Tuesday, you can restart on Monday. I don’t think this will be an issue.
Ivan: Have you thought about the menu? Will it be a fixed menu? Will it be a la carte? Does it change every month?
Gert: It will be a fixed menu. Joachim and I have our own identity. It is like an adult. You have your character and cannot really change it. In the kitchen and service we have our own identity. But there is a beautiful connection because there is a botanical garden here which was part of the monastery. Their kitchen was based on lots of vegetables and herbs. We will bring our herbs and tomato collection from our garden in Zedelgem to the garden here. We will have a big green house here. It will be a beautiful next chapter of what there was in Zedelgem. We will of course adapt to what we find here in the monastery, in the city. Our cuisine will be face lifted.
There will be some signatures that we bring from the old Hertog Jan but of course the menu will be changing during the seasons. There will be the truffles, the fresh herbs, vegetables. There will be two or three things that will be in the menu. I think this is important if you want to create your own style and signature. You have to keep some things that you can always eat at the restaurant.
Ivan: You closed Hertog Jan over two years ago. Today you can look back with the benefit of hindsight. What have you learnt from that experience at a distance?
Gert: The most important thing for us is to keep it small.
Joachim: It was like a big machine that was working very well. But it was so big that we could not control every part of the process. In this case, because it is so small, we can control and put our personality in everything we do. This is a biggest thing that we have learned. When it is too big, it becomes very hard to manage. In a small restaurant we can have more impact. In the old place, it might have been our idea but it had to be implemented by the whole team.
We are going back to the roots. When we were younger our focus was to grow and grow and we wanted the restaurant to become bigger and bigger and bigger. Once you get there you realise that it was not so bad when you were small.
Gert: It is like going back to the roots. We started 15 years ago. When we were younger our focus was to grow and grow and wanted the restaurant to become bigger and bigger and bigger. Once you get there, you realise that it was not so bad when you were small. So we want to go back and just become small and do it our way, focus on everything. But the journey we are taking today would not have been possible if we hadn’t taken the previous road. We needed to realise this, we needed to learn through experience. We could not do this without our previous background, without our previous experience. If you are starting at the age of 23, you do not have an impact, no one knows you. It is the only way to do it. Small is beautiful.
Joachim: We have also expanded as a restaurant group. One thing we have learnt is that the back organisation is just as important as the food or service. That is something young entrepreneurs or restauranteurs forget sometimes. We’ve seen it with the corona crisis. You need to put time in the back office. It is important that this part is really well organised. When you grow, everything has to grow with it.
Ivan: At Hertog Jan you have always been avantgarde? Is there something you will be focusing on here which we will consider different or avantgarde?
Gert: It is still work in progress. One of the most important things will be the garden from the monastery. To be honest, I think this is also something we’ve learned over the past year or so. In the past 15 yers we always wanted to prove ourselves but now I think we can just show who we are. This is the difference. We want to create something and do things we are comfortable with. This is crucial. We are working with our own produce and with regional produce. We bring the story we created before with us but at the end we travelled a lot together and we do not want to talk about stories and stories and more stories. We want to create a place that is about food. I get the feeling that sometimes it is more about the story than the food. We were a few weeks ago in an amazing restaurant at an amazing place but when we reflected if you leave the stories behind and put the dishes on an empty table without all the stories, we got the feeling that you are left with nothing.
Of course we want to create good food, of course we take care of the environment but we’ve always kept that in mind and that’s how we work but we don’t need to story tell everything.
Ivan: We spoke a lot about Hertog Jan but there is also another news. You are opening the second Bar Bulot in Antwerp. It is the first time you move the concept that has worked in Bruges to another city. Why?
Joachim: Two years ago we organised a brainstorming session inviting over people to discuss the future. We were not thinking about opening new restaurants but everything goes organically. and some people who were close to us to think about the future. We were not thinking about opening new restaurants but everything goes organically. Bar Bulot is doing well but it is not a question of just opening a restaurant for the sake of it. We need to ensure that the level remains the same, that the food is great and that we need to ensure that the food and service is excellent every day. In Zedelgem, the prep kitchen gives us a lot of good opportunities and this is the right moment for us to open a second Bar Bulot. It is important for the growth to be natural. It is easy to put a name to a restaurant but we like to be proud of the things we do. We like to push hard to reach certain levels and this takes a bit more time. That is the reason why we grow.