Pierre Wynants, former three Michelin star chef of Comme Chez Soi, the Brussels institution that celebrates its 90th anniversary next year, needs no introduction among food lovers. There is no question that he is one of Belgium’s most well known chefs.
At 76 years of age, he still commands great respect among his peers having held the coveted three Michelin stars from 1979 to 2006. The Belgian capital has not had a three star restaurant since that day even though things are looking bright for the food scene in Brussels.
Wynants was at the cultural centre of Uccle, a leafy suburb of Brussels, on Monday 9th June to present the book he wrote together with Philippe Bidaine called La cuisine belge de demain (Tomorrow’s Belgian food).
In a conversation on stage with the President of the Uccle Cultural Centre Jacqueline Rousseaux, Wynants recalled how kitchens in the past where completely different to when he had started working in restaurants. “In the old days we used to cook with coal. Now kitchens are so much better and cleaner. They are unrecognisable,” he said.
He said the cuisine in the past used to be heavier, richer using lots of cream and sauces that would have been prepared in advance. “I believe that it was Gault Millau that changed cuisine to what we know today. They helped to refresh cuisine by forcing chefs to focus more on vegetables and less on sauces. Their recommendations were followed and this led to a lighter cuisine focusing more on vegetables even though I do get the impression we have lost flavour.”
Wynants believes a sauce should be neither light nor rich but perfectly balanced. “Nowadays, I get the feeling that sauces are being used just to decorate dishes with ‘small spots’ rather than to enhance a dish. We have forgotten the sauce and this is what makes and completes a dish,” he said.
The Belgian chef spoke how in the 1950s, sauce would be prepared in the morning. “I recall making a bearnaise sauce in the morning. Now everything is prepared at the last minute.”
Wynants, who had a score of 19.5 out of 20 from Gault Millau said he admired them for what they had done to cuisine in general. “Like with everything there are pros and cons but they really have helped in the evolution of cuisine.” he said.
Speaking about molecular cuisine he said that he had lots of admiration for the research that chefs like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi are doing but added that all their restaurants had made people sick with the food they served.
Comme Chez Soi is now in the hands of his daughter and his son-in-law Laurence and Lionel Rigolet making it the fourth generation to run this Brussels institution. Speaking about Lionel, the current chef of Comme Chez Soi, Wynants said that he has learned by going to a lot of restaurants outside Belgium which is essential for a chef. “He presents dishes much better than I do but focuses on flavours just like me,” he said.
How does Wynants characterise Belgian cuisine?
“We have excellent Belgian produce and use the same style as the French,” he says. “Many Belgian chefs ventured outside of Belgium and this adventure outside our country created the cuisine we have today. We Belgians are also great lovers of good food and restaurants. Only a few weeks ago I was speaking to Troisgros who was telling me his best clients are Belgian,” he said.
“We have great produce like asparagus, fruits and vegetables, game, beer, the mustard from Gent, cheese and I believe that we can do a lot with these products.”
Wynants spoke about the loss of the third Michelin star when he passed the reigns to Lionel. “Unfortunately, we are not judged the same as in France. Moreover, I believe that there should be a different system for independent restaurants as compared to hotel restaurants because these are completely different.”
He was critical of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list saying that there should be more transparency. The winner at the end of the day is San Pellegrino.”
Wynants says that the road to become a chef is difficult but to become a great chef is even harder. “You need a lot of disciple. Quoting Louis Van Gaal, he said discipline should not be seen as a punishment but rather as a necessity.”
The former chef said he owed his third star to his wife Marie-Therese who he married 45 years ago. “She has a better palate than I have.” His wife said that it was difficult when her husband announced that they had lost the third star. But she had taken it philosophically saying that there are more important things in life. At the end of the day, I am pleased with what we have managed to do,” she said.
Her daughter Laurence, who has taken over from her mother spoke of the difficulties of running a family restaurant. “It is not always easy to work in a family. At the end of the day everyone has their own place and their opinion which needs to be respected, sometimes we need to manage emotions but we are constantly learning. I’ve learned a lot from my mother. Without her, I would not be who I am. The same goes for Lionel.”
She spoke of the time when Comme Chez Soi had lost its third star. “We took it as a new challenge and for us, our aim is to do well. The greatest gift for me is when people tell us that they have had a great time at the restaurant.”
Laurence also spoke of the influence of TV nowadays. “TV was important for Lionel particularly after he took over from my father. That way, people discovered him and his character. But for young people coming out of school and who go on television it could be a bitter experience. Unfortunately some go to open restaurants at a very young age and discover after a few months that it is extremely tough because it is not just about cooking but also about managing people and emotions and end up having to close.”
Wynants wanted to publish a book for his 75th birthday and the original idea was to write one about Comme Chez Soi’s history. But instead they decided to put the showcase of Belgium’s future. We choose 15 Belgian chefs who showcase a dish and explain their story and then Lionel and I completed the rest of the book with our recipes.
The book includes recipes by Pierre Wynants and Lionel Rigolet of Comme Chez Soi as well as recipes and conversations with renowned chefs like Gert De Mangeleer, Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, Kobe Desramaults, Yves Mattagne, Pierre Resimont, Christophe Hardiquest, Eric and Tristan Martin, Gregory Gillain, Arabelle Meirlaen, Tim Boury, Bart Desmidt, Maxime Colin and Pascal Devalkeneer.