When Christophe Hardiquest moved his restaurant from Uccle to Woluwe Saint Pierre in Brussels six years ago, little did he know the difficulty he would face in the first few months to replicate the cuisine that clients were accustomed to at his old restaurant. That story still gives him goosebumps though he has benefitted from that experience. Today, six years later, the Belgian chef is embarking on a new approach to his cuisine with the aim of restoring the identity of Brussels cuisine, of rebuilding the tastes and flavours that are synonymous with the Belgian capital city, while reinventing them as you would expect from the chef of a high-end restaurant.
“I started to think that we had lost our identity but it is now coming back. I do not want to offer a Parisian cuisine in Brussels just because we are close to Paris. I don’t want to do this anymore,” Christophe told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
Like many others, Christophe realised that the more you travel and the more you experience different cuisines, the more you realise that food has become globalised. It was this that triggered his reflection on his food and the Brussels food scene.
“Today when you travel in Europe or to some other place you always tend to see the same ingredients in restaurants. From lobster to fois gras, turbot to wagyu beef, people are eating the same things in restaurants. For example, you can now find wagyu beef everywhere in Europe but this is not the real wagyu beef. When a Japanese visitor is coming from Tokyo to Europe and he sees wagyu beef on the menu, he doesn’t really care. The best wagyu can be found in Japan,”
“I have been cooking with these ingredients for the past 15 years. I love to work with luxury ingredients like lobster and langoustines and this is one of my axis of creations but I wanted to find a new axis of creation. So I reflected and discussed with people like Anne Swenden (one of the co-curators of the Gelinaz! collective) and thought that I am in Brussels and it is a relatively large territory with a lot of influence from Flanders and the French part of Belgium. I also have mixed history coming from the French part but with a Flemish grandmother. And I am in the middle, in Brussels so I think I can do this,” he said.
He is making use of his open kitchen (an essential element in his cuisine and his cooking) to open up and share something new with his customers. “Together with two friends we have researched and wrote a few lines about the desserts, the products, the ingredients and the preparations that are synonymous with Brussels. My job is to create a nice modern cuisine using Brussels ingredients or Brussels preparations using new technologies and approaches.”
It is a long process with no end in sight. “Some preparations can take two days, others might take six months. I started to work not thinking about where it will end. I feel that this is something new and something that I can give to my customers. And like this we are bringing the identity back.”
Christophe has started to work with an association of young chefs who are working with North Sea fishermen to use produce which come from there. “This is another way of rediscovering our identity. If we are not careful there will be no more turbots in the sea in a few years time. We have an obligation to open different doors, we need to look for other doors,” he says.
We need to change our mentality not only in restaurants but also at home
The Brussels chef, who has two Michelin stars and a 19.5 score in the Gault & Millau guide is conscious of the fact that chefs are opinion leaders. “When you are an opinion leader, you need to set an example and show there is a new way of doing things. We need to change our mentality not only in restaurants but also at home. We need to educate our children and also protect their future. It is our job to transmit and offer ideas,” he said.
He believes that this project is actually helping him to focus and to boost his creativity. “To be creative you need constraints. I am sure about that. For example, if you take the tomatoes and shrimps which is a synonymous dish in Brussels, I have already come up with two new recipes because of the constraints. You start with cooked or raw shrimps and you can play and think about what you can achieve.”
He says that in the past chefs would complain when they were not provided with the ingredients they wanted. “In the 1980s and 1990s a chef would say he wanted a five to seven kilo turbot and if he didn’t get he would shout at the supplier to get out of the kitchen. Chefs were like that. But now it is completely different and we need to adapt to nature and to the period we are living in.”
His Brussels project is just starting but he sees it as a long term project which will lead to other things. “We are already reflecting about books, we are inviting international chefs to see how they can reinterpret Brussels cuisine. For me, it is very important to have a different view of what we can do. Maybe one day, we can open a bistro offering a higher level of the popular food. This is also a goal to help young chefs working with me grow. I believe that a lot of young chefs are ready for this. It is also our job to offer visitors coming to Brussels the possibility of discovering really good popular cuisine. I have lots of ideas. For me this is a 10 year project that can lead to many things but I cannot say everything for the time being. I will let you discover this over time,” he says.
Brussels needs a three Michelin star restaurant
Since Comme Chez Soi lost its third Michelin star, Brussels has been without a three Michelin star restaurant. I ask him whether he thinks creating this new identity will help him achieve this objective? “Brussels needs a three Michelin star restaurant,” he says. “We are close to London and Paris and Brussels is the capital of Europe. There are many foreigners coming here and there are top quality restaurants but not a three Michelin star restaurants. For me, a three star means excellence. It could also be excellence in identity. If there are five two star restaurants in Brussels making the same food, it is a problem.”
He tells me that all the customers are saying they are happy with the new identity he is trying to create. “I hope that they are not being hypocritical. We are trying to give something new and I think this should also be interesting for Michelin because we are pushing a new identity.”
He says that what foreigners need when they visit a city or country is to be able to find the identity of the country or city in their restaurants. “I do not need to eat king crab in Italy. That should be in Scandinavia not Italy. Same for Wagyu which should be eaten in Japan. When you visit a city you want to discover something new.”
The open kitchen is an essential element in creating this new identity. It is also one of the reasons why the restaurant will host the Brussels Headquarters, a Gelinaz! event on 10 November.
“The open kitchen was important for be because it creates a connection with the customer. I can see the way they eat, how they approach a particular dish. I can observe everything, the service and go and speak to the customers. If you put me behind closed doors you kill me. I do this since 15 years and it is important not only for the ambience of the restaurant but also to manage myself,” he said.
It is important not to have doors. We are one team
“I am quieter than before because having closed doors is maybe a good excuse to scream at people or tell them what you think. That type of management is finished. Modern management means that there is more humanity. It is important not to have doors because we are one team. If you create borders you have two teams and you know what happens when you have two teams (the team in the kitchen and the service team). You have competition and a war and this kills the restaurant, it kills the ambience of the restaurant.”
In many ways this is his vision of what a three Michelin star restaurant should look like. “For me young chefs should experience an open kitchen otherwise you kill them. A chef is an artist with sensibility. You cannot put them in a square hole. The environment and natural light is very important in the creative process,” he said.
But the open kitchen at the new restaurant did not work immediately. “I moved from a small restaurant in Uccle to the new restaurant and I came with all my recipes. It might have been a feeling but the recipes and dishes I cooked in the new restaurant just did not work. Trust me, it was crazy but it hurt. I used to taste the dishes and say that it did not taste the same. I loved the old restaurant and when I arrived here, everything seemed to have changed.”
Christophe was asking himself whether it was a nightmare. “It took me six months to fix my recipes and my way of doing things. I was completely lost for those six to eight months. I was down. The environment had changed, my personality had changed and I could not find they way immediately. I was completely lost. It was a rough period for me, like the end of the world.”
He tells me that he would tell himself that he had the experience to turn it around, that he had been working for eight years and had moved together with his team. “But I was down, completely down. And then slowly, I found my way and started to be creative again. I forgot what I had made before and started afresh. I realised that the environment and the space changed and that I needed to adapt to the new space. The energy had changed. I realised that the place had first killed me but than it had given me power. But I was not ready for this. It was like a bad dream, a nightmare,”
Aware of the experience, he now knows that the environment of the restaurant is extremely important. “Now I have the experience but six years ago, I was completely lost, almost depressed and on the verge of a burnout,” he said. “It was difficult at that time but now, with experience, that period is over,” he said.
The Belgian chef did not take to social media immediately. “It was not deliberate but I did not have the time to play with social media. But now, I realise that it is important to communicate but I use it only for communication and I believe that it should just be a teaser.”
Does it impact the creative process I ask. Christophe says that people nowadays see pictures and are unconsciously effected by what they see. “People would before go to a place and remember what they ate. Now they get the impression that what is being cooked in Australia may be the same as in Spain even if it could be different. I don’t think it is necessarily a good idea to take photos of a dish. What is more important is the identity,” he says.
Inspiration and creativity for Christophe begins with the product or ingredient. “I am thinking about the ingredient but it also depends on the moment and the season. A lot of the cooking depends on the weather. We are in autumn and you need to offer a comfort flavour. For example, I have a John Dory dish with vegetables but in autumn I will use mushrooms and smoked potatoes to impart the flavour of this season. The main philosophy of the restaurant is to keep a dish pure, have a main ingredient in plate with a few touches of techniques and creativity around that ingredient.”
Since he is working on reinventing Brussels classics he is now working without rules. “As a cook, I had trained in classical cuisine and had a classical restaurant based on my experience. But now, I try to forget everything. I retain what I have learnt but at the same time I want to offer something else to my customers,” he said.
Teamwork is crucial
Teamwork is essential during the creative process. “Improvisation is also key. When we create we work as a team and we improvise. Sometimes I am working in a corner peeling shrimps and thinking at the same time. Then I might think of something and we start creating it as a team. A chef cannot do anything alone, you need the team. When a customer tells me a dish was very good, I always say that it is not me alone that has created the dish but its the team.”
Christophe says that chefs need to be humble in the kitchen. “You can be the best chef in the world but if nobody works with you nothing can happen,” he says. “That also involves being frank with each other. We do not hide anything from each other. If it is good, we say so but we also try to improve on a dish. If you are not frank and think that you are the best, than that is the beginning of hell,” he says.
The Belgian chef is a perfectionist and the mantra he installs in his team is that every day is a new day with new customers. “We need to stay humble and work together. It is also a reason why I believe, it is important to keep the same team. I have people who have been working with me for six years. There are some who are ready to open their business and I want to help them do that. What is also important is that people grow and not just the restaurant.
Christophe’s main hobbies outside cooking are biking, sports, music and reading. “I love to motorcycle. In many ways it resembles being in the kitchen, going fast. I like to run one or twice a week and I think it is important not only to be fit but also to release pressure. I am also passionate about discovering the work of other people. I am very curious and want to know how things are made. I also love reading even though there is never enough time to read.I try to read at least six to eight books a year from politics to management to history and cookery books. I am a fan of Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde. But the best combination for me is music and the motorcycle. Together it is liberty,” he says.