Silence reigns in the kitchen that used to be so hectic in Zedelgem at Hertog Jan, the three Michelin star restaurant of Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens. The kitchen has been empty since the last service on 22 December.
On Instagram stories, Gert is maybe feeling a bit nostalgic after the holidays. The kitchen is completely empty and on a photo of the empty kitchen he writes ‘It’s oh so quiet’. The next post however shows that the two are not resting on their laurels. The new Bistro L.E.S.S. will open in the centre of Bruges in the coming weeks and the works are going on at full steam.
Just under a year ago, Gert and Joachim shocked their Belgian and international followers when they announced the decision to close their flagship restaurant in December last year.
Many could not understand their decision and some still cannot understand why they walked away when they were at the top. Some still wonder what made them take that drastic decision though it might be easy to understand that it gets tough to run such an operation that is rewarding but also extremely time consuming, that requires full attention and very limited possibilities for growth.
I still remember that Saturday morning in January last year when I woke up to an email with a press release that announced the news. Even I could barely believe it though I immediately understood the reasons behind their decision.
In closing the restaurant, they have followed in the footsteps of another giant, Sergio Herman, who five years earlier had turned his back on his restaurant Out Sluis, also three Michelin stars and considered one of the world’s best restaurants.
Others have been equally drastic last year from Sébastien Bras who decided to hand back his three Michelin stars to Dani Garcia who announced last month within 21 days of clinching his third Michelin star that he would also close his restaurant to pursue new projects.
The disappointment among Belgians to the closure of Hertog Jan has been very evident. They knew that this meant that the country, which takes its gastronomy so seriously was losing another 3 Michelin star restaurant and one which has put Belgium on the international map among foodies and travellers worldwide. It is not like you can replace such a restaurant with another.
But for those who follow the restaurant world, or the world of high performers this comes as no surprise. There was little they could have done to make the restaurant better. They had their 3 Michelin stars, they’ve featured in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (and they might have made it their goal to try and rise in the table there) but what else could they hope to achieve for that restaurant? At their age, was this enough to keep them going for another 20 years in their restaurant with all the long hours that this entails?
Others will eventually follow in their footsteps. Gert and Joachim where ahead of their times when they invested in their dream restaurant that was meant to lead them to a third Michelin star. They managed to achieve it before they moved to the new spot. They did that with distinct cooking and exceptional service.
And they have operated the new Hertog Jan like clockwork whether Gert was there to cook or not. The Belgian chef is a big star in Asia and travels often for collaboration dinners in Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore to mention just a few spots. His travels meant that he was missing from the restaurant a few days each month, something that is very common in the world of gastronomy today but which can take its toll on a flagship restaurant. He is also father of four children and lamented the fact, when the announcement was made, that he was not there when the children were growing and it was something he was not ready to continue to do.
More and more chefs are starting to realise that their presence (not necessarily for their teams which are capable of performing at the highest levels with or without their chef around) is also becoming a necessity for guests. There are some, like Magnus Nilsson, who have decided to decrease the number of services and increase the prices and they have barely noticed any difference in terms of demand. It was either that or closing the restaurant.
What they intend to do is also in many ways anticipating trends. First they intend to move L.E.S.S., their bistro style restaurant in the place which housed the old Hertog Jan to the centre of Bruges and turn it into a place which is open throughout the day. This is a trend that has been catching up in cities around the world. In a world where rents are becoming higher and higher, it makes sense to use a space to its maximum potential. They intend to open a second L.E.S.S. in Ghent as well as a traditional Flemish bistro in the old Hertog Jan location.
But they are not turning their backs on fine dining. Conscious of the fact that a chef’s presence in a restaurant can command a premium, they have decided to continue serving guests at the highest levels in a very small and cozy setting. Gert de Mangeleer will cook exclusively for not more than 12 guests at a time on certain days throughout they year. And here again, they are setting the bar high again putting the focus on the chef being central to the experience.
When people go to concerts they expect the lead singer to be there and to sing rather than lip sync because that’s what they have paid for. In today’s day and age when chefs have become ‘celebrities’, guests expect them to be present when they go to the restaurant. A ‘celebrity’ chef cooking at the stove for you will in future be considered a ‘luxury’. We are likely to move away from ‘luxury ingredients’ to a more ‘haute cuisine’ approach to cooking that is more personal. After all, what is more luxurious today than time? We’ve seeing signs of this approach with open kitchens and dining tables inside restaurant kitchens. Except this to become mainstream in the years to come and to command a premium.
Hertog Jan will be missed but what will rise instead is likely to be as distinct and as intriguing. A new chapter begins. Good luck Gert and Joachim.