In the outskirts of the idyllic Belgian city of Bruges in Zedelgem is a culinary genius who became the youngest ever 3 Michelin star chef in Belgium and one of the youngest in history at 34. What made the journey so incredible, however, was not the age at which he reached the top, but rather the speed with which the team at Hertog Jan turned a brasserie first into a Michelin starred restaurant (2006) and then one of only three, 3 Michelin starred restaurants in Belgium (2011).
Gert De Mangeleer is now 37. Last week I visited Hertog Jan to meet Gert, to learn the story behind one of Belgium’s most successful chefs and a rising star in the culinary world.
Hertog Jan only moved to Zedelgem from its old location in July. It was the next step in their philosophy since the farm has been supplying their own restaurant since they bought it in 2010. The 180 year-old barn has been completely renovated and refurbished, now hosting a stunning kitchen which is the beating heart of the new Hertog Jan.
The restaurant has a motto which is ‘driven by simplicity’ and Gert tells me that simplicity is not always simple. When I ask him about the creative process, he tells me some dishes can be created quite fast while others may take more than a year. “By fast, I mean two months,” he tells me with a smile.
Gert gives a lot of importance to this identity and style. “We do not look around us to see what other chefs are doing, but we look at our own roots and do our own things. Once you have three stars, you need to have your own personality. Our style is different to Rene Redzepi or Quique Dacosta. Of course they are doing great things but they are different to what we do.”
Small things make a difference
The attention to detail is incredible and his work ethic is beyond question. Reaching such levels does not come by chance. “We always say to our staff members that when everybody stops we have to go further. You have to believe in yourself, you have to find a challenge and believe in your goals. Many times, there is a lot of huffing and puffing because of little jobs but it is the small things that make the difference in your kitchen or your company,” he said.
Behind such a restaurant is a great team. That team starts with the two business partners Joachim Boudens, a sommelier and host of Hertog Jan, and Gert. “When everybody says that this is not for me, or that it takes too much work or too much time, you need to push on. At Hertog Jan we have a great team of young boys and girls and the friendship between Joachim and I. This gives us a very particular style which we call the Hertog Jan style.”
It seems obvious to me that the partnership between Gert and Joachim is what makes Hertog Jan special. But how did this come about? “I think that the friendship and work with Joachim is the heartbeat of Hertog Jan. It is what is most important. The thing I am looking for in the kitchen is the same thing that Joachim is looking for in hospitality. We are looking to create something pure and honest but also something that is recognisable. It is important that people experience a wow feeling but they still need to know what they are eating. It is the same thing with Joachim and the choice of wines, the way he greet the guests at the restaurant, the little details we are looking for. We are on the same wavelength and this is very important. In the years that we have worked together we have never had one fight or discussion. We ask each other opinions but we are always pulling the same rope and that is also unique.”
‘Hertog Jan would not exist without the garden’
The attention to detail at Hertog Jan can also be seen from the fact that they grow their own fruits and vegetables. Is this a statement I ask? Gert is certain that without the garden, Hertog Jan would not exist. “In the last six years we have started growing our vegetables. At a certain moment, we could no longer find the quality we wanted from the markets and this was very frustrating for me. It was for this reason, that we looked for a place where we could grow our own fruits and vegetables. Our first harvest was a dream come true in terms of quality produce.”
“Secondly, the garden also enables us to produce fruits and vegetables that nobody else produces because it might take too much time to cultivate them or because you have to pick it up and plate it immediately without being able to wait two days from market to consumption.”
The garden therefore enables them to create a cuisine with ingredients which nobody else might be working with. “It enables us to create our own personality. It is also exclusive. For example one of our signature dishes is a collection of tomatoes. Many chefs around the world have tried to replicate this dish but they use between three to four different tomatoes. The philosophy of the dish is that we have 102 different varieties of cherry tomatoes. So when we are having dinner together, your plate is not the same as mine. In the whole restaurant, everyone has the same dish but everyone has a different dish. If you come to the restaurant the next day, you will get the same dish but with completely different flavours. It’s a dish that cannot be replicated without the garden.”
Being 95% self sufficient (Gert tells me they have to buy avocados for example because they cannot be grown in the garden) when it comes to fruit and vegetables means that seasonal ingredients are always used. But how does the restaurant cope in winter? “Since we are in our fifth year now, it gets easier and easier because we know our products better. We know the environment, the soil. We take the ‘leftovers’ from summer such as bell peppers, aubergines, tomatoes and use them in different forms. We might pickle them, take the juice from them or dry them so that they can be used in winter. For example, we preserve bell peppers with goat’s cheese and marinated anchovies. We also use old methods of preserving such as digging holes and covering root vegetables in soil. This way we keep our vegetables fresh for winter.”
Hertog Jan’s cuisine cannot in any way be considered as vegetarian but given the restaurant grows its own vegetables I ask him if he considers it to be the most important element of his cuisine? “When I am creating a dish, most of the time I am starting from the vegetable. I ask myself how I can make a dish with that aubergine or this tomato. But it is not that we are vegetarian. When we serve our tasting menu, there is only one dish which is totally vegetarian. We always combine vegetables with meat, shellfish, or fish but vegetables are key and the start of the process of creating a dish.”
Gert knew he wanted to be a chef at the age of 12 even though his parents wanted him to further his studies. How did you develop a passion for cooking I ask. “We were used to eating a lot at home. My parents loved to eat and drink, we had our own little garden and made our own jams and pies. My mother was always cooking and that really attracted me. Between 14 and 18 years, I was doing some weekend jobs in restaurants in the neighbourhood but my parents wanted me to finish my school. It was not what I was thinking at the moment. In the end, I am really happy I followed my instinct though it is now also a business and not only cooking.”
Hard work and determination
His story is one of hard work and incredible determination. He started hotel school when he was 19. “In the beginning, it was not easy, I had no experience. I started working in a 1 Michelin Star restaurant in Brugge, the Ter Groene Poorte. I was the youngest boy with no experience. All I did was wrong and it was all very frustrating. I still remember five boxes of langoustines. A chef was cleaning them really fast while I was slow and my hands were bleeding. I thought to myself that this was not possible. I needed to be faster and better than him. During those next years, this was always my spirit. I wanted to be better than my chefs, bigger than them and faster than them. My goal was to constantly push myself.”
“Then one year later, the chef, Philippe told me that I could not learn much more in that restaurant. He told me you had more potential and needed to find something that helps you to grow further. That is why I remain extremely grateful to him till this day because he gave me the opportunity to leave.”
“I then went to t’Molentje and that is where I met Joachim. We were given carte blanche there. The restaurant had one star but it was the dream of the boss to have two stars. I was 21 but had no experience. But, together with Joachim, we believed we could do it and worked hard to reach two stars. When we got them, we thought that we could do it ourselves and that is why we moved to Hertog Jan.”
But success also comes with lots of hard work. “I was alone in the kitchen at Hertog Jan when we started. There were days when I was baking my bread at 6am in the morning and I was still doing mis-en-place at 1am or 2am in the night.”
‘Hertog Jan is like a train. We have to go further and further’
“It is very hard because you have no social life. I have two Sundays in a month where I am with my family. For the rest, I am working or in another country. Hertog Jan is my way of life. I have never known anything else. I have missed lots of things. My oldest daughter is 10 years but I have missed a lot. When I am at home I try to do as much as possible but you have to make choices. You cannot have everything. Hertog Jan is a train, it is like a Eurostar, a TGV. We jumped on it and we have to go further and further.”
“But there are also lots of beautiful moments like when I cooked for a family member of the emperor of Japan. In two weeks, I will go to cook in Korea and Hong Kong. I meet lots of fantastic people. I have discovered a lot but I have also missed a lot as I have not seen my children growing up and do not have much quality time with my family. I am always tired. If you sleep four or five hours a night, you are always tired. If you are sick you have to work. It is really hard. That is why lots of young boys are starting in the kitchen and after two or three days they quit. You have to be really tough, I think, but if you have an objective and you reach it, then it is wonderful.”
“Food and wine and the garden is my way of life. I cannot imagine another way of life,” Gert said,
I ask him what was most important for him, winning the first or the third Michelin star. “The most beautiful moment of my career was getting the third star. I cried like a baby. You cannot imagine the felling of getting a third star. It is unbelievable,” he said.
‘There is still a lot of progress possible’
I ask him how much importance does he give to stars now that he has reached the top. He tells me that they have not yet reached the top. “There is still a lot of progress possible. In Belgium we may have reached the top and in Europe we are quite famous and known but we now have to conquer the world. We do not need to be the number one of the world, that is almost impossible. But I want to join the big boys of the world, that’s my goal,” he said.
But how do you reach the top? “What I mean is that we want to share our emotions and our way of thinking all over the world. I think we have a style of cooking and kitchen that can find a place between all the really big names in the world. I think we are on the right track. We have lots of exposure to different styles but we are not doing a Nordic style kitchen, a Peruvian or Asian kitchen but rather our own cuisine, which is the Hertog Jan cuisine.”
Travel is essential for creativity. “When I travel, I am not only showcasing what we are doing but I am also like a sponge, trying to absorb influence from different cultures. When I meet with René and talk to him, I will not try to make the same dishes but I might see something interesting in Norway or Lima and maybe try it on my own vegetables and see what happens. I am convinced that the Hertog Jan style can find a place in the world.”
‘A dish must be beautiful and taste good’
I ask him how he goes about creating new dishes. “There are many different ways. Sometimes it just comes quickly but sometimes it can take a long time.”
He tells me that he sometimes gets inspiration by walking in the garden which he does three to five times a day. “I can think a lot just by walking, looking and smelling the vegetables. I also run at night and it is when I am alone that I can think of new creations. Travelling is also essential. When you are travelling you come across spices, herbs, techniques, people, art and buildings which give you a certain vibe and serve as a trigger. I remember last February I was in Japan and it was incredibly overwhelming. It took me eight or nine months to let it filter through and then allow me to create my own things. It takes time. If you just come home and start to say, I ate this and can do that, it is just copying. You need to give it time, to wait and let it sink in. After a few months, the things that remain with you are what stands out.”
Gert is known not only for the great flavours in his cuisine but also for his plating style. “A dish can take me more than a year to create. When we are creating a dish it must be balanced which means that it must be a beautiful dish and also taste good. A dish cannot just be beautiful and not taste good. If it is excellent but does not look good, its a no go. It has to be really beautiful and really good.”
Look out soon for our interview with the co-owner and host of Hertog Jan, Joachim Boudens as well as the story behind their second restaurant L.E.S.S.