Ask any chef whose been to Japan to speak about the quality of produce there and their eyes light up. Gert de Mangeleer, chef of Belgian top restaurant Hertog Jan is no exception. He’s a regular visitor to the land of the rising sun, drawing lots of inspiration from the culture and cuisine and he could not say no when he was asked to reciprocate a visit of three Japanese chefs who visited his restaurant in Zedelgem in late August.
In the span of two weeks in September, the Belgian chef cooked at three different top-end restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. “It was a bit of a roller coaster experience because in two weeks I cooked at three restaurants and also cooked at the Belgian embassy. But it is also a great experience which inspired me in many ways,” he told Food and Wine Gazette.
The Belgian chef started his trip to Japan in Tokyo cooking at the restaurant of Zaiyu Hasegawa, Den before cooking at Hiroyasu Kawate’s restaurant Florilège. He then made his way to Osaka where he cooked at Yusuke Takada’s La Cime also serving his iconic tomato dish outside Belgium for the first time ever.
“The trip was a big challenge because it was not just about cooking Hertog Jan’s dishes but rather about adapting to the different styles of restaurants. At Den, I was asked by Zaiyu Hasegawa to create comfort food. It was a really nice opportunity to serve dishes that were more similar to our restaurant LESS. We created great food in the form of street food which was really fun to do and something different,” he said.
Gert had already cooked at Florilege the previous year so the second time was a great experience because he already knew what to expect.
Most collaboration dinners normally take place on just one evening and the visiting chef spends the minimum amount of time before returning back to cook at their restaurants. But this trip was also about pushing boundaries. At La Cime, in Osaka, Gert served his signature tomato dish which is normally created from tomatoes that are grown in his own garden. “This was the first ever time that I made it outside Belgium and I was very pleased with the result.” He said it was not easy to create this dish because you needed to not only be at the right place in the right time but you also needed to find the right tomatoes in the right season. Yusuke sourced the tomatoes and it worked perfectly.”
I asked if the dish was different given that he makes it with tomatoes which are grown at the Hertog Jan garden but he said the secret to the dish was the balance between sweetness, sourness and texture and not about the varieties of tomatoes. “Actually it worked very well. In reality, this is a dish that is always different because it depends on the produce, i.e. the tomatoes. If you serve the dish to four different people on the same table, they will all get a different experience because each tomato is different,” he said.
The Belgian chef is no newcomer to Japan. He has visited often and is fascinated by the culture, the produce, the cuisine and the people. Having moved from Tokyo to Osaka he said there was no difference in the produce he worked with because high level restaurants worked with the same suppliers. “But the reality is that the average quality of fish, meat and vegetables in Japan is out of this world. If you go to the Tsukiji market, the way they treat the fish and the varieties of fish and shellfish you can find is a dream for a chef,” he said.
He said he had to adapt his cooking style to the three different restaurants which made it all the more interesting and challenging. “The three cuisines are completely different. While at Den, we cooked comfort food but in a high quality fashion both La Cime and Florilege have a European approach though the latter is more Japanese inspired while La Cime is more French-inspired. “While it is nice to be able to share the Hertog Jan experience and style, it is also important to adapt to the restaurants to create a harmonious experience for guests. For example, last year, I was cooking in a restaurant that used only chopsticks so I needed to make sure that all the food could be eaten without cutlery.
Reflecting back on the lunch and dinner at Hertog Jan in collaboration with the three Japanese chefs, Gert said that it was really nice to be able to work together with the chefs. “Unlike other collaboration dinners where we tend to cook separately and present separate dishes, we really worked together on a number of dishes and this was really fun,” he said.
I ask him how he manages to communicate with the chefs given the language barrier. “We are all chefs and have a common background and we see things through the eyes of a chef. The more you do it the more you feel at ease but we also have a translator in the kitchen to help with communication.”
The experience in Japan has also inspired Gert to create two new dishes at Hertog Jan. “I have two new dishes in the shape of sushi though it is just the form and not the taste. The first is a sushi of potato, caviar and seaweed which is a Flemish interpretation of sushi. The second is a combination of cuttlefish, chorizo and sweet onions and it looks like sushi nigiri but it is anything but.”
I ask if it was difficult to recreate his dishes outside his kitchen with only one person helping him rather than his kitchen team. “We go prepared for such occasions. But at Hertog Jan we are used to cook for 120/140 guests each day so cooking on a night for around 24 people is not so difficult. Moreover, we get assistance from the teams of the chefs in question. After all the most important thing about these events is collaboration and co-operation,” he said.
The Belgian chef has a busy schedule over the coming months. In November, he will be cooking in Copenhagen at 108. He will also be giving a cooking demonstration in Slovakia. In December he will cook in Bangkok with the Suhring brothers at their restaurant Suhring and will also cook together with Gaggan Anand and the Suhring brothers in an event. He will then go to Singapore to cook with Julien Royer at his restaurant Odette.