ANTWERP: Four years ago, Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens shocked the Belgian fine-dining scene when they announced they would be closing down their flagship restaurant Hertog Jan in Zedelgem to focus on other projects. Now, nearly four years after the closure, they are revving their engines to start the third chapter of the restaurant that brought them so much success. Hertog Jan at Botanic in Antwerp is the new chapter of their story.
The restaurant will be open two weeks each month as from next week. In a very small and intimate setting Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens will be welcome guests according to the Japanese principle Omakase. It is a way of dining whereby the guest surrenders fully to the art of the chef. Omakase roughly means “I leave it to you”. The chef is given carte blanche to prepare whatever he or she thinks is appropriate at the time.
Joachim Boudens explained this was a bold and tough choice. “In hospitality you want to please guests all the time but when you have a meal at this level it is more like going to an opera or a concert. I don’t want to sound pretentious but when you start to change the performance it creates a lot of pressure on the kitchen and also shifts the balance of a menu. There is a logic in the menu and that is lost whenever there are changes to it,” he told Food and Wine Gazette.
Chef Gert de Mangeleer on the other hand is rearing to get back to his space in the kitchen. “This concept allows me to do things that I could not do before. Yesterday we were fully booked for a test dinner with 15 guests. In the old Hertog Jan we used to cater for 140 seats a day. In the new restaurant I can work on details that I could not work on before. Do certain things that we could never try. This is something that is really exciting to me. In Hertog Jan I was overseeing a team of 20 chefs, managing them, serving as their mentor. Here I can be in full control of things and getting back to the actual craft of cooking the fish and meat myself. I will have more contact with the produce and this is something that inspires me a lot,” he said.
This is an international city with an old harbour. It therefore gives us the possibility to be more international. I never used spices in Zedelgem before. It seems more natural here. This is a combination of our story, the story of the location and the story of the city.
Guests at the new Hertog Jan can expect new dishes from the team. Asked if they’ve kept many of their signature dishes that made them famous around the globe, Gert told Food and Wine Gazette that only one dish from the old menu is on the new menu, the potato foam with coffee, vanilla and mimolette cheese. “You can say the menu is work in progress. Over the past few years we have travelled a lot and everywhere we cooked we adapted to the atmosphere of the building and the local region. We are of course influenced by the herbs from the green house we have here and the cloister garden which will grow things we had from our collection in Zedelgem. But this is an international city with an old harbour so that gives us the possibility to be a bit more international here. In Zedelgem, I never used spices in my cooking. Here, this is possible because it feels normal to use spices which used to come through the harbour. So this is a combination of our story, the story of the location and the story of the city. But at the end, there is my identity as a chef,” said Gert.
The 22-seat restaurant is set in the historic Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp hotel on the former Elzenveld site in the middle of the city. The hotel will open in November while the restaurant will already open as from next week. With the revival of Hertog Jan in Antwerp, they will recreate the atmosphere of yesteryear in a new and intimate setting with its own conservatory, beehives and herb garden.
A few weeks later, around mid October, Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens will also open the second branch of their award-winning brasserie bar Bulot also on the location of the Botanic sanctuary Antwerp, the first five-star superior hotel in Antwerp.
When they closed Hertog Jan, the successful duo wanted to create space for new ideas and business. And that is what they did. In the meantime, the Hertog Jan Restaurant Group opened L.E.S.S. Eatery in Bruges, which with chef Ruige Vermeire managed to cash in on its first star after just six months. Their restaurant Bar Bulot, which focuses on classic cuisine with chef Pieter Lefevere and host Maxime Depreitere, also saw the light of day in Bruges in 2019. In 2021, Bar Bulot was voted ‘Brasserie of the Year’ by Gault Millau and awarded 1* in the Michelin Guide. In the fast-casual restaurant segment, Gert and Joachim launched Babu this year, together with chef Jef Poppe who has been travelling with Gert on culinary missions for years.
Besides Gert and Joachim, the ‘Hertog Jan at Botanic’ team consists of a few Hertog Jan veterans. Jef Poppe has been Gert’s right-hand man for ten years now. Jef has accompanied Gert on all his culinary journeys and, together with Pieter Lefevere, was in charge of the daily kitchen at Hertog Jan in Zedelgem. There will also be Giel Vanparys in the kitchen of Hertog Jan at Botanic. Pieter Fraeyman will also rejoin the team and will become sommelier and restaurant manager. He already worked as sommelier in the early years of Hertog Jan.
Joachim Boudens explained that the first feeling has been very good. “We’ve been working for the past three days and it feels natural already. Of course we are waiting for the real opening. We know some people will like it, others will hate it even though that is a strong word.”
Speaking about the restaurant policy of just serving one menu without being able to cater for allergies or intolerances, Joachim said that we live in an era where everyone has the idea that everything is possible. “We do our best to please everyone but sometimes it is impossible to imagine what a change to the menu entails. When you go to a performance of your favourite music group you cannot choose which numbers they will play and in which order. Maybe your favourite one is in the list, maybe it is not. That’s what we want to replicate. You enter and leave everything in the hands of the chef. You enjoy the moment to the fullest. It is more relaxing for the guest, for the kitchen and for the front of house,” he said.
Gert is aware that people will be looking at what he does. Does he feel pressure, I ask. “It is a healthy pressure. I want to prove to myself that I am still able to reach a certain level. But in terms of stars, lists and guides we have been there, done that. It is like we have already ticked a very good on our bucket list. What’s important for us is that our guests are blown away and that I enjoy cooking with my team and we will see what that results in. I think it is possible to reach a certain level but that’s not our main goal.
The interior design of the new Hertog Jan
In Hertog Jan at Botanic, Gert and Joachim go back to the essence of high-end gastronomy. They do this in a space that is very intimate, with a very limited number of covers and a limited staff. Benoit Viaene Architectenbureau translates this into a warm and serene interior that contributes to the Hertog Jan experience from A to Z and does not dominate the culinary side. Viaene re-examines the existing gastronomic standards and by moving away from too much frills he focuses on the art in the plate. He wants to create something that – like Gert’s dishes – is honest and unique, and that you cannot reproduce.
Guests are received modestly but hospitably through a beautiful entrance gate. From the entrance hall, you catch a glimpse of the activity in the kitchen thanks to its location two steps down. This is where a culinary walk starts to the 18th century main hall with high ceilings and tall windows through which the light enters the room. The walls are finished with a patinated natural material. Viaene opted for unique sculpted and burnt wooden tables that were worked by hand, as if they were kneaded wood. The almost empty table comes to life through the subtle imperfection that creates a play of light when the guest walks past. A subtle swirl, like slightly rippling water. On the table there is a small pedestal per person on which everything will happen: a frame on which the dishes are presented, the stage on which Gert can make a composition.
Guests are served from two tall cabinets on either side of the room. The almost weathered patinated cupboards give the room a subtle animation. Depending on the stage of the culinary journey, a panel opens or closes. The room has a classical atmosphere because of its historical proportions, without being too conformist.
Bar Bulot at Botanic
Besides the gastronomic Hertog Jan, Gert and Joachim’s team are also opening a second branch of Bar Bulot, their à la carte brasserie, on the same site. At the helm of Bar Bulot at Botanic are hostess Elske Mostert and chef Koen Gussenhoven, who give French-Belgian signature dishes such as tomato shrimp with hand-pulled shrimps from Nieuwpoort and tournedos au poivre a contemporary twist. They serve mainly French and European wines. At Bar Bulot you can enjoy genuine brasserie classics. Everything is of superior quality, finished to a high standard and with an eye for detail, as you would expect from the Hertog Jan team.
Bar Bulot at Botanic will open its doors in mid october.
Hertog Jan at Botanic (reservations)
Lange Gasthuisstraat 51