BRUSSELS: The phone rings. David Ghysels, the man behind Hakuna Matata, an advertising and communications agency specialised around food brings out his phone to switch it off. It is an old Nokia. One rarely seen nowadays. How can the man behind Dinner in the Sky and a communications agency use a phone like this, I wonder. He tells me without any prompting or asking that he does not like distractions and prefers to have the time to make things happen by accident.
“Bring two ideas that have nothing to do with each other and that’s were creation happens. A guy working in communication and gastronomy and someone working with cranes might not have much in common but this was what led to Dinner in the Sky,” he said.
“The reason I don’t have a smart phone is that I like to spend time exploring, I prefer to pick up a magazine if I am at the doctor. Same for music, I prefer to listen to the radio than to a playlist. When you leave space for creativity, you find that this is when ideas emerge. You cannot just force ideas out,” he said.
David Ghysels is a top personality in gastronomy in Brussels and beyond. Through Dinner in the Sky, he has an address books that connects him to all the top Belgian chefs. As a communications person, he is also responsible for ‘franchising’ the brand he created exporting it from Brussels to 64 countries and counting. Today, the platform that has evolved in various ways keeps growing and growing.
But we will get to Dinner in the Sky and the ‘global gastronomy brand’ he created later.
I’m also interested in his take on the food scene during the pandemic and also particularly since he is someone who has been spotting trends from the day he created his agency Hakuna Matata when food was not yet in vogue and anywhere as popular as it is today.
We have often heard that the greatest works of art have always been created after crisis or pandemics. Shakespeare is one. How is that possible when creatives have very little input from the outside, I ask him?
“I think that we are going to experience a lot of creativity in the end. All crisis stimulate change. But not within the crisis. Because the minds of people and artists are preoccupied with other things. People are worried about how they will eat tomorrow, how they will feed their children. To be creative, you need to see light at the end of the tunnel. We are still in the tunnel, we cannot imagine things, we cannot project ourselves into the future, we cannot make plans but once the light is there, I am convinced that that will be the moment for creativity to emerge,” he said.
“During this period of the pandemic there are a lot of things going on, even unconsciously. We have changed our habits. We had to rethink certain things. The brain in incredible. It is like when you are a student. You think that you have studied something but don’t understand it and when you wake up in the morning, it just clicks,” David said.
He adds that the crisis is like a big sleep. “Within this sleep, it seems dark. There might not be perspective but things move on. There were a lot of superb things that took place during the first wave. People rediscovered space and time and that’s what we humans are all about, space and time. The last 15 to 20 years have been a rush to scratch away time and space. But we humans need time, plants need time to grow,” he said.
“I hope one lesson, I don’t like the term lesson but one thing that people take away from the crisis is to do things slowly,” David said.
And with this he also speaks about expertise, something that is at heart in whatever he does. “I think that we need to remember that to become an expert one needs time to learn, time to experiment, time to develop knowledge,” he said.
“For me, this concept of expertise is essential because you get real pleasure when you do something really well. This is not something that everyone can aspire to because not everyone has time or the required concentration. We were in a world where people were expecting everything new, where they chased the next big thing, where they wanted incredible experiences (the success of Dinner in the Sky is an example of this) or to do something that caught the attention of the media.”
“I hope that the experience of the pandemic will help each and everyone of us to slow down, to consider our choices and to focus on what is essential. For chefs this could be a time to escape from the race for stars and to focus on their job which is to satisfy clients.”
He is of the view that at the moment we are in the sleeping part of the crisis. “I look at what Christophe Hardiquest is doing with his grandmother’s recipes. I read your conversation with Sang Hoon Deigembre who explained that sometimes he orders meat one or two years in advance. I didn’t know that. What San is saying seems obvious but people forget about that. They see dishes but there are people, producers in particular who have to endure the crisis because they have no help,” David said.
As a communications person he knows the importance of social media and sees a huge difference between those that had a following before the pandemic and those that don’t. “It is already too late to start but if you haven’t started you should do so immediately. I don’t necessarily like social media but it is a reality and you cannot really go back. You cannot fight reality. In your private life, you might try to educate your children on how to use it but in business today, you cannot afford to be absent from social media because it would be like putting your hands in front of your eyes and ears.”
He believes that whether you like it or not social media is replacing traditional media. “I see it even with Dinner in the Sky. Today, when you advertise in the normal press you see no impact in sales compared to when you advertise on social media. The impact is completely different using social media or traditional media.”
David also warns that sometimes it is best to use social media yourself. “It is not just about posting menus. Social media, as the name implies needs to be social. You need to create a relationship with your audience and they have to be part of the story. It is not a question of asking an agency to handle your social media. For example, Frederic Anton or Rene Redzepi use it themselves and it creates a far better connection.”
He is of the view that those who did well during the crisis were those that had an established link with their audience.
Dinner in the Sky
Last year in September, Dinner in the Sky was one of the only cultural events that was organised in Brussels because of the pandemic.
“What we did last year was incredible. We were also very lucky,” he says though you can argue that fortune favours the brave.
Just in time for the pandemic, they had created a new platform which was first called lounge in the sky and is now called Dinner in the Sky 2.0. “We created this platform by chance for a client but it became perfect for social distancing obligations because of COVID,” he said.
“The event had to take place in June but it was not possible so we postponed it to September and then it became possible. It was the only gastronomical event that could take place and it turned out to be the only event that happened. We got tremendous publicity in Belgium but also in Reuters, IFP, the Press Agency. We explained the same story but it was transformed into one which said that we prepared a dedicated platform for COVID so there was tremendous coverage all over the world about it.”
He said he was pleased with the great coverage because it put Brussels on the map again. “We organised it in Place de Broukere, in downtown Brussels to get people back to the centre of Brussels that had recently suffered from huge bashing. The visibility for everyone was good and this is a good thing,” he said.
David had once said that Dinner in the Sky is one of the few brands for top gastronomy that is global. What did he mean by it?
“It was my idea from the beginning. I do not come from the gastronomy world even though I have a communications agency that specialised in gastronomy and other activities that are related. My background is advertising and communication. I studied communication and I spent 17 years with Havas Advertising group working on different brands such as Canal +, Olivetti, Amnesty International etc so my speciality is branding. I work on how to build and how to develop a brand. In the gastronomic world today there is nearly no global brand. Unfortunately the biggest one is McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Planet Hollywood tried but did not succeed really well. René Redzepi travels and can open a pop-up restaurant from time to time but neither that is the equivalent of a brand,” he said.
David adds that in people’s minds, Dinner in the Sky is a place with great food and a tremendous view. One day, I think someone will come to see us to buy Dinner in the Sky and it will not be to buy the platform but to buy the brand because in all humility the brand means something,” he said.
“When I go all over the world, people know Dinner in the Sky. The images are so appealing and we are in the media. We are also in all social media because those who are on the platform take photos and share them with their friends. Two years ago, we had a record in the US with over 92.4 million views for one video. That is my job and it connected to good gastronomy,” he said.
The idea to create Dinner in the Sky was pure genius but David also attributes it to being at the right place at the right time. “If we had introduced it 10 years earlier it would not have worked because social media has definitely been a driver.”
Dinner in the Sky works differently in different places around the world depending on the partners. But there is no question that some of the world’s big names have cooked on the platform from Massimo Bottura to Virgilio Martinez and many more.
Dinner in the Sky has been around for 14 years now and the platform have been raised in the sky in 64 different countries. Is there one place in Belgium or outside where you would like the platform to be, I ask him.
“I think that Dinner in the Sky in Cappadocia, Turkey would be wonderful. It is not by chance that there are number one in the balloon business in the world because the place is extraordinary. They have the infrastructure for hot air balloons from 4am to 9am. Everything is in place to organise it and it would be wonderful,” David said.
Other than that he believes that out of 10 places which make people dream, they have been in 9 of them. “I would love Alain Ducasse to cook in the Sky. We had Joel Robuchon, we had Michel Troisgros who became a friend since then, Frederic Anton, Bjorn Frantzen. I don’t think someone like Redzepi would ever do it because it is not his way of thinking.”
He would love to have the Belgian government use the platform to host international delegations. “Imagine a Dinner in the Sky with a Chinese delegation Palais d’Egmont. Instead of going to a restaurant room you would have three top chefs from Brussels cooking in the sky. It would be good for Belgian gastronomy and good for Brussels.”
He knows that Dinner in the Sky may be seen as elitist but it has to be such because of the costs involved in renting the cranes, the price of chefs and the logistics involved.
He already has a vision for a permanent platform that would not only be iconic but would put any city on the world map. He has already designed it and they were ready to build such a platform in Dubai before the project collapsed before the pandemic. “Honestly, I think we were lucky because it was going to take three years to build and with COVID, it would have been problematic.” he said.
“But one day, I hope to make it happen. The first platform was technical, it was not beautiful. The second one, the one you saw last year is better but if we manage to provide a daily experience and remove the crane, it would be ideal. It will happen one day,” he says. ‘This is ultimately what creativity is about. Creativity is about accident. This is my biggest issue in today’s world. We do everything to protect people. Even in this crisis, we see that the first instinct is to take precautions. This is terrible for creation because creation is something that is not connected and happens by accident.”
Gaufres and Waffles
But it is not everything that David does that can be considered ‘elitist’. “All that I have done comes from my child’s mind. In my childhood, i wanted to climb trees, create a tree house and go up. Dinner in the Sky is just that. Gaufres and Waffles, is also from another childhood dream. All I do has this linked to my childhood. For 10 years, I organised an off-road bike trip for people in the advertising world. They used to tell me that it was like being at the boy scouts. When you are a child you do not think of elite or affordable but for me what’s important is quality. My father is a sculpture and details are extremely important. My mother is obsessed with quality. They are collectors of ethnic jewellery and in their collection you will not find one piece that has a little scratch. I’ve been educated like that.”
He said that business is different but with Gaufres and Waffles it has worked well because Yves Mattagne also likes things to be beautiful and tasteful.
The story of how it came about is particular. “I’ve known Yves Mattagne since 2013. One day around 2010/11 the Foundation for Research of Cancer asked me if I was willing to offer a dinner in the Sky for them. “I said yes and asked that they provide the location and chef. Because it was a charitable organisation she got a place in front of the Royal Palace and succeeded in getting Yves Mattagne. The dinner was superb and I got to know him from there. We did a few things together also through my agency and then his son who studied with Michel (who works with David at Hakuna Matata) came to train at Hakuna Matata and then worked as a student for Dinner in the Sky.
“One day in 2019, Yves asked me to go and eat with him and his son and Michel to discuss the future of Sebastien. I discussed with Michael before the dinner and told him that if we go and listen to the father telling his son that he was on the wrong track it would not work. I said we needed to go with a project. At that moment, we came up with the idea that Sebastien should do what some of their friends were doing which is opening restaurants even though they were graduates and not from the restaurant world. In Brussels, successful concepts like Umamido and Knees to Chin have been created this way. We thought about the Brussels waffle. Every country has something like tacos, burgers, pizza. We have the waffle but we don’t do much with it. I had been saying this for a while. I thought that we could cut it in two and fill it, you can change the shape. It could also be vegetarian.”
“We went to Notos, we listened and then we proposed this. Yves said that at the Sea Grill he already made a waffle with seaweed. We told Sebastien that if he wanted to create it they could set up a company with the four as partners. And this was how it started. A business starts with a concept but what is important is also to put the ingredients in place. Yves is a great chef and a businessmen. He has a terrific eye for detail and is perfect to create “Instagramable’ food. He is Sebastien’s father. For Michel, this is his first business though he is seven years older than Sebastien. And I have the experience to manage the concept,” he said.
COVID was not good for them but they reacted quickly to the situation. They started in September 2019 with an outlet in a gallery in central Brussels. It was so successful that they put the money they made from it into a second outlet at WOLF, the Brussels food market. Then the pandemic struck and they had to close. “We managed to convince people who had a brasserie in a park (Jeux d’Hiver) to open there and it worked very well. We started to work on a franchise and had deals in Portugal and Japan but these had to stop because of the pandemic. We will restart once this is over.”
Taking the time to slow down
In July, pandemic permitting, he wants to walk together with his wife from Ireland to Malta. “I am someone who wants stability. I have worked 17 years in advertising, it has been 17 years since I created Hakuna Matata, I have been married for 32 years, I do mountain climbing with the same guide for 20 years. But inside this stability I also need time for disruption. Because disruption refreshes you. In the job it is extremely important to have this space,” he tells me.
Some years back he travelled from Brussels to Armenia in a 2CV. Back when it was not common to work from home, he rented a house in Bali and took his children for six months there.
“After the end of the first wave, I was working and suddenly I said, I want to be walking in connection with nature. I want to do something long and progressive and to refill this human dimension. I told Nathalie my wife that I want to discover plenty of regions we have never been to on foot or by bicycle but definitely going through them slowly. We will start from Ireland, then go to Brittany, Aubrac. I want to stop at Bras, to visit good restaurants (not necessarily gastronomic) and do things slowly. I am 56 now and it is the moment to take time to think. I do not have the feeling that I need to change things in my life but I want to take a moment to also let Michel take the lead. I don’t want to retire yet. Retirement is far from my mind but I am sure that after these five or six months I will have to evaluate a lot of things. But there are many projects I can start including helping young people and transmitting experience. That’s clearly something I want to do,” he tells me.