This are my thoughts on the gastronomic event - ‘Identity Crisis – Service à Six Mains' - held at In de Wulf in Belgium on 22 September.
Three local chefs - Kobe Desramaults (of In de Wulf), Alexandre Gauthier (la Grenouillère) and Filip Claeys (De Jonkman) - prepared a single meal.
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Half-an-hour across London. An hour-thirty on the Eurostar. Taxi from straight outside Gare de Lille Europe.
‘Dranouter, S'il vous plaît.’ ‘Où?’ il m’a demandé. ‘Dra-nou-ter, en Belgique à Heuvelland, quarante kilomètres d’ici,’ je lui ai dit. ’OK, je pense que je connais la direction. Pas de problème…’
One hour and ninety Euros later, having asked four times for directions, one might at last find themselves at a quaint renovated farm amidst the rolling Flemish fields of bucolic Flanders.
Here is In de Wulf.
Meaning ‘inside the wulf’ (a wulf being a farm protected upon three sides by greenery), this was the setting that three neighbouring chefs chose as a stage on which to make a public statement; a platform to prove and promote the potential of their native cuisine to an assembled, invited collection of chefs, journalists and would-like-to-bes bloggeurs. The evening’s event, ‘Identity Crisis – Service à Six Mains’, was organised by resident, Kobe Desramaults, along with accomplices Alexandre Gauthier (la Grenouillère) and Filip Claeys (De Jonkman) respectively, to champion Flanders and celebrate its uniquely special terroir.
This restaurant, actually once the chef’s childhood home, was originally a cottage that his parents had converted into a pub then modest brasserie and inn. As a teenager though, the youthful Kobe had no ambition to enter the family business with the arts, particularly drawing and painting, dominating his interests instead. His mother had her plans (and her way) however and upon his seventeenth birthday arranged an apprenticeship for her son in the kitchens of the Picasso in nearby Westouter. After two years here mastering the basics, he made the step up to three-star Oud Sluis on the Belgian-Dutch border. The initial months living in the Netherlands were the hardest of his young life, but under Dutchman Sergio Herman, he persevered and ‘[his] eyes were open for good’ with a fondness found for innovative technique and creative cuisine. Two more years later, the chef wanted to move on and, leveraging Herman’s Spanish connections, went to Commerç 24 in Barcelona. There he worked ten months, learning about molecular gastronomy from Charles Abbelan, an el Bulli graduate. He wanted to stay longer, but was needed back in Dranouter and so, in 2003, returned to take over his mother’s restaurant. At first, still finding his feet, Kobe kept the established classic menu whilst offering a more experimental second. It was hard work, but in 2004 a favourable review from an influential journalist put In de Wulf on the map. Soon the dining room was full and the chef able to expand, renovating the kitchen, dropping the older carte and refurbishing the building. In 2005, Kobe was made the youngest Michelin starred chef in Belgium.
The second Belgian cooking at In de Wulf was Filip Claeys. He had been inspired by his father who worked at La Souricière (1*) in Adinkerke: ‘I knew that I wanted to be a chef when I was a very little boy…When I think back to my childhood, I really grew up between the pots and pans. At the age of four, I recognised the difference between a perfect Camembert and Brie. When I was eight, I could even beat a béarnaise. The passion for cooking was always there.’ This passion led him to hotelier school at first Ter Duinen Koksijde then Ter Groene Poorte before his first position at Le Fox (1*) with Stefaan Buyens. Twelve months here and he was off to de Karmeliet (3*), where he spent six years under Geert Van Hecke, eventually becoming his sous chef. He then moved, like Kobe had done, to Oud Sluis as Herman’s number two and remained there for the next five years – and this was where he met his wife, Sandra, who worked in the dining room. In 2006, the pair, feeling themselves ready to run their own restaurant, took over the locally-renown De Jonkman in Sint-Kruis on the outskirts of Bruges. The chef, whilst winning his own star, has since spent time in kitchens in Tokyo and San Sebastian to further improve his cooking.
The third chef was a Frenchman. As fate would have it, Roland Gauthier had acquired both a restaurant - l’Auberge de la Grenouillère in la Madelaine sous Montreuil – and a son within only ten days of each other. It was almost inevitable then that Alexandre, just like Filip, followed his father’s footsteps into the kitchen. His career started with an apprenticeship at neighbouring Le Toquet’s Hôtel Westminster with William Elliot prior to spells at Clos des Cimes under Régis Marcon, Olivier Brulard’s Résidence de la Pinède and with Grégory Coutanceau at les Flots, all by the age of nineteen. A stint in Paris working for Michel Roth at Lasserre came next as did various stages across the world in Beijing, London, St. Moritz and Palermo. Meanwhile however, in 2001 his father’s restaurant had lost the Michelin star it had held since 1936, accelerating Alexandre’s return. Cooking his self-defined cuisine délurée, this avid adventure-sportsman (scuba-diving, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro) rapidly attracted attention. In 2005, Alain Ducasse invited him to Plaza Athénée to cook; fierce François Simon singled him out amongst Génération C chefs (a movement embracing world flavours); even Ramsay praised his handling of frogs; and most recently, he was part of a select clique of Frenchman in New York at the Omnivore Food Festival and running one of David Chang’s ‘four f****** dinners’. He won back the missing star in 2008.
Throughout the day of the event, as the three chefs prepped their plates in the large, modern In de Wulf kitchen, diners drifted in from North, South, East and West. As they arrived, out on the terrace, in the lounge as well as within the cuisine itself, they mingled with each other and with their hosts. It was an open, familiar atmosphere where interaction felt easy and natural yet the air was charged with a certain sense of occasion that was embraced by all.
At a little past eight o’clock, everyone entered the spacious dining area. Here the refined rustic aesthetic was accentuated by unvarnished woods, exposed brickwork and bare tiled floor. Tables, dressed in thin and loosely-fitted linen, were considerable in size and set wide apart. A fireplace, replete with two stacks of fresh-chopped lumber, lay on one side whilst latticed windows formed the wall opposite. It was a bright room with homespun charm and a pastoral austerity that was honest, refreshing and comfortable. It was the romantic ideal of a rural farmhouse.
A short speech from Kobe and the meal commenced…
Amuse Bouche 1: Bulots – Kobe Desramaults. Local whelks and their mayonnaise, made with white vinegar and peppered with cèpe powder, arrived in individual, pitted pebbles shaped by the sea that invoked the sea snails’ natural habitat. The poached whelks were sea-fresh and tender, but with bite whilst the mayo, formed from a reduced bouillon of the bulots, was dense, creamy and nicely flavoured.
Amuse Bouche 2: Porc Soufflé – Kobe Desramaults. Fried pork rind, fashioned almost as a shell, was laden with cubes of meat layered with chervil in honey-vinegar dressing.
Le Pain: Pain de levain – Kobe Desramaults. Rustic bread suited the rustic surroundings and came from the baker Bril in nearby Bailleul. As accompaniments, butter from a neighbouring dairy farm and traditional smout – salted pork dripping with spices – were supplied.
Amuse Bouche 3: Tasse d’eau de mer – Alexandre Gauthier. A small glass held slivers of rouge-tinged raw sea bass, oyster, steamed spinach leaf, olive oil and sprigs of chervil and basil. Into this, a dram was dispensed from a bottle plugged with a shot-measure pourer and containing mineral water infused with wakame, nori, lemon and sel gris de Guérande. The bottle, with its cloudy contents, looked as if it had been filled straight from the ocean – and it tasted like a shot of the sea. The aquatic aroma struck first, giving way to the briny savour and distinct textures of fish and oyster, each enlivened by salty spinach and lightly acidic lemon. A final bite of basil and chervil left a refreshing linger on the palate.
Amuse Bouche 4: Joue de raie – Filip Claeys. Skate cheek, cooked at low temperature in beurre noisette, and a single hazelnut, its skin carefully etched in circumscribing circles, were coupled with a cream of exotic spices, purée of the same nut and a blade of basil. The warm morsel melted on the tongue, its brown butter finish in inherent harmony with the crunchy nut and its appetising mousse. The sweet-pungent mayo of cinnamon, cardamom et cie was another delightful addition.
Entrée 1: Bar de mer du Nord, herbes sauvages, légumes saumurées – Kobe Desramaults. Raw North Sea bass, creamy pink in colour and interspersed with pickled vegetable’s picked from Kobe’s own garden, came sitting in light herb emulsion and scattered over with herbs that had been plucked from the local woods. The acidity of the subtly vinegary vegetables – cucumber, cauliflower, onions and baby mange tout – provided a fine foil to the chunky, quality fish, as did the wood sorrel.
Entrée 2: Grand vive, fenouil, blette, arroche des jardins – Filip Claeys. A fillet of grand weever, marinated in fennel oil for a day before sealed sous vide with it for four minutes and seared shortly in the pan, lay atop dark green Swiss chard leaves and under its vibrant stalks, themselves covered with deep cardovan red orach; fennel mousse and fennel purée completed the plate. The weever, a rockfish that buries itself in the sand hiding the poisonous spikes that skirt its body, is a local species that Filip explained to each table his father, a fisherman, once caught but was often thrown away by others who thought it useless. It had a delicately rich savour, surely from its diet or crustaceans and shrimps, and surprised with its succulence. The fennel’s anise was a classic match for its sweetness whilst the more bitter chard and salty orach offered balance.
Entrée 3: Cornichons, tarama – Alexandre Gauthier. Gherkin, halved and only just char-grilled on its inside, was set on one corner of the dish as if washed up on a bright green tide of tarragon-tarama that had yet to fully recede. Like a surfboard, the pickle carried Ventrèche and the leaves of the fresh herb; a little olive oil marked the tracks of the ebbing wave whilst ground white pepper played the spray. Gauthier seemed clearly intent on making a mark with his minimalist, provocative plating. By sitting the elements off-centre and allowing the paste of herby-cod roe to run off over the rim, the chef had done two things shockingly simple yet both very radical. This was not a conceited challenging of convention though; the creamy, sweeter roe was an excellent complement to the crunchy and faintly tart gherkin that remained nearly raw. Peppery-anise tarragon also added aroma whilst the white pepper, some sharp, but blunted heat.
The room almost immediately filled with unexpected pine-like, flowery perfume.
Plat Principal 1: Homard, genièvre – Alexandre Gauthier. Suddenly, a small bush of juniper was presented – some of the branches were singed and still visibly fuming. A barely perceptible pink coil lay secreted within the shrubbery. Separating the stems revealed a whole lobster nestled like a foetus. Poached for forty-five seconds it had been smeared with juniper butter that had already melted; although admittedly lacking much sweetness, the cuisson was incredible. Eaten with one’s fingers, the lobster had only really been warmed and retained tremendous moisture and suppleness. The bittersweet juniper was a lovely counterpoint whilst some of the charred berries, still attached to the boughs, tendered hearty bursts of flavour.
Plat Principal 2: Pigeon de Steenvoorde maturé et cuit au foin, légumes ’Zwartemolen’, jus au foin – Kobe Desramaults. Shown off prior to being served, these Steenvoorde pigeons, supplied by Alex Dequidt from the most northerly department of France, had spent two weeks stuffed with and buried in burnt hay, before oven-roasted en cocotte with more of the grass.
A single rosy pink breast from each plump, mahogany pigeon rested alongside a single, skinny, golden parsnip that was placed atop turnip purée sprinkled with roasted onion powder; juniper seeds, broad beans, their white blossoms and shiny yellow turnip flowers straddled the root whilst hay jus sat in the middle of the dish. The tender bird had a nice gaminess that was tempered with some subtle sweetness from the hay, which also emitted an aromatic fragrance. Juniper cut through the richness of the meat and the Zwartemolen vegetables, from due east of the restaurant and prepared al dente, retained their earthy, nutty savours. The onion dust brought complexity and an interesting hint of barbecue with it.
Plat Principal 3: Canard sauvage ’Damme’, girolles, jeunes oignons, jus de sureau – Filip Claeys. An almost cylindrical, carmine-coloured fillet of wild duck from Damme, near Sluis, having spent two hours marinating, had been cooked sous vide very quickly. A tuile cradle carried a quenelle of confit thigh pâté mixed with rillette of the duck’s liver while raw girolles, aubergine purée as well as one onion microwaved, one pickled and their purée littered the elderflower-infused jus cuisson that had been poured tableside. Once more, the meat was excellent – juicy and flavoursome, both it and the more intense pâté-rillette were countered well by the sweetness of the floral, slightly citrus elderberry sauce. Onions were nicely savoury and proffered crunch; the mushrooms, a touch of fruity pepper; and aubergine, some velvety smokiness.
Plat Principal 3: Boeuf ‘Flandres Occidentale’ – Kobe Desramaults. West Flemish red is a rare pure-race breed of cattle whose origins in this vicinity can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Less than fifty or so of these cows remain thus only three or four are culled a year. Today Kobe, spontaneously and very generously, allowed guests an ample taste of it. The steaks were treated as minimally as possible; just quickly seared, sliced and set in the centre of tables for diners to take with their hands. Although only aged for two weeks, this well-marbled meat was very tender with clean yet full, meaty savour.
Dessert 1: Chocolat blanc, framboise, menthe chartreuse – Filip Claeys. A glass bowl was set down; in it stood nothing but a white chocolate boule. Slowly, warm rooibos tea, brewed with chartreuse mint, wakame, lemon and cacao, was sprinkled over the sphere causing it to immediately collapse, consequently exposing a hidden chest of yoghurt inlaid with raspberry, vanilla sablé, cacao nib, red basil and sancho pepper. There was a wealth of taste and texture within – crunch, fruitiness, aromatic spice, umami, crispiness, sweet-nuttiness, smoothness and more. All the elements however married very agreeably to produce something unusual, verging on the exotic and quite satisfying.
Dessert 2: Craquelin de porc et bière brune ‘Pannepot’ – Kobe Desramaults. This was the combination of two local staples – beer and pork. Here they were manifest as cracking overlaid with dark beer ice cream.
Dessert 3: Poignée de sable – Alexandre Gauthier. Vivid pastel emerald mousse that resembled the excess plaster left behind by the wipe of a dirty spatula resided to one side; the smear’s perimeter closest to the plate’s middle was scattered with golden sand. A spoonful of each suggested the familiar, but in combination, created something new and difficult to determine whilst the juxtaposing grittiness and creaminess of the two components proved pleasing. Soon enough, it was revealed that the green was parsley and the yellow, banana.
Dessert 3: Oseille sauvage, citronelle – Kobe Desramaults. Lemon balm ice cream, nearly smothered with a cluster of mint granité, was garnished with wood sorrel, which also reappeared as a shot alongside. This was a refreshing, acidic dessert that left one’s palate clean and ended the menu on an uplifting note.
Petit Fours: Gâteau de miel avec citron – Alexandre Gauthier. As a delightful departure before the mignardises, Alex then served his signature post-meal treat. Following the final course, la Grenouillère’s maître d’hôtel, Pascal, proceeded to each table, carving small fingerfuls of local flower honeycomb to which he had applied a soothing squeeze of lemon.
Mignardises: Truffes au chocolat et frais des bois – tous. As guests began to mix, the chefs filled tables with their individual afters. These included ripe and green wild strawberries; chocolate covered rice; and custom-made truffles from Dominique Persoone’s Chocolate Line.
The wines on the night were…
Crémant d’Alsace Marcel Deiss; Entre Deux Monts Westouter, Chardonnay-Pinot Gris, 2008; Movia, Rebula Slovenie, 2006; Savennières, Clos de Coulaine, Claude Papin, 2007; Brett Brothers, Pouilly-Vinzelles ‘Les Quarts’, 2003; Moric, Blaufrankisch, Autriche, 2007; Tandem, Alain Graillot, Marocco, Syrah, 2007; Struise brouwers, Pannepot; Maculan, Dindarello, Italie, 2006; and Champagne Gobillard & Fils, Blanc de Blancs.
The staff was composed of a collection from all three restaurants and also included the wives of two of the chefs, themselves maîtresses d'hôtel at In de Wulf and De Jonkman. Although this was the first chance that the team had had to work together, everything went very smoothly. Furthermore, such family-orientated service added a sense of comfort and intimacy to the scene – there is always something classically charming about a gentleman cooking and his wife serving. Thus, it was genuinely quite warming to hear, ‘let me just ask my husband about that’, when seeking certain dish details.
Kobe, Filip and Alex also all took the opportunity to introduce their own courses, circling the groups of seated guests to explain each dish and tell each recipe’s story. This only contributed to the conviviality and esprit of the occasion, binding every plate mentally to its maker and building a bond between diner and chef.
The aim of the evening was not necessarily to give those eating sufficient evidence with which to evaluate fully the three cuisines. It was rather to whet the appetites of those assembled and give them just an indulgent sample of what each could do and what was actually on offer in this oft-overlooked corner of Continental Europe.
That being said, there were some marked themes commonly expressed throughout the courses of all three cooks.
Kobe’s dishes seemed relevant to the new naturals. He revealed a delicate, subtle sensibility that focused on very local, very good ingredients prepared according to traditional recipes, but with the application of modern methods. Here both his Flemish roots and Spanish inspiration became clear. There was a proclivity for acidity and minimalism also evident as well as a penchant for gentle, accordant colours.
Filip was arguably the least familiar of the chefs and therefore somewhat of an unknown quantity. His courses impressed with their precision and calculated combinations of flavours that betrayed his collaboration with Belgian food scientist Bernard Lahousse. He showed an inclination for less noble ingredients and his plates certainly felt distinctly ‘Flemish’. There were some clues of the influence that working at Oud Sluis for so long has had on his cooking, but the chef had clearly found a style of his own and separate to that of his old mentor.
Whilst Filip was understated, Alex was confident. He appeared intent on one thing – getting everyone’s attention. His creations were certainly the most distracting and suggested serious potential. Recipes may have seemed superficially simple, but they were direct, focusing on few elements combined well and thoughtfully with an artistic presentation almost confrontational to established custom. However, this rebel also had a cheeky, playful side with a fondness for shades of green (evocative of the frog, the emblem of his restaurant), which dominated his dishes.
All three chefs delivered. All had an individual voice and all brought something different to the table. Literally. Yet, in spite of their diverging styles, this meal followed a smooth segue and the trio of menus felt a consummately integrated one. After dinner, diners were eager – and many, already conspiring – to visit the three chefs’ one by one.
This was a memorable affair. Many of those present already knew or knew of each other and throughout dinner and following it, discussion was lively with people clearly enjoying the experience. But the cooking really was the centre of attention. Dishes were digested in silence before opinions were exchanged and thoughts expressed. By the evening’s end, with eaters satisfied and enticed to return and with the attraction of Flanders fresh in their minds, guests were thanked and chefs applauded. Most lingered on late into the night, a hardcore few even into the early hours…
And as clichéd as this may be…it really was a case of three chefs, each with un macaron Michelin, delivering a three star meal.