Every person has a defining moment which makes you change paths or perspective. For Belgian chef Bart de Pooter that moment came at the dinner table of legendary restaurant el Bulli. He had been running Pastorale, a two Michelin star restaurant in a small village, Reet, close to the city of Antwerp for 26 years but that dinner changed everything.
“When I went there and was served 26 courses, I felt very frustrated when I returned home because I realised that out of all those courses, I could maybe only create 3 dishes,” said Bart.
He could not understand what had happened. Feeling lost, he went on a voyage of discovery looking at what made him and his restaurant unique. “I was a classic cook and quality was always important but then I became someone who wanted to translate his culture and create an identity.”
Upon reflection and deep thinking he came up with Biotope or the habitat that has become his signature. Whether it is the vegetables, the produce or even the wood and stone that is used in the restaurant he wanted to emphasise the local aspect.
“We start with the vegetables and you can enjoy a gastronomic nine course meal consisting solely of vegetables. You can add fish or meat or both if you want. I think this is the future,” Bart said.
Bart is in many ways a pioneer. He was the first Belgian chef to put his name to two Michelin starred restaurants in the country, he was one of the first chefs to venture to Asia when it was still not on the radar screen of world gastronomy like it is today.
That requires talent, it requires vision, determination and foresight as well as entrepreneurial spirit. He is best known for Pastorale, the two Michelin star restaurant in Reet. He was the Gault Millau chef of the year in 2012. But he was also behind WY, the first ever Michelin star restaurant (in Brussels) that was created in a car showroom in the world.
We speak about managing two restaurants, one in Reet, a small village on the outskirts of Antwerp and another in Brussels in a unique spot on Rue Royale near Place Sablon.
It was sad to close WY in Brussels but it was a nice story and we are happy we did it for five years
“Unfortunately, business in Brussels became difficult after the terrorist attacks. There was also the closing of tunnels which was a problem in terms of traffic. It was a magnificent spot but it was not easy to drive to it. When Mercedes decided to close the shop, we could not afford the pay the rent which cost more than EUR 300,000 yearly. It was sad but it was a nice story and we are happy to have done it for five years. At first it was a challenge to translate the philosophy of Pastorale in a small village near Antwerp to a big city that is the capital of Belgium. But I like a challenge and since we had the staff we decided to give our people the chance to move on, to give them more responsibility and that was the reason why we decided to create the second restaurant. We also had a great partnership with Mercedes,” Bart said.
He does not exclude another venture when the opportunity returns but for now he is focusing on his flagship restaurant which remains the most important for him and his family, though he is also consultant to other restaurants and is building his meat business.
“With WY, we wanted to translate our Pastorale philosophy to a city. A city is about voyeurism, it is about being seen, looking around, graffiti, neon lights and we managed to create this environment. Our intention was also to reduce the cost of food. Pastorale is high end and we wanted to create something that was more approachable while still using high quality products.”
Today, Bart is working at Pastorale with his two daughters but it was not something that he set himself up to do. “It was a surprise that they came to work in my business. I did not want this, this is a hard profession. But at the same time it is also very exciting and gives you a lot of satisfaction if you want to improve yourself,” he said.
He sometimes asks the question whether Reek has become to small for them with a smile. “But it is here that we started, our house is here.”
Bart tells me that the way he looks at it now is not what he can give to his children but rather what they have given him back. “They have given me my energy back to construct something. Communication is very important and we communicate to see how we create our future. We decide together how we move on. We all have the same philosophy, we all love quality, we are all service minded so it is nice to have two people more to trust and who have almost the same philosophy. Of course they have a different way of thinking which is young and also keeps me young. I reflect a lot and we never argue. When we do not agree on something, we sleep on it one night, maybe two nights and start all over again,” he said.
“We also have a part of the business that focuses on business development. “We have one of the biggest outside catering operations at Tomorrowland where we serve 300,000 food items in six days. We can handle it thanks to a centre that we have constructed nearby. Our work in the meat industry means that we have the people to carry out the work and also the organisation. It is now the fifth year that we do this, we are happy with the results and so are the organisers of Tomorrowland.”
While Bart has always dreamt of a third Michelin star he does not believe he will get it. “I don’t see it. Of course I would like to have it because it would be the ultimate result. But for me what’s important in the next five years is to continue to change and be able to set the trends and translate the influences we see around us into the food and experience at table,” he said.
We have seen three revolutions in the kitchen in the past 20 years
He said that over the past 20 years there have been 3 revolutions in the restaurant business and in particularly in the kitchen. “First we had the technological revolution or the move from gas to induction and from a small mixer to a pacoject and thermomix. The invention of such equipment changed everything. If Eddy Merckx would cycle the Tour de France today he would use a new light bicycle which did not exist in the past. The same happened in the kitchen. We then saw an evolution of products becoming accessible through globalisation. Products of the highest quality moved more easily. Ferran Adria defined how we use technique before product. It was no longer about cooking from your belly but about precision. We then experienced a revolution on the side of the guest. Life was not so hectic as it is today. Before, people took their time to eat. Now you need to serve food faster and also more healthy. People are taking care about their health, they want to eat more vegetables. We also need to take notice of the carbon footprint and the environment and how we integrate this into our lives, the farmers we work with and the wine we choose.”
He has been working with vegetables but his menu is not aimed at vegetarians. “Vegetables can be a choice for people and they confidently choose that menu without feeling special in a bad sense. I want to give them that comfort and translate our habitat which is what Pastorale is. “There was a golden period in our city but then the industrial crisis came and that changed. However, clay still remains a very important element of our environment and we try to use it at table as a vessel for the food we serve and also in our restaurant. We get vegetables from our surroundings if possible but we also want to get the best we can procure, if possible local.”
Bart said that it is no longer about serving or working with the largest turbot that you can find but rather about how it is caught. “What waste I have in the restaurant will also be a very important element in future and will also be visible on our plates. We have to be conscious about the packaging, how everything arrives. We try to use every element from the skin of a fish to the seeds, the flowers. We need to give value to every ingredient by using technique and preparation to present it in the best possible way.”
More chefs today are using humble ingredients even in some of the best restaurants in the world. “Today’s chef is a pioneer. We have to set the example. It is true that you see more humble ingredients in restaurants. If I take myself, I have been working with sardines, with mackerel, brains for 20 years even if these are not easy products to serve in a high-end restaurant. But I have always prepared the products that I loved myself and for me these are significant because my mother used to prepare them for me so they were part of my journey as a chef. Of course I serve caviar but there have been years where I have not served even a gram of caviar. It does not have to expensive to be excellent or exclusive,” he said.
We are moving to healthier food even when it comes to fast food. We have not lost a generation
In most conversations I have with chefs childhood memories are often mentioned as something that is essential in the journey to becoming a chef. Bart agreed that today it might be a bit harder for children to have these memories because they are not exposed to certain products from a young age. “On the other hand, there is the media and restaurants can make the younger generation aware that there is more than fast food. Even in fast food we are moving towards healthy food. Even McDonalds is changing. I think we have not lost a generation. If I look at myself, I have created my references on the basis of over 20 years of experience and you can use what you learn every day. There are some extremely talented young chefs who are well known and highly successful but maturity brings something to the table that changes the way you cook,” he said.
Bart said that you mature and grow wiser as the years go by. “I hope its the same for me. I started as a green apple, I thought I was ripe but I slowly matured and hope that I am not yet mature and can continue to evolve. Life has changed over the years, we as a society have less time to cook, we are more stressed and busy. Attitudes also change cuisine but they don’t change the taste.”
So how important is a cooking philosophy for a chef. “It is everything if you have 2 or 3 stars. It is no longer about just feeding people but rather about creating something special and making it exclusive at every level,” he said.
Travel has been a very important element of Bart’s career. His first move to Asia came in 2007 when he worked on a project with Swisshotel in Singapore. It was a great experience, he recalls.
On the first day, the restaurant was 30% booked. After three days they were fully booked and within 10 days they had a 300% demand. They had a lot of media and television coverage and the government wanted him to stay. He was spotted by one of the richest persons in Hong Kong and ended up opening concepts in Hong Kong and Japan.
Like other Belgian chefs his cuisine has always been inspired by the Japanese philosophy so the experience was also great because he could learn about products, techniques like slicing and cutting, the importance of freshness of ingredients and their taste. He ended up working for 300 firms developing new concepts for them.
At the time, he loved being there and must have spent over 180 days over a period of three years. “I learned a lot, I retain great memories and when I came back I translated what I saw into my Biotope because I had travelled a lot.”
It was this experience in Asia which also enabled him to grow as an entrepreneur given he had to trust his colleagues to continue the work. “We stayed open. There were staff that had been working with me for a long time. You need to have confidence in people, to have a structure in place which also thinks about them and the possibility that they evolve and develop themselves in their job.”
Bart has started to work in the meat industry where he has translated his philosophy as a cook into craftsmanship. “We are working with people who have the same philosophy as us and we use no additives, no nitrates. We have patents and are also exporting to six different countries. The first task of a chef is looking for great product and the relation with the people was good so we started working together. For me it is important to offer a product that is healthy,” he said.
Belgium has a very strong food tradition but why is it not known outside the country I ask him. “The quality of food and the knowledge about food is very strong but we have one big disadvantage which is that we have very high social taxes and the government has taken a very long time to implement necessary changes.”
So how does working with vegetables impact his creativity. “With the menu we have, we do not have lovers or haters because anyone can eat whatever they want. Everyone gets the same value. It is also a pleasant and easy way to work with vegetables. Customers can choose what they eat. We might have guests who had a heavy week and want to eat vegetables only and I am happy with this. Such an approach does not impact creativity but it does challenge me because I need to put myself into question. Ultimately working with vegetables is very rich because it is not a mono product and there is a rich basket to work with.”
So what happens in winter? “Actually that is my favourite season because I can use the pickled and fermented vegetables from summer. I also have the root vegetables, the spices, the herbs, the dried leaves so I have almost more than what I have in summer. Two seasons are the nicest for me. Spring because you can work with the little greens, the first sprouts, the green peas, asparagus as well as autumn to winter because you have all the root vegetables.
Pickling and fermenting today is extremely popular and there is a lot of focus on it in the media but Bart said there is a tradition of making sauerkraut in Belgium which is a means of fermentation. “I also remember my mother pickling tomatoes, gherkins, beans, cucumbers so we are doing what my parents did in their time. This is something that we have lost and are now trying to reintroduce.”
Bart believes that the internet has made the world smaller. “Today we know what is happening on the other side of the world immediately. Through Instagram, Facebook I known about every important chef on the other side of the world. We also travel for collaboration dinners,” he said.
He is of the view that while social media is important in this regard there should not be copying. “Reinterpretation is something useful. You might find something interesting happening in China and try to translate it to your particular context and setting but it should stop there,” he said.
An avid photographer, he has a collection of thousands of photos relating to food so he is not someone who complains about people taking photos in restaurants. He is also an art lover and collector. “Every work of art you see in the restaurant is something that I love. I do not buy art for the sake of buying it. IArt inspires me, it has meaning for me and it helps me pass on my message to my customers. My environment influences how I cook so I have to always give special attention to the environment I work in.”
Art gives me a nice feeling. And the better I feel, the better I cook
He tells me that his love of art may come from the fact that he likes a certain structure. “I’ve come to realise that art gives me a nice feeling and the better feeling you have the better you cook. Art is an expression and so is cooking. We are not artists but we can express ourselves in the way we present a dish or how a table is decorated. A chef is an artisan not an artist. A chef can lift his profession to art level but that is something that is only possible for very few,” he tells me.
Bart believes that tradition is essential for a chef. “Young chefs need to realise, and this is a criticism, that they are not rock stars. There are some who focus on aesthetics and not on flavour. Tradition is the basis by which you can become an innovator. If you don’t understand tradition you cannot be an innovator. You need to understand and learn your past, your culture, the traditional dishes and then you can turn them into what is needed today,” he said.
I met Bart a few days after the Michelin results had been announced for Belgium. He recognises the importance of Michelin and says it is the guide that matters. It is what brings people from far away though he also acknowledges that social media is essential if you want an international following. Social media is an important communication tool.
There has been criticism on the distinction that Michelin has made between Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. Why is there such a difference I ask? Should Belgium promote itself as one country when it comes to food.
“I don’t think we need to promote Belgium or Belgian cuisine. The term Belgian cuisine is strange. This goes back in history. We have regions. The same goes for other countries. I like regional cuisine. What you eat at the seaside is different to what you eat in Antwerp, Brussels or Wallonia. If you look at history, there was a big difference between the North and the South.You had the Burgundy empire in the 14th century which introduced forks, knives, spoons, glasses and products from different countries. it was a rich table and one could talk about French cuisine. This went to Italy, Spain, Germany. There was a border that started with the Netherlands. Here the people travelled to India and got influences from far. Religion was also different. There was Calvinism. They used one bowl and one spoon. There were big cultural differences. It was a fact that the closer you were to France, the better you ate and the more North you go, the more minimalist and poor the cuisine was. Ultimately it is about how parents bring up their children. Belgian cuisine came about because Belgium was rich and everyone brought their knowledge from France, Spain, Germany and that became known as Belgian cuisine.”
We are about to conclude our interview and Bart tells me one of the main challenges is to find good produce for the world’s population. “More and more people are living on the globe and the biggest challenge we face is to have good products and to eat smaller quantities of higher quality produce. We will need to replace meat and vegetables could be the solution. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to find a creative solution to the challenges we face,” he said.