When a young Belgian chef decided to open Humphrey in Brussels earlier this year, it immediately attracted the interests of those in the know. Young Belgian chef Yannick Van Aeken had been known in food circles particularly since he was sous-chef at Rene Redzepi’s Noma for many years.
He has also worked at Victor Arguinzoniz’s Asador Extebarri, another restaurant that is considered to be among the best in the world and whose chef is clearly one of the top barbecue masters.
So the expectations have been high not less because when we interviewed Kobe Desramaults earlier this year he named Van Aeken as one of two Belgian chefs to watch. With that pedigree, it is obvious that there is a lot of attention as to what Yannick is doing at Humphrey.
But the young Belgian chef does not let this go to his head. He’s opened the restaurant at a rather difficult time for Brussels just before the March terrorist attacks. “It is going well since we opened. Since the Brussels attacks, it has been difficult in Brussels for everybody but we are getting there, improving with time and hope that it gets better and better.”
He acknowledges that coming from a restaurant like Noma may create false expectations. “It is always difficult when you come from such a big restaurant or a big house because people except something similar. But we have tried to do something different. I wanted to find out what I wanted to do. If you start something when you come from a top place your mind is still set on that style or type of cuisine. I have spent a lot of time travelling to find out what I want to do. That is a very difficult question. What do you want to eat when there are so many cuisines and styles. That’s not easy.”
Yannick says that he travelled a lot including the Philippines were his parter is from. “In 2012, we went to the Philippines to do charity work and have returned there a few times. I love the people there and the food so ultimately I decided to follow this style. The cuisine there is mixed. Americans where there, Spanish where there and also Asians and this has created a very interesting style.”
He says that he uses traditional techniques from the Philippines and combines it with the produce he finds in Belgium. “I use some elements but it is not exactly Filipino dishes, he says.
Open since the end of February he says his style is still evolving. “As a person you are always evolving, you grow older, things happen in your life which influence you and that influences your way of thinking and your perspective.”
So what lesson have you learned from your experience at Extebarri and Noma, I ask him. “From Extebarri I learned how elegant a barbecue can be. At Extebarri, every dish or even every ingredient is cooked with a different wood to give it a distinct smoke flavour. But this is very subtle. For me the barbecue flavours there are really elegant. It is not just a barbeque, you can really taste the produce.’
At Noma, Yannick saw the restaurant evolve from having 7 in the kitchen to 60 staff. “This was a big evolution. I also left the restaurant and rejoined after two years which meant that I could notice the difference after my return. What I learnt most there is how to work with your staff and how important it is to communicate with the people who work for you. Team-work is extremely important and people have to be happy at work.”
Yannick said that unlike other traditional restaurants where the chef creates the recipe and the team in the kitchen have to follow it, Rene has a different philosophy. “For Rene, today’s carrot is not the same as tomorrow’s carrot therefore the recipe can only be a guideline. You need to understand what he wants and then make the necessary adjustments to create the dish. It takes more time as a young person to learn, it takes more time for him to teach but teaching this way makes it easier in the long run. He would tell you to taste this sauce and its a very nice sauce, then he would tell you to add some lemon juice and taste it again. It is a completely different sauce. You tell add some vinegar and taste again. It is through taking these steps that you learn to notice the differences,” he said.
Yannick has taken that approach at his restaurant. “If the chef has to do all the work, a problem does not get solved since the team must be able to adjust a problem. The motto of Humphrey is sharing is caring and I believe this is very important. You learn from other chefs and other people. It is also much more fun,” he says.
The young Belgian chef finds inspiration from the produce. “We get some special products from the Philippines such as chilis. Products are essential to inspiration and sourcing these products is also important. Yannick works with small suppliers because he believes it is better to work with individuals who know what product they have, where it came from. For example, I have a really small fish supplier but he tells me what he has and even if I might have turbot in mind, he might bring something else and then its up to me to choose,” he said.
At Humphrey they are also growing their own vegetables and herbs. The terrace is used to grow herbs while they also have a parcel of land outside Brussels where they grow their vegetables. “We still buy from our supplier and we are not going to grow everything. But we want to see where this takes us. We don’t know how much the land will produce and how much time it will take.”
The young chef is also extremely conscious about food waste and it is something he really hates. “Unfortunately, in high end restaurants, there is a lot of food waste especially when everything has to look exactly the same. The staff in such kitchens cannot eat everything, there is always something that ends up being wasted. We need to improve as much as we can to get better.”
He says that there are certain ways to avoid it but certain products take a lot of effort to eliminate waste and you may end up processing something too much. He mentions stems of cabbage which are delicious but very difficult to use. “You might make a broth but there is a very long process involved.”
Food waste is a problem not only for restaurants but also for homes. Some restaurants are also moving to serve humble ingredients. “I believe that restaurants need to lead by example, if people see certain things in restaurants, they will replicate it at home. It takes a long time to change habits, including using humble ingredients for example,” he said.
Having moved from a top level restaurant to a casual dining restaurant does he think this is a trend. He says that nowadays the costs of running a top restaurant are very difficult to sustain. “The costs in Belgium are among the highest in Europe so it is difficult. You also need to add the fact that people do not have the means anymore to go and eat in fine-dining restaurants regularly. It is also harder because people have also become very knowledgeable about food, they read and know what is going on. Today they ask you where the product comes from, whether it is farmed.
Why is there no awareness of Belgian cuisine worldwide, I ask Yannick. He tells me that Belgian in general love to eat, they also like to travel. “There is a lot of influence from other countries and although it is a small country, the regional cuisine is different in different parts of Belgium.”
Question and Answer with Yannick Van Aeken
What’s your view of social media?
It is a big thing and people can be addicted. I don’t really use it much.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
I want to keep having fun cooking and making people happy. You cannot predict where Humphrey’s goes. it is hard to say because you evolve as a person and the way you think also changes.
Chefs that inspire you?
Ferguson – Nose to Tail
In a kitchen, Rene Redzepi helped me to grow, gave me opportunities and the chance to grow. He thought me that you can take decisions and he would support your decisions.
Best ever meal?
Extebarri. But there are many other good places.
Is there something you don’t eat?
Do you cook at home?
Sausage with mash and cauliflower
What’s your view of people taking photos in restaurants?
Is there something in a professional kitchen that should be in a home kitchen?
Nowadays most people have everything at home.
Favourite place in Belgium were to eat?
I love Kobe Desramaults place. But I can also be happy just eating fries. It’s very difficult to say.