Gert De Mangeleer is the youngest ever Belgian chef to achieve 3 stars in Belgium. He is the chef and co-owner of Hertog Jan together with Joachim Boudens. A few days ago, the restaurant was listed as 53rd in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants making it the highest ranked restaurant in Belgium.
Earlier this year, we spent some time with Gert and Joachim at the restaurant in the outskirts of the idyllic Belgian city of Bruges in Zedelgem. Needless to say, it was an inspiring time and we have distilled the lessons learnt.
1. You can plan but learn to expect the unexpected: Both Gert and Joachim were aiming towards a third Michelin star when they decided to move from their old restaurant and in many ways, they designed the restaurant with this aim in mind. They were caught by surprise when they earned the third Michelin star in their old location but it goes to prove that success sometimes comes when you don’t expect it. It also teaches you not to look for excuses but rather to lean in and use what you have to the best of your potential.
2. If you cannot find something, create it: Hertog Jan would not exist without its garden. It is an integral part of the restaurant and ensures the restaurant is nearly self-sufficient when it comes to vegetables. It was developed because Gert could not find what he was looking for. When it comes to tomatoes for example, today they grow over 100 varieties which would be impossible to find even in speciality shops. It is a lesson in innovation.
3. Small details make all the difference: Many of us like to think of the big picture and think strategically about what we want to achieve. But attention to detail is essential. Gert says that sometimes, there could be a lot of huffing and puffing because of little jobs but “in a kitchen or a company, it is the small things which make all the difference.”
4. Be yourself: In the creative arts, you need to develop your own personality and be yourself. You should not look around you to see what others are doing but rather to look at your own roots and do your own things. You may find inspiration when meeting others but you should always remember your style and focus on it.
5. Know what you want and push yourself to go further: Gert knew he wanted to cook when he was doing weekend jobs in restaurants between the age of 14 and 18. His parents wanted him to further his education. He admits that in his first job he had no experience and got many things wrong. But he had this competitive streak and wanted to be faster and better than those around him.
6. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. In his first job, the chef had told him that he needed to leave because there was not much more he could learn in that restaurant. “He told me that I had more potential and needed to find something that would help me to go further.” So, if you feel stopped learning, don’t be afraid to quit and move on.
7. Travel. It is a source of creativity: Travelling is essential for creativity. Sometimes it takes time to absorb ideas from different cultures. Inspiration could come from the cuisine, the spices, the flavours, street food, art and architecture. Travel opens your mind. Sometimes you need lots of time before the experience sinks in.
8. Success comes with hard work: The old restaurant had become too small for the team at Hertog Jan. But the team worked incredibly hard and did not look for excuses. It was quite normal for Gert to be baking bread at 6am and still be preparing his mis-en-place for the next day at 1am or 2am. If you want to be successful, you need to work hard.
9. Don’t rest on your laurels: Three Michelin stars, exceptional reviews, top Belgian restaurant in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, how do you remain motivated? Gert tells me he does not consider that he has reached the top yet.
10. Look for simplicity: The motto at Hertog Jan is “Driven by Simplicity”. But simplicity is not so simple. And as everyone knows in design, the most simple things can be the most complex. When I ask him about the creative process, he tells me that a dish might be quick to develop. By quick he meant 2 months of experimentation. Simple things are normally the best. But what might look simple at face value can be extremely complex.