He takes me for a walk in the garden of Hertog Jan and although it is winter and therefore bare, you realise that this is really an integral part, if not essential, to the restaurant. “When people have finished lunch we tell our guests to take a walk in the garden. For dinner, some people come to the restaurant and you can see that they are a bit stressed because they have arrived a bit late or were stuck in traffic. You can feel this as soon as they walk into the restaurant. We normally tell them that it is a good idea to go for a walk in the garden. Sometimes they start to worry because they have arrived 30 minutes late. We tell them its fine, just go for a walk. After 10 minutes, they walk back in and look like completely different people. They are ready to relax and enjoy their dinner. One of the luxuries today is to have a moment for yourself,” Joachim told Food and Wine Gazette.
It is a unique experience for me to learn the story of this exceptional Belgian restaurant not only from the perspective of the chef (read our interview with Gert De Mangeleer) but also from the eyes of a former sommelier who now focuses on the whole customer experience.
Joachim and Gert met before they opened Hertog Jan as sommelier and chef and have worked together ever since.
Joachim explained how they had decided to move Hertog Jan from the old location (it now houses their bistro L.E.S.S.) to the new restaurant in Zedelgem because they were dreaming of getting a third star and also because they thought it would be a good idea to invest in a new building.
“We started looking for a building that fit our vision. When you run a restaurant like ours, you need a big parking space, a big kitchen and not every building can give you that. So we started looking for a building that fitted these criteria. We came across this. In the same year, we won our third star in the old location.”
This came as a bit of a surprise to them but the new project helped them to focus on pushing Hertog Jan further. “I think it was important that we had already started preparing this project. If we did not have such plans, it would have created a feeling of what do we do now. But given we had this new location, it served as an important trigger to push further.”
The garden is an integral part of the restaurant
The garden is an integral part of the restaurant not only for the kitchen but also for the guest experience. “The moment we bought the location, we knew we had a lot of space. We had to think what we could do with this space. We always liked working with vegetables. There was a member of the team who always loved growing vegetables in his home garden. He would bring some amazing things like carrots or leeks. He was very creative with growing vegetables and experimented with different varieties. At one point, Gert asked the chef whether he would start Hertog Jan’s vegetable garden. It worked well from the beginning.”
The vegetables grown at Hertog Jan were also used in the old location until the new location was completed. “In the old restaurant we would tell our guests all about the vegetables. But, I can tell you how nice the vegetable garden is a 100 times, but if you don’t see it for yourself, you cannot really experience what it means. When the guests see the garden, they can understand our philosophy and what is going on in the kitchen much better,” Joachim said.
“We also have the advantage that we can work with unique ingredients which no other restaurants have. You can also grow vegetables a la carte. If Gert want turnips to be of a particular size we can do it. In a shop you might find turnips but they might not be what you are looking for. It also gives us a feel of the seasons. When the end of September comes, we are very sad that the tomato season is over. But then we know that we can start working with other vegetables. One of our signature dishes is a tomato dish but that is only available between July and September,” Joachim said.
One of the great things about living in Belgium is access to wine. Unlike many wine regions where it is hard to come across wines from outside that region, let alone country. This is exceptional for wine lovers but might be a headache for a sommelier.
Joachim tells me they like to work with wines from all over the world. “We have a certain philosophy for our wines. We are looking for elegant wines, fruity and mineral wines. We are searching for wines which fit with the dishes prepared by Gert. But we are also looking at typical things in each region. So if we want a Chardonnay, we look for wine from the best regions like Burgundy, for Chenin Blanc we go to Loire, for Gruner Veltliner, Austria. In these regions we look for the best growers.”
He tells me that they do not have 100s of wines on their wine list but prefer to work for six months with one particular producer and then change. “It is extremely important for my sommelier and I that we change. We do not like to have a static wine list because otherwise it gets boring not only for us but also for our customers. It is great to discover new things and give customers a new experience.”
Moving away from wine pairing menus
As a former sommelier. Joachim has a very interesting perspective when it comes to food and wine pairing. “I really like to play with wines and food to look for the best marriage between the two. At the same time, it is extremely important to have a quiet atmosphere in the restaurant. I had the feeling that there was a battle going on between the sommelier’s team and the service team. In a pairing menu, if the wine is not already served when the food arrives it can create a lot of stress and also the dining room is not quiet.”
“I told the sommeliers we needed to listen to our customers. So if our customers want to match their food with wine we can accommodate their request. But we no longer push the pairing menu. We have a good wine list with a lot of half bottles and many wines by the glass. Sometimes if there is a combination that really works, with a Madeira, a beer or a sake, we might suggest it. And we also have a big selection of non alcoholic beverages prepared by our bar tending team. This has become very important because many of our guests do not drink when they drive and we want to give them the possibility to drink something else rather than Coca Cola or Fanta.”
He thinks this might be the future. “At first customers had to adapt and it was a bit difficult in the beginning. Now some people tell us that it is maybe better and they feel more comfortable not having drunk too much wine.
Now that they are running two restaurants, I ask him how they manage the two “As a rule, Gert and I are always here. Hertog Jan is our flagship and we cannot forget it. In Belgium, being present in your restaurant is very important. I don’t know whether it is as important as in other countries but customers here give a lot of importance to having the chef here. So we try to be here as much as possible. If Gert is not here because he is travelling, I am always here. It is a form of respect we show to our guests. We have a great team in place at L.E.S.S doing a really good job and I visit from time to time.”
A tough transition to the new Hertog Jan
When they closed Hertog Jan in the old location, there was a transition of a few months in which they decided to open a pop-up restaurant in the centre of Bruges. I ask him whether this was a trend. Joachim explained that they did not go with the trend but did it because it was financially necessary. We also had a feeling they needed to do something when their customers were telling them in January that they would be seeing them in the new location which would only open in July.
Joachim explained that with 27 people on the payroll they needed to retain a certain cashflow which is crucial to any business. “We did it and are proud of what we did with the team but mentally it was extremely hard for us because we were thinking of Hertog Jan. But we were not there very day and a group always needs leadership.”
“It was a bistro in a beautiful building. It was not Hertog Jan at all, it was fun. It was another type of kitchen. The food quality was perfect, the service team did a really good job and we served 16,000 people for three months so it was successful. But it was hard without leadership and the atmosphere became bad making it difficult to restart at Hertog Jan.”
He speaks openly about how difficult it was to install the same discipline which they had come to expect at Hertog Jan. “We had a few members of the team who were no longer motivated. It was a very difficult time for us. There was stress, we needed to re-open on time and we needed to start service immediately. But when you have a bad atmosphere in the service team and in the kitchen, it becomes very hard.”
At one point, they lost four cooks and one person from the service team at one go. “We were angry because losing four cooks in one go is tough. But now the whole team is rebreathing, we are in control and we can do a good job in a relaxed atmosphere.”
Joachim knows that teamwork is essential. He explained to me that the way they designed the restaurant is meant to facilitate team work and make it easier for staff in each section to do their job in the least burdensome way. That’s the advantage when you design your own restaurant from the start. He uses football as an analogy. “You may have the best football team in the world but when the atmosphere is not good, you do not become a world champion. So the atmosphere in the team is really important. You need that magic and that atmosphere to do great things.”
“That chapter is over,” he tells me “and now we are ready for our next step. We do not have a next step for the moment so we work on getting the details right. As a team we are more creative and that is what we need all the time. We have to give our best every day.”
He stresses the importance of having a good atmosphere in the team. “This is essential in a workplace. We see each other more than we see our family and friends so we need to work well together. It is hard enough as it is so we do not have to make it harder. Now when I see problems arising, I try to tackle them immediately.”
“At this level, the most valuable thing we have are our people working in the restaurant. There are a lot of good chefs and a lot of good restaurants. The difference is made by the people who work there.”
I ask him what the next challenge is. “We need to develop the full potential of this building. We need to develop the experience and work on the details. We also have side projects like books but Hertog Jan is our flagship and has to remain so.”
“Last year was a very hard year for us. But I do not have regrets. We learnt a lot in that year. Mentally it was really heavy for all of us, not only for Gert and myself but also for the team. We became stronger as humans and also stronger as a team and we are ready for the next level.”