It is a crisp autumn morning. The fourth session of the Saint Pellegrino Young Chef Academy is taking place in a new spot created by chef and entrepreneur David Martin. It is in an idyllic spot, perfect to transmit knowledge.
The focus is on the green revolution. Michael Vrijmoed has been serving a vegetable based menu since he opened his acclaimed restaurant Vrijmoed in Gent. And it is well known because he leaves no stone unturned in making sure that what he serves is just as delicious. “What’s important for me is that a dish tastes excellent. My main focus has always been that of getting the best taste out of ingredients. Making a dish look nice only comes second in importance,” he said.
Stephanie Le Quellec explained that while it is still hard in Paris to offer a fine-dining vegetarian menu in its entirety she is also working on a number of stand-alone vegetable dishes in her menu at restaurant La Scene. And while demand for a more vegetable-centric approach had been increasing even before the pandemic, she has clearly noticed an upward trend in people who demand vegetable based menus or dishes at the restaurant.
“We have dishes that can be easily adapted if customers demand without losing out of the flavour that comes with say using caviar,” she tells me.
For this occasion, the six chefs at the Young Chef Academy coming from various spots across Belgium are able to look at the work of Stephanie and Michael on beetroots and mushrooms. It is a coincidence, the two chefs had not discussed the menu or their dishes before the event.
Michael Vrijmoed made a spectacular beetroot dish that was served with a classic béarnaise sauce and a surprising and intense bordelaise sauce of mushrooms which was completely vegetable based. The beetroot was cooked in a salt-crust and beautifully shaped before being stuffed with beetroot mixed with the béarnaise sauce.
He also worked on a ‘ravioli of mushrooms’ again packing the flavours with a white garlic and a tomato and chilli sauce that really worked harmoniously to make for a satisfying start.
Stephanie’s beetroot dish was a work of art. She served beetroot in various forms and textures and added a touch of coffee which worked perfectly with the beetroot.
For her work with mushrooms she prepared a medley of dishes that is normally served just before the meat course at the restaurant. The first was a ‘tagliolini’ of dried porcini mushrooms which she just dressed with olive oil and herbs, the flavour coming from the actual pasta. She cooked a large mushroom poached in smoked tea and combining it with a delicious shallot sauce. The third was pickled mushrooms with a vinaigrette with the idea being to refresh the palate similar to ginger in Japan for sushi or sashimi.
During the morning, Stephanie told the young chefs of the importance of having different options and not putting all eggs in one basket. Apart from the two Michelin star restaurant La Scene in Paris, she also operates a bistrot on the ground floor of the same location. She said that the same team work in both the bistrot and the fine-dining restaurant. The bistro serves a more accessible cuisine but ultimately the customers of the bistro are the same as the customers of the fine-dining restaurant. “Some of our guests might come to the bistro three times for lunch and come to the fine-dining restaurant for a special occasion in the evening. It is important to offer staff the possibility of working both in the fine-dining restaurant and in the bistro. We don’t have dedicated staff for one place or the other but it is important for our staff to gain experience in the two different places,” she said.
On the other hand, Michael Vrijmoed emphasised the importance of working of making food taste good. He told the young chefs that more and more people are opting for vegetarian based menus and this tendency is set to continue. Unlike restaurants which ask the whole table to order the same menu, at Vrijmoed it is possible for guests to mix and match. “We can serve a fish and meat menu and a vegetable-based menu at the same table. Ultimately, this is important for us because guests that might not otherwise try a vegetable based menu can see that is can be equally satisfying and they can also taste what its like.”
The San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy has so far organised four sessions for young Belgian chefs.
The first session with Filip Claeys and David Martin focused on local cuisine. Eric Fernez and Lionel Rigolet worked on sauces. Yves Mattagne and Heiko Nieder focused on a taste of Asia in the third session.
The fifth session called Back to the Roots will feature Tim Boury and Cyril Molard with the final session focusing on Experience first and the mentors being Maarten Bouckaert of Castor and Pierre Resimont of L’Eau Vive.