LIERNU: When Sang Hoon Degeimbre was forced to close the restaurant, the first time and the Belgian government announced a lockdown amid the pandemic way back in March he did not hesitate to move to the countryside. He took one of rooms that normally welcomes guests and which would remain empty throughout the course of the lockdown in the Belgian countryside in Liernu and spent most of his time there.
Returning to Brussels from time to time, where he normally lives, some 45 minutes by car away from the restaurant felt surreal to him. In the countryside, there was not much sign of the pandemic. He worked together with his farming team to prepare the garden for spring. At L’Air du Temps, the Korean born Belgian chef has a garden where he grows his own vegetables, herbs and fruits which serves not just his restaurant but also some of his other restaurants in Belgium.
“Nature does not stop because of the pandemic. Life just goes on,” he told me he told me in an interview in summer.
Today, writing that interview became all the more urgent as the Belgian government announced a second closure of restaurants just as restaurants were slowly on the road to recovery.
And as the country seems to be heading towards a second lockdown, San is today more flexible, maybe even more resilient. “In the beginning, I realised that I had taken lot of commitments and within a moment, my agenda was wiped clean. I needed this quiet moment because I could focus on the priorities. And one of those priorities was rest. For the first three days, I slept a lot. And then the priority became the garden. I took a room in the restaurant and for three months I was here working in the garden. “March, April and May are essential months in the garden. You don’t have any vegetables growing but it is the moment to plant seeds,” he said.
Within weeks, together with Ben, his head gardener, the garden started to produce a lot of vegetables like turnips and radishes and he had to see what to do with them. “At first I worked with a bio shop but I realised that selling this way our message was being lost because they did not really place value on the produce or its provenance. What we do in our kitchen is to add value to great produce. So it was this that led us to create boxes for our clients. I did not want to offer a takeaway because I am not a caterer but it was important to also help producers because they were also in danger and fighting for survival,” he said.
That practice has come in handy today as the second restaurant closure for 2020 was announced taking many restauranteurs by surprise. Within two days of the government announcement, San and Carine Nosal announced they would be opening a shop that would sell not just their produce from the garden, condiments and herbs they prepare but also fresh produce such as duck and beef from their suppliers.
In the first lockdown, restaurants were not ready immediately. The immediate reaction was to close and put staff on unemployment benefits supported by the government. Soon after, San was able to get some people back to work to prepare boxes for his customers. He also received a request from Amelie Vincent, known in social media as The Foodalist to prepare food for hospitals and he also worked to prepare food for the homeless. “We had extra produce which we could use, we would put put 5 euros from every sale of our hamper to support our charity work. It was interesting because we created a circular economy. You realise that things can start slowly and through demand you can continue to work and grow. It helped us also to understand our limits.”
COVID 19 did not take him by surprise. As someone who works close to nature he is used to problems, bacteria that can kill plants for no apparent reason. “We as humans also have a tendency to demystify death or illness. We have this relationship with death which has become very complicated today. We do not accept it, we do not accept that we grow older.”
That might be because as a generation we have not had any experience of world wars or of previous pandemics like the Spanish flu or the Hong Kong flu which also created a lot of havoc but was not so visible in the media.
Amid a health crisis, restaurants worldwide are also facing an unprecedented crisis that is forcing a general reset. “There is going to be a crisis over the next few months. There will unfortunately be many restaurants that will close,” he said.
San believes that what’s most important is to recognise the expense and time that goes into creating good produce. “Over the past months of crisis, consumers have realised that if they have time, they can pay attention to what they eat. During the lockdowns, nearly everyone baked bread, there was a return to essential values. In our daily lives there are lots of things that are superficial and not essential. I hope that this is what remains in people’s heads. People should come back to valuing basic values. And the basic value is being human. It is not about the best carrot but about the person who made it. We have to focus on the human being and not just on the economy or price. We’ve realised that health is essential. Even if we focus on the environment we need to put the person at the centre,” he said.
Many producers came forward to tell him they needed help because they could not go direct to customers. During the first lockdown he became a go between thanks to the hampers that he sold. Now, as the second lockdown is about to start, he is ready with a boutique shop which will see the restaurant showcase some of its best produce from producers in Belgium.
“In future we will need to put value on what’s important. It is not human to create a menu for 10 or 15 euros in certain restaurants particularly because this does not put a value on the work of the producer,” he says.
That’s becoming more and more a theme among those restauranteurs who have experience with growing their own produce because they realise the amount of work that is needed to produce something and the importance of this.
“Sometimes my staff ask me whether a menu or a dish is too expensive and I ask them ‘is what I am paying you too much?’
“My restaurants are not all profitable but they enable 35 people to work. I don’t need to have five restaurants and it is not about the profit but rather about the people working and what they can give to the whole team. It also helps to ease the stress,” he said.
Going back to the lockdowns, San said their were restaurants that did not need to continue to work with chefs and owners spending time to meet their producers and maybe to rethink how to work in the future. “From time to time, we saw ideas that were dictated by economic reasons. But it was also important to create something,” he said.
When you lose connection for three months, the biggest question is how to recreate the team spirit again. You need to assess whether members of the team have changed their opinion, their direction, whether they are still passionate
The biggest challenge for everyone faced with a lockdown was how to create connection again. “As staff we are connected on a daily basis. When you lose connection for three months, the biggest question is how to recreate the team spirit again. You need to assess whether members of the team have changed their opinion, whether they have changed direction, whether they are still passionate in what they do. Because if you do not work on what you are passionate about, it becomes complicated,” he said.
San, as one of the foreign representatives of Les Grandes Tables du Monde, was on the lookout for initiatives that were being taken around the globe. “It was impressive to see how people reacted differently. But ultimately, everyone faced the same issues and was looking at how we are going to work tomorrow. I did not see something that was completely innovative. You cannot invent what cannot be invented,” he said.
“We need to build tomorrow one day at a time. It is very difficult to say what the world of restaurants will look like in five years. The first question you need to ask is how tomorrow will look like,” San said.
The chef is worried that when it comes to plastic for example, the pandemic has sent us 10 years back. “When you look at the disposable masks and gloves and how these are thrown away this is certainly very worrying. You could say the same thing about restaurants and takeaway but in our case we tried to use compostable material. Even the film we use is compostable. We are not perfect of course but when we find defects, we try to improve,” he said.
How will Belgium come out of this crisis I ask him. “I am a bit afraid to be honest. Belgians are not necessarily good at handling stress but it is necessary to have stress. There are many young chefs who are very promising and who would like to earn as many stars and awards as possible but over the lockdown the question I asked myself whether it really matters.There will be some who will change things. There will be others who will push harder,” he said.
One of the first things he did was to close Wednesday at lunchtime. “We are now closed for two full days and two half days. it is important to balance the investments with well-being and to become more durable. We have worked to carbon test the restaurant to see how we can become carbon neutral. We have a project that will eventually help us generate our own energy. Projects are important because they help keep the team in motion,” he said.
To judge the success of a chef, an entrepreneur or manager you need to assess the growth of his former staff. In this regard, San can definitely be proud of himself. He has built not just an enterprise which helps his staff grow, his latest project being Vertige in Brussels with Kevin Perlot but there are many other former members of staff who left his stable and have ventured on their own. The team at Barge in Brussels is the latest example.
“Some want to be independent, but some don’t want to have constraints of ownership. What we try to do is guide them and help them. I think that like fashion this is a cycle, a new approach. Today we have a garden and we take care of the environment but it is something our grandparents used to do. In the past we had molecular food and we were preparing it but we didn’t know why. Today we do. In the past families had their own pigs, grew their own vegetables, then they bought tractors and because they invested they had to produce more. The question we need to ask today is whether it is necessary to have 15 restaurants. And the answer is that if 15 people want to be independent and have something to say, then why not?”
As many places in Europe speak of a possible second lockdown, I asked San what he learned during those three months. “I learnt that I was made for this job. Can I live without the restaurant was one of the questions I asked myself from the beginning. And what I realised is that it is not just about the job but rather about the exchanges with my team, with people. There is this human element which is fundamental,” he said.
I’m always curious about creativity both inside and outside the kitchen. The feeling I have been getting is that creativity going forward will become more important outside the kitchen rather than inside. Does San agree? “I think it is very complicated to surprise people just with flavour. On top of that, people want a return to the basics, they want to enjoy a stew, something simple. We will go back towards the simple things in life, just like in the past,” he said.
San was expecting the second wave. When I spoke to him in July he told me that there had always been a second and sometimes even more waves. The Spanish flu brought about the influenza. So to a certain extent he was prepared for the second restaurant lockdown in a year even though he described 2020 as one which was unprecedented in the history for many restaurants. The lockdown is going to be tough again for the sector. But San remains positive.