When I went to Liernu in the Belgian countryside some 50 kilometres outside Brussels to interview Sang-Hoon Degeimbre I was asked to stay for a ‘light lunch’ after the interview (read our interview here). Little did I know that I would be served with the ‘business’ lunch menu being currently served in the restaurant up to the end of December. I had previously eaten at L’Air du Temps and had listened to Sang Hoon’s presentation at Chef’s Revolution in Zwolle so I was familiar with his story.
But after also interviewing him, I knew this was going to be a unique experience. First the table was literally inside the kitchen and I could just stand up and take photos and observe the calm buzz of a 2 Michelin star kitchen. Second the dishes were presented in most cases by Sang-Hoon himself who explained them to me. What struck me was the calm inside the kitchen despite the number of people that were preparing the lunch. But then I remembered what Sang-Hoon had told me earlier during the interview about not wanting to work in other kitchens because ‘chefs had a lot of character’ and I realised that he does not want to transmit that element into his kitchen.
The start was immediately excellent. I was served with the onion crisp and the bread with butter which is exceptionally good. This was followed by a crisp of pumpkin with its cream and a crisp with a lobster cream. Both were sublime.
What followed was a tartare of beef with oyster, garden herbs and a green tea tapioca with a yogurt and oil sauce. You would not think that such a combination could work until you try it and are surprised by the complexity and harmony of flavours.
What followed next was a combination I had never experienced of two ingredients that I happen to really love. Scallops were served with bottarga and a green juice with thin vegetables from the garden. This was a perfect match.
Coming from the Mediterranean, I am still trying to get used to fish served with a butter sauce. But the sea bass served with cabbage and a butter sauce was simply excellent. What followed was another masterpiece. Cold tuna (bonito) served with tapioca of green tea, hot dashi soup and the beurre noisette with seaweed. The explosion of flavours here was stunning as was the hot/cold combination.
We then moved to the meat courses. The first was a confit of pigeon with anchovies covered in a cappucino of potatoes and dressed with flowers from the garden of L’Air du Temps.This was not only just art on a plate but a perfect marriage of flavours.
Next was a smoked deer served with blueberries and quince. This was followed by a splendid dessert of goat’s cheese ice, carrot ice cream and parsley. It is a strange but wonderful combination of surprising complementary flavours.
What is also special about the lunch is that you are given a spoon and two chopsticks which do not change during service. Sang-Hoon explained that this is deliberate. All the lunch is served in deep plates and the idea is for guests to pick up the spoon and get a taste of all the flavours that are in dish. I must say that this really works because when I look at my notes I recall writing time and time again about the intensity and length of the flavours on the palate.
After lunch, Sang-Hoon came for another chat, we walked around the kitchen to see the pastry section, the preparation section and also the refrigerator where all the vegetables are being fermented to be used during winter. We then ventured to the garden which is such an integral part of the restaurant, though most of the produce had been picked up, given it was already towards the end of November.
I came out of L’Air du Temps full of inspiration and great memories. And then it struck me. A restaurant experience is so much better when you know the story of the chef and his creations. While the element of surprise is important, a restaurant experience is also about getting to know the story and the philosophy behind the work that is going on.
Some personal recommendations from Sang-Hoon
When I am interviewing chefs, I always like to ask them about their mentors, their favourite places, the best meal they’ve eaten or the best dish they have prepared. It’s not always easy, I know, and I would probably hesitate myself if asked such questions.
I have many examples. They are not all necessarily chefs. I respect Herve This. He was my mentor for molecular gastronomy even if I do not completely understand his philosophy. Then I think of Michael Bras and Pascal Barbot as well as Michel Guerard, the father of modern cuisine. Nowadays, however, it is very difficult to have a mentor. There are so many chefs in the world who are really talented, many of them still 25-30 years old. It is crazy now. You cannot do the same. You just have to applaud them and appreciate what they are doing.
Young Belgian chefs to watch?
Thomas Troupin (La Menuiserie) is one to follow. He worked for three years at L’Air du Temps. He is still 23 years old. He opened his restaurant one year ago and already has a Michelin star. He is successful because he is natural in his cuisine.
There are also a lot of Flemish chefs who are also very interesting and worth watching. What I find with young Flemish chefs however is that there is normally a line on the plate. You can see the influence of Sergio Hermann and Northern Europe in the way they plate the food. The French part of Belgium is more influenced by the South. You can really feel the difference.
Favourite places to eat in Belgium?
I like to go to La Paix in Brussels. I like the chef, it is simple, it is open on Monday and Tuesday (when L’Air du Temps is closed). David Martin is very creative. You can eat excellent traditional food but he can also be extremely creative and create a large menu which is both creative and really surprising.
Saturne in Paris for the combination of simple food which is just amazing. In Denmark, Geist for example. I like to have a nice experience like Noma, but for me what is important is the conviviality, the friends, people that I really like, chefs that I really like, the setting.
Best meal ever?
There are many different best meals. Fantastic in terms of atmosphere, simplicity, taste. My meals at the Roca brothers (El Cellar de Can Roca), Pascal Barbot, Magnus Nilsson and Burnt Ends (Singapore) which is a kind of grill from Andre Chang. These are four different meals which I remember.
Best dish ever created?
Each year I have a kind of best dish of the year, and I try to keep them as classics on the menu. Among the favourties is the white scallops or different textures of scallops. When I made this dish 99% of people said it was amazing. This year’s dish is the lobster with a fresh cheese mousse. But I think the best dishes are the one’s made with vegetables. That is my line and must come from my Korean routes and my Belgian nationality.