From Flemish clay to Japanese Zen

07 may, 2014

“One Team, One philosophy, One target”, is Bart De Pooter’s motto. It sounds like guru-speak, but those who know this clay-sculpted brickmaker best, know better.  Bart De Pooter is not a show-off, but quite the opposite - a man who knows well that you can only achieve the goal by trial and error, provided you have a defined concept and a streamlined structure. Where many chefs of his generation seek refuge in the media, Bart De Pooter opts for a marketing approach that is not underpinned by pompous theories but with Flemish matter-of-factness. This approach is unprecedented in the Belgian gastronomic world.

The right to make mistakes

“In Belgium, chefs dare not present themselves based on a marketing model”, says De Pooter. “Instead, we take the people and the product as a starting point. What are the expectations? What image do we want to create? And what development models lead us to a creation? My approach is not always appreciated. I can live with that, but I go my own way!”

Bart De Pooter is more than a cook, but rather a socially conscious company director, an ecologist through and through, a level-headed and methodical grower, a man who swears by research and development, but at the same time and develops and spreads an honest passion for art. What is his secret? Constantly questioning himself.  The artwork of Jan Fabre that welcomes the guests to De Pastorale is about just that: the right to make mistakes and the overcoming of doubts.

Stars for stars

His creation WY in The Mercedes House in the Sablon district of Brussels is unprecedented in Belgian gastronomy. Not only was Bart De Pooter was the first Belgian chef to achieve stars in two restaurants - WY was also the first ‘showroom’ in the world to be able to pin up a Michelin star.

But how did a chef de cuisine from a rural area end up in a luxurious establishment in the capital city?

Many have forgotten that I have a history in Brussels. After I learned the craft alongside three-star chef Pierre Romeyer in the outskirts of Brussels, I ended up in the cult restaurant Trente rue de la Paille here near the Sablon district. Although I have rural origins, I have a fondness for the city. Brussels attracts me the most because it is the most cosmopolitan city in Belgium, but at the same time it has a lot of green areas and many squares that create a village feel. I see it as a challenge to translate the philosophy I developed in De Pastorale into a cosmopolitan urban environment that is constantly in motion, where neon lights, graffiti and torn posters define the streetscapes and where a form of voyeurism is constantly present: seeing and being seen. I tried to give all these elements a place in the WY concept.

You were previously involved in projects in the capital, including The Cube and Tram Experience. Was your hunger for the city fuelled in this way?

That certainly played a role. But there is more: for me, the Cube and Tram Experience were also an introduction to the world of Electrolux. When I got to know the ‘brand shop’ of The Mercedes House, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. To me, the existing brasserie did not fit in with the Mercedes image and philosophy and, together with Electrolux, we developed a gourmet experience concept that turned out to be a win-win situation for all partners.

You attach great importance to kitchen technologies.

Yes, of course. The equipment is crucial, because the quality of the food and cooking depend on it. I am very satisfied with the innovative quality of Electrolux appliances. We have a Touchline combi-steamer with touchscreen and an AEG-Electrolux refrigerator from the ecostore series. The show piece of the kitchen is the central Thermaline cooking block, demonstrating high-quality Swiss workmanship. Through large flat screens, the visitors can follow what is happening in the kitchen and look into the pots. This fits in with the idea that a restaurant should be a meeting place. My philosophy is that gastronomy is no more or less than a tool to bring people together and get them talking to each other.

It is surprising that you also chose the WY concept for the non-professional range of kitchen appliances.

That is also a deliberate choice.  We did not want to copy the De Pastorale concept in WY. We wanted to translate the same basic ideas – respect for the product, the seasons, ecology – into a light version. That is why we opted for so-called non-professional appliances, which soon taught us that we can also get surprisingly high quality with them. The Michelin star we achieved after eight months really came out of the blue. Although: Stars for Stars was at the start of our slogan, with a nod to the Mercedes star. Collaboration is vital for a project like this. We have developed an excellent partnership with Mercedes and AEG Electrolux which offers more options for the future.

The team is also of major importance in your concept.

I have been working with the same people for many years now. That creates a bond of trust, but also requires responsibility. When the crisis struck in 2008, the world of gastronomy was also hit. This certainly played a part in the decision to diversify the activities. So I was able to keep my staff, divide the company into two business units and supplement it with young employees. At the end of my training, I received a golden piece of advice from Pierre Romeyer: “A restaurant is like a car with four wheels: you need to be able to cook, you need to be able to count, you need a bit of luck, and you need to be able to deal with people. If you have a flat tyre, you cannot drive any further!” There is a lot of truth in that. You deal with people who are committed to you, but who also have their lives and families. As a chef, you have to try and solve problems proactively.

You are also particularly drawn to the business end of the profession.

Bart manages two kitchen teams daily. In addition to the two restaurants, we have developed a third division: Clarabella. Clara and Bella are the most common names for dairy cows doomed to become waste if they no longer produce enough milk. It has now been found that a number of these cows provide excellent marbled meat. So we are going to upgrade these cows and place their meat on the market under the name of Clarabella. The variety of dairy cow is Holstein. In one year, we supply to all Colruyt stores in Belgium and we slaughter approximately 1,200 cows per day. Only 8% are selected and aged for 50 days, and we export to six countries. There is also an ecological aspect to determine: lending added value to a waste product. Last year, we registered a patent for the production method where health is a central issue. Fewer salts and no additives are used, but we also work with food preparations using beer. Dairy cows are monitored more than other animals for the quality of their milk and they provide healthier meat.

What else can we all expect now from jack of all trades Bart De Pooter?

We issue a magazine where we publish what we are working on that year. The first issue is ready and will be published under the title Interview, where ‘Inter’ stands for international and ‘View’ for our view on dietary habits. We are also designing a line of ceramics, based on the old story of the clay from my native region. And now we feel at home in a city like Brussels, and we are preparing to make the big leap abroad. I have already started to attend Japanese lessons. Japanese Zen attracts me a lot. I am increasingly convinced that in a restaurant, more so than nourishing our bodies, we nourish our spirits.

Henk Van Nieuwenhove


Text: Henk Van Nieuwenhove
Photos: Jan Agten

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