It was a crispy autumn morning last week when I visited L’Air du Temps for the second time in just a few weeks. This time I had come to interview Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, the chef of this two Michelin star restaurant in Liernu, around 50 kilometres outside Brussels.
I was intrigued by his story, particularly because of the inventiveness of his cuisine and also after having listened to his presentation at Chefs Revolution in Zwolle. How could such an inventive and talented chef be self-taught? What was the driving force behind his creativity?
I was also wondering what led Sang-Hoon to open the restaurant in Liernu, when he could have moved his restaurant closer to a main city. But driving to the restaurant, I realised that this question would be redundant because of the beauty of the Wallonian countryside and the purity of the air.
“Sometimes when I come here early in the morning I just head to the garden and just look at the sunrise and the countryside and that is really something special,” Sang-Hoon tells me as we walk around the garden. “But I also need to feel the buzz of a city and that is why I live in Brussels.” The garden, were all the produce for the restaurant is grown is an essential part of Sang-Hoon’s cuisine. He really wants me to meet the gardener Benoit Blairvacq and in fact phones to see whether he would be coming to the restaurant garden today. He’s not but we plan to meet with the banker turned gardener on another day.
Without training you have no boundaries
Having taught himself how to cook makes him rather special. “Cooking without any training means that you have no boundaries. When you are at school, you learn to follow a right way. They give you recipes which you have to follow and you do not have time to reflect on why you are doing something. Being self-taught means that you are constantly asking questions. When you are not in the kitchen, you start to question why something must be done in a particular way. In the kitchen you try different things, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but you are not constrained by the boundaries.”
“You need to have an open mind and to have an interest in everything. This is the case with Quique Dacosta, another self-trained chef and also many of today’s chefs who come to the business after following other professions such as financial services. I have a lot of bankers in my team and they are more creative and give a lot of input from other aspects of life.” Sang-Hoon believes everyone is born creative. “Sometimes you study a lot for a job but you have a lot of creativity in you waiting to be released. Sometimes it is difficult to find the motivation, to create something with your hands. But the easiest way to create something is to cook. “Even just by cooking an egg, you can create something and you can feel proud that it is your own.”
“I always tell my team that you need to keep an open eye and have an awareness for what’s around them. You need to keep an open mind and to learn to apply things from everyday life. Everyone has enormous potential to use their intelligence to capture what they know and be creative,” he says.
“The biggest bluff of my life”
Anyone who has cooked for many people knows how intimidating this can be. Therefore it is not difficult to imagine what it must have felt like for Sang-Hoon to cook for the first time in a restaurant on the first night he opened the restaurant. “I always imagined that I would open a restaurant but I never imagined this would be the way. At the same time, I did not want to depend on other chefs. Chefs have strong characters and it is sometimes not easy to work with someone with such a personality,” he tells me smiling. “That is why I wanted to be my own chef and not have problems with other chefs.”
“It was a little bit weird to open a restaurant without having trained in a restaurant kitchen but I was a sommelier and had been training my palate every day. To be in the kitchen that night was the greatest challenge of my life. It was the greatest bluff of my life and it has been going on for 17 years,” he said.
He still remembers the opening night vividly. “It was a Tuesday on 1st July. I opened at 7pm and there were 25 people in the restaurant. I did not choose a simple menu but went for a la carte. And on that night every person chose something different. I can still feel the smell, the feeling of that night and where the people were sitting. I remember everything but if I had to do it again, I would follow the same route,” he said.
One of the most unique experiences at L’Air du Temps is the flavoured waters which are created by Sang-Hoon to complement the food. “We started creating the flavoured waters three years ago. I see this as a triangle. You can taste food with wine, food with water and water with wine.”
At Chefs Revolution, Sang Hoon said he did not know how his cuisine will look like in future. I ask him where he wants to go. “I know the point where I want to go. You can take a left turning or a right turning but the result may be totally different. I know my goal, but I do not yet know the way,’ he tells me.
I ask what inspires his creative process. “At first I was interested by wine and that was the first way I started creating dishes. I started to become interested in everything. I started to train to work with spices, seafood, seaweed but did not find my way. I thought that I had to try and find my own style. I needed to have the techniques because I did not have any. It was here that I met Hervé This, the father of molecular gastronomy. Through him I found some answers to many of my questions. And I started to understand that I did not need recipes but could create my own. Step by step I evolved and when I began to reflect on whether I needed to have my own garden or not, I started to realise, that I could not find nice vegetables in the different shops I was going too. It was at this moment that I decided that I needed to start producing my own vegetables,” he says.
He explained that building ones own personality takes time and is a step-by-step process. “When you are a chef, you work in different restaurants with different chefs who all help you to develop your own style. I had to do this in my own restaurant.”
Six years ago, I took the approach that creativity comes from less things than before. “I learned to focus on just one or two things because the possibilities are endless.” He uses wine as an analogy. “When you learn about French wine, if you go deep, you can spend your whole life trying to learn about this. To learn about world wine, you need more than a life time. “So I learnt that sometimes I have to focus on one thing and push it very far. Now I focus on my area. It is still not a local cuisine but one which keeps an open mind to world trends.”
Less is more
Sang Hoon says that a few years ago his dishes were really complicated. “I was not secure and I did not trust myself. I wanted to give a lot of things to people not just in terms of quality but also quantity. I would have between 10 to 15 different things on a plate. My philosophy has now changed because now I want to retain the quality of the produce and push it to perfection. “Less is more but not too less,” he tells me. “It is not easy for everybody to have the perfect product but once you have it, anyone can do it. That is why you need to use technique to improve the taste of a product. That is why a chef is a chef and not only a cook.”
The Korean born chef is known for his inventive flavour combinations and I ask him how long it takes to create a dish. “It depends. Sometimes it is a case of intuition. Sometimes I have a friend coming to the restaurant and I try something with him because I know his taste. In that case, it might take just 15 minutes. But if I really push far, it can take even two years to create a dish.”
Use of social media – is it killing creativity?
Social media nowadays means that chefs can instantly see what others are doing across the globe. This makes sharing easier but also creates barriers for creativity. “The problem we have now is that we have too much information. Social media is great as it gives you an overview of what is happening in the field of gastronomy in the world. My style is different and I have to keep it like this. It is good to have such an overview but it is important not to copy but rather to find your own place and style.”
The Belgian culinary scene is very rich and Sang-Hoon believes that it is time for the country to communicate about its richness. “The Flemish have done it rather well. Now it is time for the French part to also communicate about our cuisine. Belgians are humble and friendly and this is a characteristic of the country. We have to communicate this to the outside world,” he tells me.
I also ask him about the trend of many of the top end restaurants to grow their own produce. “We also need to go back to the basics. We cannot evolve if we do not take care of the foundations. I consider chefs in high gastronomy like formula one drivers. We need to give the technology to the people. I always say we are just cooks and not the most important of the value chain. The way we cook is not necessary, our style of cuisine is not necessary. This is cooking for leisure and it is for this reason that we always need to remain humble,” he said.
It’s the right moment to raise awarness of food waste
Take food fermentation, he tells me. “This is a really old technique that comes at a time when people between the two world wars were really poor and needed to preserve everything to ensure that they had things to eat. They preserved food irrespective of whether it was good or not. Now we have time to take care of the process and to ensure we have the perfect taste and the right balance. So if a chef takes this technique and pushes it to perfection, maybe people will have a new reference in terms of taste and texture. “Maybe we have to teach them that it is easy to do it at home. It is for this reason that I teach how to ferment in my cooking classes. We are at a point where we need to take care of our environment. Earth gives us rich produce but this is not infinite. This is the right moment to raise awareness. Food is fashion and fashion is like a cycle.”
Sang-Hoon tells me that the main trend in the gastronomic world is to use local produce, more vegetables and to eat healthier. The next trends will be to take care of waste. “We have a lot of vegetables but what do we do with them? That is the reason why we ferment and preserve them. For me it is difficult to imagine what the future will be because there is so much information which we do not know and which might have an influence on what happens in future. For sure we need to take care of the environment. Rene Redzepi is working with ants and insects. I am also working outside of the restaurant with insects. For me there are two ways to eat, for necessity or for leisure. For necessity, I have created a new line of basic food with protein from insects. We need to think of what to eat when the world has 9 billion people to feed,” he tells me.
I observed the work that went on in the kitchen, taking photos and trying not to stand in the way. Then, once he finished the service, we continue our discussion before he took me for a walk in the garden where he showed me the different areas where flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits are grown. As the temperatures at night are starting to get lower, all the vegetables have been picked except for a few cabbages. He shows me a wild part of the garden where one day he wants to grow rice, a first for Belgium.
He picks up a tiny herb and tells me this is a baby pineapple. I bite it and get an intense flavour of pineapple. It is this inventive use of produce which makes Sang-Hoon’s restaurant so special. He uses modern techniques to showcase his produce, but all in all, it is the clever use of garnishes, not used just to decorate but to intensify flavours which lifts the dishes to the extraordinary.