It had been long in coming and the day was finally here even though there was not much time to prepare for the event. The booking at the two Michelin star restaurant L’Air du Temps, in Liernu, Belgium had been secured only a day before and so there was not much time to prepare our 8-year-old son on what to expect.
As many like to say, the journey is as important as the destination and it did require some hard work on our part to get to this point and it was at times difficult. Like all parents who take their kids to restaurants, we have had some embarrassing experiences. He had been to many restaurants before but nothing had ever approached this level.
So although we were confident that it would work out, it was with a sense of trepidation that we arrived at the restaurant, fingers crossed that our judgement was not blinded by parental love.
He had only one request before we left home. He wanted a notebook and a pen. We of course did not object. With notebook and pen in hand, he ended up journaling his experience from start to finish making sketches of all the dishes he tried and also the decor of the restaurant. The experience served not only as an eye-opener for him but also one for me.
When I was an eight-year-old I always dreamt of accompanying my father to work. He was a sports journalist so that entailed going to watch football games and then accompany him to the newspaper office where he would write his article and stay till late until the newspaper was printed.
The first visit to the printing press is still etched in my memory. So, while food and wine is a hobby for me, it is still a very important and integral part of what I do and hence taking our eldest son to a fine-dining restaurant was always considered to be an experience that we wanted to share with him.
My wife and I had discussed it for some time and while the idea was to wait and take the two children to a good restaurant for a special event we ended up in a situation where we had an afternoon to ourselves on my wife’s birthday as our daughter was invited to a birthday party.
We opted for the safe option of going to a place we knew and although we booked last minute we asked for a table near the kitchen (away from the main dining room) to avoid disturbing other guests.
The table was not available so when we arrived we were seated in the main dining room. The guests may not have been entirely happy to see an eight-year-old boy though the behaviour throughout the entire sitting was one that we ended up being proud of.
The first few minutes are tense. Would our son behave? Would he keep his voice low? What if he drops or spills water on the table which he seems to have a habit of doing? What will the other guests in the restaurant say? What if there is something he tries and does not like? Will there be a crisis situation?
As parents of two children, we appreciate the quiet moments when we go to restaurants so we can understand if guests at the restaurant might not be happy to see a child.
What is the point of taking a child to a fine-dining restaurant you may ask and that would be a good starting point. Ultimately, life is about experiences and memories and a fine-dining restaurant today is not only about food but also about art, about presentation and about a chef’s philosophy.
Will he remember the experience? It is difficult to say though he has documented it with some great sketches, he has shown his sister photos of what he ate and says he enjoyed the experience from start to finish.
We arrived at the restaurant and were seated. The ‘signature’ bread was hanging from the ceiling and he was immediately fascinated. He tried it and then started to sketch how it looked. There were also grissini with herbs which he also sketched and tasted.
The dining room ceiling is special and he sketches that before the first amuse bouche arrives.
Like all children, he is not so easy with vegetables and there is a risk of going to a fine dining restaurant where the menu is set by the chef. Of course the staff at the restaurant were extremely welcoming and willing to adapt the menu but that would have diluted the experience. In the end, he had the same dishes as us except for the restaurant classic – the vegetable garden from Liernu – which is a splendid dish but one which I would expect few children his age to like, given the love/hate relationship with vegetables. He had some fixed ideas. He had seen the ‘classic’ moules frites photo I had eaten a few weeks earlier and also wanted a tempura of langoustine but both dishes were not available so he asked for fish or seafood instead.
What I realised is that unlike us taking photos of our food before we try it, he first tries the food and with photographic memory recreated his impressions of what he had eaten on paper. These were rough sketches because he did not have any colours but they were also incredibly detailed.
The cracker with squid and black garlic, the brussels sprout (which he sketched but did not try), the Belgian caviar in the form of lentils and the egg with truffle were all perfectly sketched as was the bread with two different types of butter and Maldon sea salt.
His first dish was scallops with potato paper and citrus. He asked to take a photo (see above) and after he ate and discovered all the flavours of the dish, sketched the dish taking into account all the components that had been perfectly assembled. How he remembered how the dish had been assembled baffles me.
He then tried the risotto with truffle. He ate most of it and when it was served to us I understood why. Here was a dish with an intensity of flavour that was surprising. Yet he ate most of it and loved it. Finally he tried the 120 hour cooked beef which brought the best out of his sketches.
By now he was full and still sitting patiently at table enjoying every minute of the experience. The fact that there was a projection on the wall showing what was happening in the kitchen may have helped, though when I asked him whether he wanted to go to the kitchen to see the work in action, he was a bit shy and preferred to stay with us.
The dessert followed, a vanilla ice-cream with a freshly made apple tart. His eyes glistened when the goodies tray arrived with our coffees. He tried a black forest tart, a chocolate and citrus lollipop and marshmallows.
We ended up chatting to Sang Hoon Degeimbre after and he listened attentively. As soon as we walked out of the restaurant, he asked if I knew any three Michelin star chefs. Can we go to a three Michelin star restaurant next time, he innocently asks.
We know that the experience has been a success and one that can be repeated. Like most children, he is difficult with vegetables but we know that this experience has helped him to discover new tastes, to consider food as a form of art and expression and will help him to develop his palate. The bar has been set very high.