When Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson left Iceland on a one way ticket to Belgium little did he imagine that he would be settling in the small city or village of Ypres, known more for the battle field that was World War 1 than for a dining destination.
But as a young chef, you cannot say he was not determined. After an experience at Texture in London, he had returned to his home country, Iceland, thinking he would settle there but after three weeks he realised that he needed to leave the island. “In London, I came to experience exceptional produce. It was everywhere and the quality was like nothing I had seen before,” the young Icelandic chef told Food and Wine Gazette. “I realised that this was not possible in Iceland. I wanted to leave as soon as possible.”
He had a list of restaurants in mind that he wanted to work in to gain experience, What he was looking for was not the what or the how the restaurant worked but rather the why. That has remained his philosophy till this day.
He got a response from In De Wulf to go for a week training. “I booked a one-way ticket and never returned back to live in Iceland.” He is still proud of his Icelandic roots and he believes that this is also important for his children with whom he speaks Icelandic because it is an important part of who he is and who they are.
That week at In De Wulf, the restaurant owned by Kobe Desramaults which no longer exists changed his point of view for ever. At the end of the traineeship, Kobe Desramaults, the Flemish chef called Vilhjamur and asked him what his plans were. “I am staying here,” he told him. “He must have thought that I was mad,” the Icelandic chef said.
He has been in Belgium since then working for nearly two years at In De Wulf, then at Hertog Jan, the Belgian three Michelin star restaurant of Gert De Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens in Zedelgem, Brugge and later at La Buvette in Brussels.
At In De Wulf he learned to question everything. It shaped who he is as a chef today. At Hertog Jan he learned how an exceptional kitchen works. He also has words of praise for La Buvette in Brussels which taught him the love of cooking. “At that restaurant, it was amazing to see the passion and the joy with which they cooked,” he said.
Little did he imagine that he would settle down in Ypres and open his restaurant Souvenir together with his wife. This restaurant may not have a Michelin star but it has made it to the top 100 European restaurants in the Opinionated About Dining list and is highly regarded among foodies and international foodies as a destination restaurant.
There is a reason for this and it starts with a question. Why? The Icelandic chef is obsessed with this question just like the experience he had at In De Wulf. “Looking back at Kobe Desramaults and the time at In De Wulf, I can say that the restaurant was so far ahead of its time. Kobe has a natural instinct to question everything and that is what we did as a team. We questioned everything. At that time, he might not necessarily have known the direction he wanted to give the restaurant but he had an instinct for what he was creating. There was a sense of purpose and his instinct lead him to where he is today. He has this natural instinct to put ingredients together and sometimes we would say, this is crazy, this will never work. But he was always right. It’s like he has a visual palate,” said Vilhjalmur.
Souvenir is just 20 kilometres away from Dranouter, a village in the middle of nowhere in Flanders just on the border with France where many chefs and foodies have visited to understand Kobe’s approach. So you can imagine that it was a bit of a shock for Vilhjalmur and also the community when Kobe announced that he would be closing the restaurant.
“It was a huge shock for the community. Though I personally understand him. For a start it impacted the business because there were many people who came to In De Wulf for lunch and then stopped at Souvenir for dinner or vice-versa. But more importantly, it was heartbreaking news for the community of farmers that had grown together with Kobe Desramaults and a few restaurants in the area.”
Vilhjalmur has huge respect for these farmers. He insists many times during our long conversation that as a chef he is insignificant. “I can stop cooking today and it will not be important. But if these farmers stop working, we have a huge problem,” he says.
I am lucky to be at the restaurant when a farmer walks in with fresh produce he has picked up from his fields and I immediately understand why. The tomatoes the farmer brings are beyond belief. They come in all shapes and sizes and also in different flavours. I never thought that the tomatoes in the North of Europe could be so good coming from the Mediterranean island of Malta where tomatoes are taken rather seriously. “There are farmers, passionate people who work extremely hard, who go against the grain and who do not necessarily work for profit.” The farmer tells me that the tomatoes are his hobby because he cannot sustainably grow them. “It would be devastating to lose this to big farming,” Vilhjalmur said.
Restaurants in the area have worked together to support this farming community together with Kobe who also uses their produce for his new restaurant in Gent, Chambre Séparée.
“We are at a crossroads and the next few years are going to be crucial. As chefs and as citizens, we need to decide whether we continue to support the producers or else we will succumb to large multinationals who will supply supermarkets with the same few vegetables.”
Vilhjalmur finds inspiration from architecture which he loves as well as from music, art and the creative world. “I am particularly interested in brutalist architecture which exemplifies function over form. That is an integral part of my cooking.”
That brutalist approach is very much a part of his cooking and his philosophy towards cooking. He is an advocate of pure flavours, simplicity and removing ingredients until he gets down to the essential. “Complicated flavours are easy to create. It is easy to hide in complication. But when you go down to the essence, then it starts to get harder,” he says.
Vilhjamur says that in an age of instant gratification and the ability to find all sorts of information about restaurants on social media, on the internet or in guides, the importance of transparency is essential particularly for guides otherwise they risk losing their relevance and become irrelevant.
Becoming a father of two children has also helped him grow as a chef. “Having children changed by perspective on food. I want to make food that is good, food that is simple, food that respects the ingredients and food that is fun to eat.”
He tells me that many ask him if his approach to seasonality is a barrier to creativity because he is constrained from using certain ingredients. “When I opened the restaurant, I made a promise to myself to only serve what is in season, what the farmers provide me. At times, in the cold and dreary months of winter in February and March, it is extremely difficult because there is not much that you can use. But that constraint opens the doors to creativity,” he says.
Coming from a Nordic country where winters can be extremely austere he has not yet really immersed himself in fermentation also because of a lack of human resources and time though he does preserve food and work creatively when produce is abundant to be able to add freshness to his winter dishes.
“This winter was particularly difficult but I know that the following winter is also going to be very bad. It has been dreadful weather wise for farmers. The winter and early spring was bitterly cold which meant that the fields froze a few times causing devastation to the crops. Then we had a very hot spell which also had a huge impact on the vegetables meaning that this is going to be a tough winter. At times I get bored using beetroots at the very end of winter when its the only vegetable we can use but now we have the new season beetroots, I become inspired again,” he tells me.
You have to respect him for this discipline. He tells me he has clients who only come in the summer months because they prefer the fresh vegetables of that season and cannot face the winter vegetables. “But that is the way to respect seasonality and to help the farmers.” So what is his favourite season? He tells me that all seasons are interesting to him.
Like me, Vilhjalmur is an outsider to Belgium. Does this help or hinder him, I ask. He is not too fond of Belgian bureaucracy and for a reason. When he came to open his restaurant his diploma from Iceland was not recognised and he was told that if he wanted to open a restaurant he needed to have a Belgian diploma but this would take him years to get. On digging further, he found a loophole which enabled him to open the restaurant. He was told that if he did not serve potatoes, which is a staple ingredient in Belgium, it would be considered an ethnic restaurant and therefore a diploma was not necessary.
Working around the system, he managed to open Souvenir and to work without potatoes despite the fact that it is one of those restaurants that has put Belgium on the gastronomic worldwide map. He finally got his diploma recognised after a legal battle costing him thousands only to find that the government finally decided to lift this restriction two months after winning his case.
But being an outsider to the system does have its advantages he believes. “I think that Belgians tend to give me more leeway than what they would give a Belgian chef. There is huge talent here but there is also a lot of unrealised potential because of the way things work.”
We cannot agree more with the chef. He calls for Belgium to start promoting itself as one country abroad and not to promote Flanders, Wallonia or the Brussels Region separately. “No one outside Belgium knows about Flanders or Wallonia. We need to stop wasting our resources and taxpayers money and promote Belgium as a whole. Last year, Belgium had a drop in tourism of over 40%. Only Erdogan’s Turkey fared worse. The country as a whole needs to get its act together.” he said.
I ask whether Belgium will ever follow the Nordics in becoming a food destination. “I doubt it because the costs here are huge. Unless there is a fair level playing field, we will never be able to compete with other countries. The cost to hire personnel is exorbitant and poses a significant burden that makes recruitment very difficult.”
Vilhajmur is not afraid of working hard. He clocks over 100 hours a week despite having two young children but he believes that in the long run this is not a sustainable lifestyle. “First and foremost I am a family man. My family is extremely important to me. My wife is everything, she gave me the children, the family, the restaurant and the possibility to live in Belgium. We will stay here as long as there is opportunity but it would be great to be able to reduce the burden by employing more people. But for the time being that is not possible.”
He tells me he has just returned from China where for the cost of three people in Belgium they could recruit 18 staff. “How can our restaurants compete?”
It is a pity because he believes that Belgium has exceptional talent and also exceptional produce. “Politicans need to stop bickering and need to get down to changing things. They need to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit.”
He is also of the view that Belgium needs a city that can attract tourism. Something like Copenhagen for example. “Brussels is an eclectic city with huge potential. It is multicultural and a melting pot. But its a bit like Washington, no one wants to go there because it is not exciting. This needs to change. Antwerp has the potential but it is not yet on the map. When we have a city that is on the worldwide map, then that will trickle down and help all of us.”
He worries that other countries are starting to rise on the global food map. “Spain is what it is, Italy is passing through a renaissance but you have other countries that are emerging that did not necessarily have a food culture. Who would have thought of Ireland as a food destination? Or Scotland?”
A lot of great things are happening there thanks to the work of passionate people. Those people are not lacking in Belgium, he believes. “There is this sense among chefs here that we need to work together, that we need to support each other. We can compete for awards and clients but at the same time we are working together and that is essential.” he says. He mentions San Degeimbre who created Generation W and Filip Claeys of North Sea Chefs as two passionate chefs who are creating movements.
Vilhjalmur does not shy away from the big questions facing food. He reflects about resources, about population growth and how we are going to feed the planet when the population rises from the current 7.5 billion to 9-9.5 billion in 33 years time and will grow further by 2100. “We need to start reflecting on how we are going to feed all these people. The current status quo is not an option. We chefs have an obligation to speak because we work constantly with food. We are solitary voices but the discussion needs to start somewhere and it is not the politicians that will lead it.”
He is lucky to have a voice and to have the possibility to use it. “Politicians are also my clients and they come to my restaurant and I can discuss such issues with them.”
He does not believe that gastronomy will exist in 50 years time with the way things are going. “But for sure food is going to become much more important and the next few years are going to be essential for the whole sector globally,” he says.
The Icelandic chef has his feet to the ground. Although his restaurant Souvenir has been listed in the top 100 restaurants in the Opinionated about Dining list he does not believe that he is among the 100 top restaurants. “It is great to get the recognition.”
He has plans for the future which centre around a pop-up restaurant though the location is yet unknown. “There will be roadworks in the street of our restaurant which will make it unaccessible and we will move. But together with my wife, we are also thinking of trying another concept, this time a la carte and simpler to Souvenir.”
So where does he see himself in five to ten years? “It is a question I ask myself all the time and I don’t have the answer. For sure I want to work less and enjoy time with the family.”
Given I come from Malta, where the produce has the potential to be great because of the weather, I curiously ask him whether a restaurant like Souvenir would work in Iceland. “Unfortunately not. This will never work in Iceland. Since the financial crisis, we have seen a huge increase in tourism in Iceland. It is really booming and hotels and restaurants are opening everywhere. But this is not sustainable and is mainly geared for tourists. Many new places have opened but they are sustained by tourism. If there is a drop in tourism and that is starting to happen because of the currency, then it will become problematic.”
He loves to test and experiment. “Trying out new things gets easier as you go along. Sometimes it works quickly, sometimes it is a very long process, sometimes it is never ending as you try to refine. You just never know what works or doesn’t work. You have to keep on trying.”
As two Islanders who have moved to mainland Europe we understand each other completely. We agree to meet again, this time to put the farmers in the spotlight.