Kobe Desramaults, is a conscious Belgian chef with a conscious cuisine. He has a strong character and knows what he wants. His cuisine may appear simple because of its focus on pure flavours but there is a certain complexity to it.
“When I am cooking I like to go back to the roots and try to extract as much flavour from the ingredients I use. When I go to eat somewhere the most important thing is memory. It is all about the food. And if you want to remember the food you eat, you cannot have many different flavours going on in a plate. You cannot have a 20 course tasting menu with each dish having six or seven flavour combinations, because you would go crazy and would not remember anything,” he tells me when I interview him in Cologne at Chef Sache.
“So what I like to do is to focus on one ingredient. The reason I do this is that when people read the menu, they can remember what they have eaten just by remembering that one ingredient. This is what I like in food and this is what I try to bring out in my cuisine,” he said.
It may sound simple but there is a very complex frame of thought behind it, Kobe tells me. “It is taking something apart. It is deconstruction, not in Ferran Adria’s way, but rather in a very natural way.”
Desramaults does not need much introduction. His restaurant In de Wulf is sought after by the global foodie community and he is considered to be one of the brightest and most high-profile Belgian chefs. He is also the person behind two other very interesting concepts in Gent.
His Michelin star restaurant In De Wulf is in Dranouter, a village in West Flanders on the border with France, in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant has become a major culinary destination because of the unique style of cuisine without the classic dishes or traditional sauces.
De Vitrine, is a bistro-like restaurant which opened in a former butcher’s shop in the red light district of the buzzing Belgian city of Gent. In Gent, you can also find De Superette, a bakery which has won many awards for its very interesting concept of not just being a bakery but also a brunch and lunch place which becomes a pizzeria in the evening.
His restaurant In de Wulfe won the best restaurant award from the OAD (Opinionated about dining) in 2014.
If you change your mindset, waste can become an opportunity
Kobe is very conscious about food waste. “First of all we are extremely open about what we do. We are also open about our failures. If I mess up something, I can post it on Facebook. Failure to me is a big part of what we do.” As an aside, only a few weeks ago, he showed a fermentation experiment that went wrong in his kitchen.
“It is all in the mind. We say we use waste because we think of it as waste. But if you change your mindset, you do not see something as waste anymore but rather as an opportunity. The industry can do a lot. They have to find opportunities in things that are normally thrown away. This is extremely important,” he tells me.
Obviously, De Superette and De Vitrine fit very much into this philosophy. “These two other businesses are very complementary in a way. We dreamt about making our own bread. And some of the bread we make at Superette goes to In De Wulf. We can buy a whole cow for In De Wulf and use a particular cut for De Vitrine. We can then use another cut for De Superette to make a great steak tartare. If you have a variety of different businesses you can use everything. The same goes for growing our vegetables. We ferment them. We put them in jars and we can sell them in De Superette because it is also a shop.”
Kobe believes that this is the way forward in this industry. “If you have the know-how, you should not commit to cook just for a select group of people but rather to cook for everybody. In ‘In de Wulf’ I cannot cook for everybody, but in De Superette we can cook for everyone making pizza and fun stuff.”
It might sound easy but Kobe has an incredible work ethic and stamina. I asked him how he ended up opening a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. “My heart is in Dranouter. It is the area where I grew up. It is where I played in the fields with my brother, sister and friends.”
“I could not imagine going away from this place. I have now bought a house, a farm and it is just a big part of who I am. I remember the day my mother called me to tell me that she was going to sell the restaurant because of its debts. I said no, no, I am coming. Just give me a chance.”
We were two people in the kitchen and we worked from 8am to 2am again and again and just kept going
“She gave me one year to turn it around. She told me that if I was not successful after one year she would shut it down. So I worked day and night. I really worked day and night. We were two people in the kitchen and we worked from 8am to 2am again and again and just kept going. Sometimes I worked even through the night. I still remember those nights. I still remember when after a dinner service, I went back to the kitchen to start preparations for the next day, only to leave the restaurant, look out to the fields and watch the sun rising. I would just have a coffee and then continue to work. It was too much. But after a year we started to get good press and the tide started to turn,” Kobe said. “People started to come and the word started to spread.”
All this was not easy. Kobe tells me that it would have been easier to start from nothing and build up rather than climb out of the pit. “It is only since two years that we broke even and started to make money from the restaurant,” he says.
People come to my restaurant because they are interested in our story
He is conscious of the fact that the food scene has completely changed over the past few years. “Everything is important nowadays. What is striking is how things have changed in 10 years. If we look back 10 years, the only reference point we had was Michelin and Gault et Millau. Everyone went to a restautant for the status of a Michelin star. But over the past 10 years, there has been a revolution. Now most people do not come to my restaurant because I have a Michelin star. They come because they are interested in our story and in what we are doing. This is all because of the internet ( social media), communication and blogs. People now actually know the story which is a big difference from the time when guides would write two lines about the restaurant and mention the speciality of the house. I still think that Michelin is very important. But it is important for a different group of people.”
In the interview, we also spoke about the food scandals which have hit the food industry over the past years. Kobe doesn’t mince his words. “What we have seen is just the tip of the iceberg. Transparency is key. What is happening is tragic. We have an obligation to inform people about food. Speaking about Belgium, it is incredible that in 30 years we have lost 65% of all our farmers. What we now have is really big farming, an agro industry which is in the hands of a few. We need to talk to the farmers and we need to create the change in our own surroundings. We need to lead by example.”
Kobe is part of the Flemish foodies, composed of three childhood friends all with restaurants in the Belgian city of Gent. The other two are Jason Blanckaert (J.E.F), Olly Ceulenaere (Restaurant Publik). Together they have helped to place this city on the global food map.
I ask him about who he considers to be his mentors. “I look up to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. I can look up to a writer like Michael Pollan whose books are amazing, to Inaki Aizpitarte from Chateaubriand in Paris who is an extremely creative person, or Rene Redzepi for all the work he is doing.”
At Chef Sache, Kobe spoke about the first time he ate pig brains two years ago. “I tried it for the first time at a friend’s grandmother and it was one of my best meals ever. Drinking Duvel (a strong Belgian beer) with it must have helped!”
I therefore ask if if there is something he would not eat. “There are a lot of things out of the food industry which I would not eat,” he tells me with a smile. “But, I think I would try everything as long as it is cooked in a traditional beautiful way. There should be no excuse.”
Working with humble ingredients
Kobe is at his best working with humble ingredients. He has a dish which is a potato cooked in a salt crust with ashes. “People just loved this dish though I wouldn’t say it is my best dish. But what gives me so much fulfillment is to take a humble ingredient like the potato or celeriac and have people rave about it. That is what makes me really happy because it means that I have created something out of nothing. All I care about is making people happy.”
Nostalgia creates the most beautiful meals
To conclude I ask him about his best meal ever. And although it may sound like a simple question it always gets people to stop and think. After a few moments of hesitation he tells me a funny story. “When we were kids our mother would be working in the restaurant. On Wednesdays when she was not working, she would take us to this little restaurant called The Partridge. And they used to serve spaghetti bolognese in a very traditional Belgian way. It is a dish which can be found on the menu of most traditional Belgian restaurants. So as kids, my brother, sister and I ate this dish with lots of cheese and lots of sauce. The restaurant closed down. One day I heard that someone who worked in that restaurant had opened a little cafe in the region and I heard he was making the spaghetti dish again. So I spoke to my brother and told him we had to go and taste the spaghetti. We had a great time and thought it was excellent. Then two weeks after, I suggested to my best friend, a chef, that we go there to eat this dish. We sat down and as the spaghetti was served to us he looked at me and asked if I was serious. I told him it’s delicious and he just laughed and said it was just over cooked spaghetti swimming in lots of sauce with lots of cheese. It’s shit!”
“It is nostalgia that creates the most beautiful meals.”
In de Wulf: Wulvestraat 1 8950, Heuvelland (Dranouter)
De Vitrine: Brabantdam 134, 9000 Gent
De Superette: Guldenspoorstraat 29 – 9000 Gent