Kobe Desramaults, chef of restaurant In De Wulf, Dranouter, has a credo which he likes to use in his kitchen. “Adapt, create and evolve.” And that is what he seems to be doing after his shock decision to close the world famous restaurant in December 2016.
He tells Food and Wine Gazette that he had reached a point where he needed to decide whether to buy the property from his mother or not and he thought for very long whether he wanted to take a loan that would tie him to a place for at least another 20 years. “I think there was a time when chefs were making decisions for life. But we are in a different age and we see what is going on in the world. We see different things and I want to try different things,” he says.
The Flemish chef became world famous for a style of cooking that is pure, natural and has no classic dishes or traditional sauces. He is one of the most internationally recognised Belgian chefs and has created one of the top destinations for foodies in the world. (His restaurant was number 1 in the Top 100 European list of Opinionated about Dining in 2014 and 4th in 2015).
When I met the young Flemish chef in his second restaurant, De Vitrine in Gent a few days ago, I wanted to get to know why he took the decision to close his restaurant. But I also wanted to look into his creative process, his philosophy of cooking and his plans for the future (read about his new restaurant tomorrow).
Just two years ago, Kobe had said that he could not imagine himself living anywhere else other than Dranouter. So what happened since then, I ask him?
It was time for a change
“There are drastic changes taking place in Belgium when it comes to taxes and restaurants seem to be a victim of this witch hunt. A restaurant is based on craft and craft is very labour intensive. To work manually you need to hire a lot of people and that costs a lot of money. In this type of restaurant, we work with people not machines. It is incredibly difficult to pass on this knowledge to others and even to hire people.”
He stressed that he is not advocating tax evasion but rather an understanding of the tough constraints that restaurants face.
“A restaurant like In De Wulf is very hard to maintain because you need a lot of people and you need to constantly have 40 covers otherwise it will not work. Maybe I’ve had it. I have been here for 12 years, given it my all. In the first years, I was working day and night, seven years a week. Maybe that’s a West Flemish thing to do but I was driven, working hard and never looking back. I was looking to the future but things start to change.”
“I now have a daughter and it started to make me think about the future. I am still ambitious but I want to do it in a different frame. With In De Wulf, I have to be in the restaurant. Even being here today at De Vitrine because we have an emergency in the kitchen means that people who go to In De Wulf will be disappointed because I am not there. It was time for a change.”
“I also had to make a choice because In De Wulf is my mother’s property and I had to decide whether to buy it or not under time pressure. I thought long and hard about it for months because as you said I could not imagine any restaurant anywhere else.”
“The accountant asked me if I was buying the property. And I started to think about it. I am not a rich man. Its not like I can retire now. I had bought a house in Dranouter where I will still live and if I bought this property as well then I knew that I would be tied to this place for at least another 20 years.”
So has In De Wulf changed since he announced he would close the restaurant? And is there something he wants to achieve which he has not managed yet?
Bookings are good he says. But he is happy with what he has achieved at the restaurant. “I started 12 years ago and I was alone in the kitchen when I started. I did not have a plan of what to do or where to take the restaurant. I worked and wanted to improve and that is what I have been doing for 12 years. I see it like the work of an artist who is working on a big installation. I am at the point where everything I could have dreamed of for In De Wulf has happened. There is a huge team working there. It is a perfect machine. Sometimes I feel that I am not needed. I was in Chile for a business trip a few days ago and from a business point of view, the team worked perfectly. I would not have gone if I did not think this was the case.”
Create more freedom for yourself
I ask him if he was freer now that he does not have to care about the Michelin Guide or the World’s 50 Best restaurants list though I know what he thinks about awards. “I did not care too much about it. When I start a new business, I will say from the start that I do not care about this. It is not to make a statement. I have lots of friends who have two or three Michelin stars and I have a lot of respect for them but it is not for me. I am not a competitive person. I do not like to be in a rat race and to me it looks a bit like a rat race if you start to care about it. Once you are there, you want to go up and up. If you are ambitious but do not care about these things and leave them aside, you will do more interesting things because you do not need to think that you need to please someone. You do it for yourself and your team and you create more freedom for yourself.”
Belgium has a lot to offer gastronomically but is not on the worldwide map unlike other regions which seem to be on a ‘wave’ “We have an advantage here but we do not make use of it. Take the Nordic wave. I have had some of the best meals of my life there. But there is a wave and everybody is more or less doing the same thing. What is interesting about Belgium is that there is all this diversity. If you come to Belgium and go to Peter Goossens (Hof Van Cleve), Gert de Mangeleer (Hertog Jan), Sang Hoon Degeimbre (L’Air du Temps) and come to In De Wulf you will experience four completely different styles of cooking. We need to promote what we are doing but there will never be a Belgian wave. There is diversity and Belgium is built on this diversity,” he tells me.
Kobe has been compared to Redzepi in the past not necessarily only in the style but also in making use of ingredients that might not be as noble as one would expect in a fine dining restaurant. Is this the future I ask him? “I think it is the past. It is important to look back at the past. People like Redzepi have shown worldwide that there is a new way of doing things. To be honest, I think this all started with el Bulli. At that restaurant they showed what can be done in a very technical way. But el Bulli taught people to start to think about their food. That was new. People started to think about what they did and why they did it.”
He says that Redezepi took the influence from el Bulli and turned it into his own style. “This spread out to others including me who was influenced by Redzepi. But I would not say that I do the same thing as René. My approach is still very different.”
Inspiration is an attitude
So how does he find inspiration? “Inspiration is an attitude. You have to be open and curious. In a way, you have to be like a kid. When you cook you have to be open to any idea. Ideas are everywhere but if you don’t look, you will not open your mind.”
So is it easy to come up with new things? “It’s very easy,” he tells me. “You have to be open to the thoughts of the people working with you. You need to see what is happening in your life. I have this credo to adapt, create and evolve. You need to adapt to a situation. Let’s say we have a dish with leeks. The farmer comes but he has no leeks and has beautiful cauliflower instead. The first option would be to not adapt and go and get leeks from another farmer. So that would keep me in the comfort zone where I would continue to work with leeks. But with the cauliflower, I am going to adapt, I am going to create and I am going to evolve.
“So I will grow with the ingredients and with the farmer and with the ideas. When you do that again and again and again, you will see that ideas to create dishes are really simple. You just have to do it. I am not the kind of guy who takes long to prepare dishes. Dishes are prepared in five minutes, sometimes one second. There needs to be feeling. You have to see produce and say this is what you want to do with it,” Kobe says.
He tells me that he does not try to perfect a dish for months because the perfect produce might not be available once the dish is ready. So the philosophy of the restaurant is to change a few dishes when it is necessary. “It all depends on the produce. If you have a perfect cauliflower, you cannot test a dish for six months. It might not be around in a week to two weeks. The more times you restart from scratch the better it is.”
Team work and harmony in the kitchen is also in vogue at the moment and in this regard Kobe has also evolved considerably. “My only experience in a top level kitchen was at Oud Sluis in the Netherlands. I had an amazing relationship with Sergio Herman. He was like a brother to be. He was very direct. I was an apprentice there and he had a lot of patience with me and showed me what it means to work hard and what cooking is all about.”
Kobe tells me that in the past there was a lot of aggressive behaviour in kitchens which came from the Marco Pierre White system. “That influenced a lot of people to be very hard and strict in the kitchen. You have to be strict but there is a general feeling of treating each other as human beings. I used to be quite aggressive in the kitchen throwing things until my heart and chest would pound. At the end of the day it draws a lot of energy out of you. You are mad and being mad takes a lot of energy.”
“A few years ago, around six years ago, I used to be in the kitchen and I always wanted to be in control of everything. Even if there were a lot of people in the kitchen, I wanted to be in control of everything from the tickets to the pass. I was confused. I realised that this needs to be different so I swallowed my pride and told someone else that they would do the tickets even if this is normally the chef’s role. I started to delegate more and did not tolerate shouting in the kitchen. Even today, if you shout in my kitchen you are out. I want a serene, serious atmosphere where people know what they have to do. It is strict but serene and there is no shouting.”
People are very creative
He tells me that collaboration and team spirit are essential for the future of kitchens. “It is amazing to see how creative people are but sometimes they are afraid to show it. If you involve people they can create things. We have our ingredients and we start thinking about what we are going to do with them. So you need to put them in a comfortable environment where they can feel that they can speak to you and can contribute to the kitchen. At the moment, I have a sous chef who is excellent with misos and Japanese style fermentation. He is doing impressive work and we use his knowledge and drive for this.”
“We use indigenous ingredients and have created a dish mixing north shrimps with miso. It is something that has never been done before. It is really delicious. Out of fish guts, we make a fish sauce. These are not flavours that are typical of the region but the produce comes from here and I think this is the future, i.e. to use local produce but in an open manner. There is no definition of local cuisine. Trying to do something local does not exist any more. What is important to me is that we use local ingredients.”
Kobe is known for his use of humble ingredients, for trying to make full use of his produce and not wasting anything and also for raising awareness on the issue of food waste.
“As a chef, I do not want to be a prophet and say that I am doing everything right. You do not need to think about changing the world. you need to be creative. Using miso and fish guts is something that people in the past used to do. There are hundreds of things you can do with other produce. Unfortunately, we went into the industrial age where it was no longer necessary to preserve or use everything. But in the process we have lost a lot of flavours. So I think this is important that each and everyone of us thinks about this and start to think outside the box of how to recover what we have lost.”
Kobe has definitely evolved over the past 12 years. If you haven’t yet had the time to visit In De Wulf you should make it a point to take a ‘final pilgrimage’ to experience Kobe’s work and philosophy. You will not be disappointed.