The evening that Michelin awarded Bozar Brasserie with a Michelin star was the day that Karen Torosyan knew that he would become the master of his own destiny. His fate changed that day, he knew he was about to make the investment of a life time. It was not the star that changed everything but rather the realisation that now was the moment to turn his dream of owning a restaurant into reality.
Since he started cooking in Georgia at the age of 13, he always dreamt that he would one day own his own restaurant. “The moment we clinched a Michelin star it became clear in my head that I needed to become independent. This would be the final step in my career, to have a project with my wife, a project that we could call a family project,” Karen Torosyan, chef of Bozar Restaurant in Brussels told me in an interview.
Earlier this year, the Armenian chef who was born in Georgia bought the Bozar restaurant from David Martin of La Paix and an investor.
One of the first changes he made was to change the name from brasserie to restaurant but he says that in principle nothing changed. “For me this is part of the journey. When people go to a brasserie, open the menu and see the prices, I don’t want them to be shocked. If that happens, you are starting your experience on the wrong foot. The offer therefore was not understandable. I want things to be transparent, accessible. For me it is a question of transparency.”
He said the easiest approach would have been to start afresh, to open something new but Bozar was like his baby and he is proud to be able to work in a building that was designed by Horta and it was only natural to try and buy the restaurant he helped build. “I am in a historic building which is unique in Belgium. I cannot just knock down the walls to make the restaurant bigger. I am proud and also extremely grateful to be able to work in a restaurant like this. This is the last building that was built by Horta. He was maybe the greatest genius that Belgium has ever had,” he said.
Karen is of the view that a brasserie is more accessible and popular and he wants to take the gastronomic route and do certain things that are different from a brasserie. This does not mean he is changing his cuisine “I will be provocative. Someone who says that fois gras should be served in a fine dining restaurant and chicken livers in a brasserie or fish like sea bream with caviar in a fine dining restaurant and sardines and mackerel are for bistros has understood nothing about ‘high-end gastronomy’,” he said.
When you are ambitious there is pleasure but when you add the word obsession, there is something negative about the word, almost something immoral
“For some the change in name can be intellectual, philosophical or psychological. It makes no difference for me because I am an artisan. This is me. Being an artisan has a cost. Why do we have a problem with industrial agriculture? It is because the consumer is not conscious of the future so he or she consumes what is practical or cheap. The only thing that justifies the price we charge is the value we add to excellent produce,” he said. “Otherwise I have no rules as to what to serve in the restaurant. I will serve what I love,” he said.
He is also conscious of the fact that people don’t go to his restaurant to listen to stories. “We are not interested in storytelling but in letting the food and the work do the talking. A brasserie can do certain things with 3 staff. We are 14 so we need to add value and work to justify what we do,” he sad.
Like other chefs he is ambitious and thinks of a second star for the restaurant but for him what is most important is to be coherent. “I am ambitious to the point where I want the best from myself. But I do this for pleasure. Ambition should not become obsession. When you are ambitious there is pleasure but when you add the word obsession, there is something negative about the word, almost something immoral. I don’t want to work for 18 hours a day and be unhappy. There will be difficulties and frustrations but I fight every day so that my ambition is to be happy and not to turn that ambition into an obsession. I will let no one impose something on me because sometimes we block ourselves by doing that,” he said.
Karen started cooking when he was 13 years old. Born in Georgia but of Armenian origin, he arrived in Belgium when he was 18 years old. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered his parents’ desire to give their children, in particular his sisters who were studying medicine, a better future. His family found themselves in a difficult situation. They hailed from the Soviet Union. “While the Soviet Union was in place it was organised chaos. But after the collapse that chaos became disorganised.”
The family were living in Georgia, they were born in Georgia but they were of Armenian origin. “The situation was complicated. My place of birth was Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia but my nationality was Armenian. In Georgia, since our nationality was Armenian, we were considered as inferior. We tried to go to Armenia but since we had citizenship from Georgia we were also treated as inferior. My parents thought that the best option would be to go to a completely new country,” he said.
His parents opted for Belgium also because his father, a builder, had worked there for 2 years and had liked it. “We had some family here. We Armenians are dispersed a bit everywhere. The population in Armenia is 2 million but there are 5.5 million Armenians living outside the country,” Karen said.
His sisters were starting to study medicine at the time. “As Armenian doctors in Georgia, they would not have been able to practice their profession. It was not a question of corruption but rather nationalism. There was the mentality that Georgia is for Georgians, that Armenia was for Armenians. We did not have the right nationality nor the right birth place.”
Although he had five years of experience in different types of kitchens, this did not really help the young Karen. “When I arrived in Belgium, I realised that I had to forget everything I had learnt in Georgia about cooking. I needed to start from scratch,” he said.
To be an artisan you need to invest physically, psychologically, morally and even financially. If you need to learn something you need to invest in it
He discovered cooking by accident and only because it helped to finance his apprenticeship as a jeweller. His cousin was a jeweller and at the age of 13 he thought he would follow in his footsteps. “I learned at 13 that to be an artisan you needed to invest physically, psychologically, morally and even financially because in 1993 to be a manual labourer in Georgia, whether it was a baker, cook or jeweller you needed to pay your way. To learn you needed to pay not just your master but also the rent,” he said.
“What I realised at that time was that if you wanted to learn something you needed to invest in it,” Karen said. To be able to pay for his apprenticeship as a jeweller he found work in a fast food restaurant. “I started to work so that I could pay for the rent. I did this for two years in parallel and then quickly learnt that I was more interested in cooking that in becoming a jeweller so I moved to traditional kitchens and to real restaurants serving Georgian cuisine. This has nothing to do with what I do today.”
That lesson served him very well when he arrived to Belgium and needed to start from scratch to learn not just the basics of cooking but also the language.
Arriving in Belgium when he was 18, the only thing that he could do was cook. “I realised that what I did for five years in Georgia served for nothing but I was convinced that all I needed was to find a space in a kitchen. I did not speak a word of French but knew that the language to wash pots and pans in a kitchen was to ensure they were clean. A friend found me a place in a Brasserie in Brussels as a dish washer and I slowly started to climb the ladder from the very bottom,” Karen said.
The slow learning process
What Karen had, which he still has in abundance, was motivation and determination. “I had to push and push in the kitchen. I was determined. I wanted to be in a kitchen and tempt my fate. It was the only thing that I really wanted to do,” he said.
So he started his slow climb up. From dish washer he moved to the pass and at 21 years old he was second in command in another brasserie. There were 20 people working there. “I started to follow French courses from the first day we arrived in Belgium. I took evening courses. I also wanted to learn grammar and to write it properly so I had a French teacher coming to the house to give me written French courses.”
He had never been asked for a diploma to work in a kitchen but at 22 he felt he needed one. “Today, it probably has 10 centimetres of dust but I remember that I wanted to do it so that no one would say that I am in the job but don’t have the necessary qualifications. The kitchen is a jungle,” he said with a smile.
He did for 3 years and also took management courses. In his mind, Karen had a career plan. He had tried everything from fast food to brasserie and it was his dream to work in fine-dining and Michelin star restaurants, gain experience and then become a chef and open a restaurant. “It was all clear, this was my dream. This plan was important as it kept me on the right track. It was important for me to set this objective so that I would continue to work in that direction.”
When he finished the hotel and management course one of the examiners found him a place with Jean-Pierre Bruneau at the time one of the finest chefs in Belgium. “This was my first ever fine-dining experience and it was a revelation. It was at Bruneau that I learned everything. Between 13 and 21, my experience in kitchens was an accident on the road. I had stopped studying and could have become anything from a jeweller to a builder or plumber. From 21 it became a real passion. I wanted to learn more, I was working very hard. Honestly between 21 and 25, if I count learning French and the cookery courses as work I was working 7 days a week for 3 years non-stop without any holidays. I was like a machine,” he said.
At that age, he believed that he needed to catch up with those who had been working from the ages of 15, 16 or 17 in some of the best restaurants in Belgium. “I needed to catch up on the first 18 years of my life because I was starting afresh,” he said.
He now knows that with the benefit of hindsight this was not the right approach. “I thought I needed to push harder and work more than the rest because I needed to reach the same level. But it was banal. I’ve learnt along the way that what makes you evolve is not to try and overcome someone else but rather to work at surpassing yourself. But I was too young to understand this.”
At the age of 25 he was young, ambitious, aggressive and energetic. Bruneau, was the eye-opener he needed. “I realised that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It had become a vocation.”
Passion is not like a flirt. You need passion to survive at a high level. But to go further you need to treat that passion like a vocation. Passion can also disappear. What you need is something more profound.
“Passion is not like a flirt. When you are young, you meet a girl, you go to the cinema or restaurant on a date, that is a flirt. A flirt is shallow, there is no depth. Kitchen is all about passion. You need passion to survive at a high level. But to go further, passion is not enough. You need to treat that passion like a vocation, a bit like a marriage where you commit to be married till you die. I realised that passion is also light, it is a bit like a flirt. It is a sentiment that can disappear. But what you need is something more profound and this is what I learnt at Bruneau. He was 60 when I arrived at his restaurant but he was the first to arrive at the restaurant and the last to leave in the evening. I developed a huge respect for him. My father was a model for me but Jean Pierre also became a model to follow.”
At Bruneau, he mastered the rotisserie. “I understand in 3 months there that what I learnt the previous 10 years was useless. Roasting is a completely different job. In France you learnt to roast first before you become a cook. It is all about chemistry, you either have it or you don’t. At Bruneau we only used the timer for the oven but we could cook five or six kilos of meat without using a thermometer or time and just know it was perfectly cooked and pink by touching it.”
He then moved to Le Chalet de la Foret to work with another Brussels great chef Pascal Devalkeneer. “I had gone twice for dinner and was surprised. At Bruneau, I had learned a classic cuisine. At Le Chalet de la Foret, I was stunned because the starting point was classic but then it went to a new dimension. The vocabulary used was sexy, rock and roll, dynamic or punchy but the base was very classic.”
Karen said that Le Chalet de la Foret enlarged his horizons and improved his palate because he learned about textures, different ways of cooking, use of acidity or bitterness. “We might have used a siphon at Le Chalet de la Foret and add new flavours to classics but while it was rock and roll, the foundations were classic.”
Building the foundations
He uses the analogy of building a house. “You can build a hut with straw and it will blow away with some wind or else you can build something with solid foundations (and this is much more complicated) building the house stone by stone but this will take a lot of time, a lot of reflection, a lot of energy and investment,” he said.
That has in many ways become his philosophy. “The world is vast and there is place for everyone. There are things which are individual and for me what interests me is to give depth to what I do. I am more than happy to work on a stock. It is important for me personally to work on the basics before I work on the visuals. I am more preoccupied with the traditions, with depth and solidity. The rest is secondary. I am not interested in an experimental cuisine or a light cuisine but one which is focused on tradition,” he said.
He then got the opportunity to run a restaurant that was owned by David Martin, chef of La Paix. “With David Martin, I learned that a restaurant is also a business. You can be a chef, a great chef but the business must also be profitable because if it is not then it does not work.”
Profitability in a restaurant is essential because without it there can be no satisfaction says Karen. “Without profitability it is like someone is paying your ambition. No one has ever paid for my ambition except for me and my work. This really helped me to grow as a person and I really appreciate what I’ve learnt with David,” he said.
“What we did was to grow together as a team. Every day we grew a bit, every day we evolved. And we invested in new plates or in the restaurant when we made money not when we lost money. Profit allows you to invest each year,” he said.
In 2015, he became the World Champion of Pâté en Croûte. In many ways it has defined who he is but it also explains the philosophy of this talented chef who pushed Gault & Millau to create a category of Artisan of the Year to acknowledge his talents and skills.
“To win the championship was surreal. Pâté en Croûte represents something that I have been doing at Bozar. It is a popular dish but it is also comfort food. It is a dish that is easily understood and is accessible to everyone. You know what it is and it does not require explanation when served at table,” he said.
He has been able to perfect the dish, to delve into detail and to question why it was made the way it was and how it could be changed.
Karen explains that his Pâté en Croûte is 25 per cent fat and 75% lean meat when the original recipe calls for a ratio of 50:50. “If you go to a butcher, they will tell you that this is impossible because it will be too dry. I had to push hard to come to a solution where I could find the right balance so that both the filling and the pastry are perfect.”
That boils down to studying and experimenting. “When you have 50 per cent fat and 50 per cent lean meat it takes 10 days for the flavours to develop from the fat and have the necessary finesse. But the crust does not remain the same after 10 days. It is no longer a good crust. I had to think what to do. Do I develop a crust that is no longer a crust or a filling that has not developed its flavour.”
He tells me that with a lot of trial and error but also reflection he came to the conclusion that the fat was needed in the past because there were no fridges so it was used to preserve the food. By understanding this he was able to create something that had a perfect crust but also the flavour of a filling that could have rested for 10 days.
Karen has been in Belgium for 20 years. He said he loves Brussels and believes he has become the most Belgian of Armenians in Belgium. “I now realise that I have probably also become the most French of Belgian chefs in terms of his artisanal approach,” he said. “In France, people who work with their hands (the artisans) are respected more than in other countries like the Nordics or even Belgium. I learned a lot from my father who was a workman. He is my idol, the man of my dreams. My daughter does not see me much because I work a lot. This is something that I have taken from my father.”
Karen has his feet to the ground but is also reflective. “I’ve been cooking for 25 years and if I have to be honest, I don’t know many chefs in the 20th century who have created something new. Of course there are trends and cuisine evolves. Today classic cuisine is in vogue again but it will be changed and replaced by other things. We also had molecular cuisine, nordic cuisine, botanic or garden cuisine, use of flowers, chefs as florists.”
When you take things that have existed for long, the classics that have been passed down generations you are not the author but the interpreter.
He is of the view that some things cannot be invented. “When you take things that have existed, that have been passed down generations you are not the author but the interpreter. You can reinterpret or re-interpret. We can also discuss whether you can re-visit or correct. Can we for example correct the four seasons of Vivaldi? It is a work of art which you cannot correct but which you can interpret and give a personal touch.”
A classic dish, he says is something that was so innovative and so creative that it stood the test of time. “What you need to do is to bring it back in today’s context. You need to use today’s techniques and technologies to make that dish better. If you serve certain dishes today using old recipes they may be disgusting because palates change and even seasons change. But you can adapt them to make them work in today’s context.”
“Today, one thing is in vogue but it will change because people get fed up but this is not only logical but also normal and healthy,” he said.
What bothers him is that people say that he should do one thing or another. “I personally like to do what I like and I don’t care what others do. I love the food that I cook. I have this style of food first of all for myself because I need to be personally satisfied on a daily basis with what I do. If people come for this type of cuisine, then I am the most satisfied person in the world because I am doing the cooking that I want for people who like this type of cooking.”
There are some who are conventional and who will tell him that to get two stars he will need to remove the tartare and the fries. “I will say why, this is not how it works. No one obliges me to keep or remove something from the menu. We add, we remove, we do what we do because we want to do it,” he said.
He tells me the most important thing for him is to have a full restaurant cooking the food that he likes. “I keep my feet to the ground, it is not that I am egocentric, pretentious or mad. I am proud of the fact that I can cook the way I like and people come to enjoy this style,” he said.
“For me, what is essential is what a chef is capable of doing with great produce. I don’t speak about the producer because a good product that is carefully selected, respected and seasonal is the basis of a good chef. Today, we speak about the producers, or about the fact that carrots come from the garden but finally if there are only 10 carrots that are produced in the garden and the restaurant buys 2,000 more that is just story-telling and not the reality. What we need to understand is that we need to go back to the roots, to provoke a reaction from the consumer and to encourage more reasonable consumption. We need to consume less but better and more local. I think we have understood this so we now have to stop being polemical.”
He said that as a chef he does not like to speak about the things that he is obliged to do like buying great produce or buying local. “I am also obliged to find the right balance between local and good. There is also good and politically incorrect such as getting produce from 5,000 kilometres away. But if a product is good and better 600 kilometres away, I will get it from there. Someone who pretends to buy local but then buys certain produce from 2,500 kilometres away is not doing local food.”
Karen knows exactly what a chef should be. “The act of cooking is the act of producing something, of doing something physical. A chef needs to be a cook. He is not a story teller telling you how rain has influenced the vegetables etc. He needs to tell you what he has produced with his hands, with his know-how. What value did he add. Farmers are different from chefs.”
That is why he believes the artisanal approach is the way forward.