It is often, these days, that we hear of people who quit their jobs to follow their passion. Then there are those who are restless because they are not sure what they want to do. They may be sitting in their jobs but they know this is not what they want to do.
When they finally find what they really like and what they really want, they beat all the hurdles in their way and race ahead trying to gain lost time.
The same can be said for Stéphane Diffels of L’Air de Rien. How do you spot the difference between a chef who has taken a more traditional route and one who has discovered the vocation for cooking at a much later stage?
The signs are all in the cooking and in the way the chef speaks about food.
Cooking in many ways can be technically flawless, but if there is no passion and if it is treated like any other job, it can be spotted from a mile away. In many ways, the difference between a memorable meal and a great meal could be boiled down to the passion of the chef in question.
Stéphane sits at our table after dinner and we start the interview even though it ends up being more like a conversation, given there is so much that connects us.
“When I finished my studies, I went to the United States because I did not know what I was going to do in life. I took a year to reflect and then started university,” he tells me.
“Going to university was the normal route for me even though I did not know how to study. At school, it went fine but when I got to University this was a problem. I struggled because of the fact that I had not really studied before,” he said.
The Belgian chef tells me that he worked as a barman in Liege for four years. “I was earning a lot of money for my age but I also ending up spending it. So I stopped working without knowing what I was going to do next. I gave a month’s notice and after that I found work in a supermarket.”
He worked there for seven years. “I had children and needed to work. I tried my best but it was not for me. I have no problem with working hard and it is a good thing to be compensated when you work hard. But working in a supermarket is extremely rigid. You have to start at a given time, you finish at a set time. There is a huge hierarchical system in place with many bosses along the line.”
Stéphane tells me that he could not take the immediate management. “They put pressure and I realised that this really was not for me. I thought I was going to kill someone, metaphorically speaking.”
“I still did not know what I wanted to do but reflected with my partner about what could be the next step. And the answer came naturally. When we agreed on ‘la cuisine’ it was like how could it be possible that we did not think of this before. It was like this had been hidden from me.”
Stéphane started a cooking course for two years. “I worked in the morning and went to the course in the evenings. And then we bought this house (which now is the location of L’Air de Rien) and we worked on it for another year before we opened the restaurant.”
I asked whether he had cooked for the first time in his restaurant and he said he had done traineeships, but that was pretty much it. “On my first day in my first traineeship, I immediately concluded that I loved cooking but I could not work for someone else. I thought, I am too old, I had children already and could not work all those hours for someone else.”
This chef’s cuisine is evolving and he tells me that he has now reached a stage where he knows what he has to do. “I needed to regain all the time that I had lost. I needed to cook, to experiment to reflect and to read a lot. It was the only way I could catch up on the lost time.”
He used to take his inspiration from books. “I had three books which were reference points. These were books by Sang-hoon Degeimbre, Rene Redzepi and Kobe Desramaults.”
But now he has the courage to experiment without necessarily looking at the books. Before, I used to suffer. Now it has become a pleasure. “It is important to find yourself to be able to create a style. Some of it comes from experience. But it also comes from great produce.”
The chef he admires most in Belgium is Kobe Desramaults of In De Wulfe. Outside of Belgium it is Rene Redzepi of Noma. “But I like to think that in Wallonia, we are a bit different because we also have a Latin influence. In Wallonia we speak French, we are in the north, we have a nordic culture and it is cold. But it is not the same climate as the north and we also have a Latin spirit. We are in between the north and the south. This is really a plus point in my view. I think that we have a nordic style of cuisine with influences from the south. In the north, you do not have a lot of produce which exists in the south like tomatoes. This contrast forces you to be creative. It forces you to think hard to make sure that something is really good.”
At the restaurant, Stéphane works mainly with produce which comes from the area. “This is really a special place for produce. At the moment we are in this transition when we can use fermented winter vegetables and combine them with spring vegetables which are just sprouting. You have a mix of two seasons and it gives you more liberty to be creative,” he tells me.
He mentions for example the razor clams that he has served with capers which had been preserved the previous summer.
I ask him which season he prefers. “I like them all because you can get the best out of all seasons. But I love winter because my favourite vegetables are all root vegetables like celeriac, beetroot, parsnip and parsley root. But spring is also great for the herbs and all the fresh produce, summer for the fruits and autumn for the mushrooms.”
The menu evolves according to the seasons. “Some dishes stay, some change from one to another. It all depends. What I try to do is evolve the menu to make it better and better.”
He created one of his signature dishes, the snow of fois gras by accident. “I had bought a microplane grater and had fois gras in the freezer. I tried to grate it and it was raw, not seasoned or cooked. The seasoning comes from what accompanies it.”
He started working with fermentation around two years ago. “It took me a year to get to where I wanted, but this has really given me a new dimension. I also like to take time preparing dishes. Meat is cooked very slowly. The celeriac is cooked in a salt crust for 2 hours, left to rest for five hours before we remove it from the crust and let it continue to rest. Fermentation and pickling take even longer. Even eating here takes time. You cannot be in a hurry when you come to eat here,” he tells me with a smile.
By now it is past 1.15am and I still have to drive back to Brussels from Fontin but I have to ask him what is the meaning of L’air de Rien. “L’air de rien. I like surprises. Sometimes you might feel the air blowing from behind you, you turn and there is nothing, ‘rien’. We are also situated in a village where there are not many people. We have quality but it is not like a real top-end restaurant. It is relaxed. It’s like going to a friend’s house. That is why we chose L’air de rien.”
Ultimately, Stéphane’s objective is to meet people and to ensure that the team works well together. “Our aim to continue to improve all the time.”
You can say that L’air de rien is still work in progress. But Stéphane is clearly on the right track. The food and service are exceptional and the atmosphere in the restaurant is relaxed. To my mind this is the right formula and one which works. This is a restaurant worth visiting.