My just published interview with Desraault, who recently cooked at the 12 Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood. We met at Chef Sache in Germany and had a very interesting exchange:
Interview with Kobe Desramaults, Flemish Culinary Star of In De Wulf, Belgium
by Geeta Bansal
The young Flemish chef with his Canadian sous chef was at the hotel reception one morning in Schloss Benisberg on the outskirts of Koln, checking out before proceeding to go on stage at Chef Sache in Koln, Germany. We ended up riding together to the event and on the way we were talking about visiting the Cologne cathedral which it turned out was right outside the train station where Desramault had detrained the night before as he arrived from the small town of Dranatour due south west of Ypres, almost nudging the French border.
The last ten years since he took over the family farm (actually first the small French bistro on it) that his parents owned though not easy have established a reputed operation boasting a Michelin star. In recognition of his prowess in 2012 Desramault was named the chef of the year by the Gault Millau guide. This tall, lanky blue eyed 33 year old with long hair, the inevitable tattoos that are the trademark of his generation of cooks is very laid back and known for literally “hand’s on” approach in the dining room at times encouraging guests to eat with their hands. This country boy has also served his time in kitchens of Spain and Netherlands before snagging his first Michelin star at the ripe old age of 25!
In De Wulf he has been followed by de Vitrine in 2011, a casual brasserie in Ghent where chefs trained in the de Wulf kitchen are showing their creative prowess on the menus. Superette, a bakery centered bistro, opened this year on the outskirts of Ghent and is the latest addition to his expanding empire. In addition to international and wealthy foodie fans on culinary pilgrimages to In de Wulf, Desramault has enhanced his following at home by providing lower price point dining options at his new establishments. Construction is also underway on a dilapidated farmhouse he has acquired close to In De Wulf to enable the operation to spread out. Frequently seen at events like Cook it Raw, Terroir, Flemish Primitive, at Hangar7, and recently the avant-garde festival in Germany Desramault is gathering an international following and the Palladium in Koln was filled with his fans and admirers.
Desramault’s cuisine is unfussy, having been described as modern rustic and even as brutal yet gentle natural cuisine. Like other young chefs these days he is partial to foraging with his team in the mornings to add the local flavors to his minimalist plates. The In de Wulf kitchen does not use pepper, choosing to replace it with products that do not mask the original flavors. On stage Desramault described his kitchen as “classical” as he proceeded to demonstrate a dish with potatoes, noting that Escoffier listed 52 dishes with the humble tuber. Desramault referred to his work as “playing around in the kitchen” while focusing on progressive techniques like fermenting barley and buck wheat to make miso paste.
Prone to highlighting the produce of Flanders, he is not shy to use the latest technology in his kitchen and is no stranger to the paraphernalia of the molecular tradition. In our conversation and watching him demo on stage at Chef Sache it was apparent that he is leaning towards the often time consuming traditional techniques even for aging meat and on a quest to find a balance between traditional and technical. Desramault in propagation of the Nova Regio cuisine of Flanders has established close partnerships with growers and producers in his area. He is of the opinion that since our survival depends on food we must renew our respect for food and be careful of what we ingest. In our subsequent conversation he spoke about the movement concentrating on ‘supermarket scandals’ and how it is imperative for us to focus on these issues.
As I watched him get set up on stage, out came the skull of the Duroc pig from France on which he later plated his dish as he does at In de Wulf probably piquing the interest of guests with its shock value.
My conversation with Kobe Desremault:
You are now in an elite group of top chefs in the world so has it changed you or your work?
I don’t really think much about that just concentrate more on my restaurant and give it all my attention even though it’s great for the morale of the team. More than ever in the last years we have been structuring a lot and it’s very much about people like my right hand chefs like Rose Greene who have done enormous work in the last few years. I am really not so good at organization myself just creative.
Not true! Watching you cooking for the audience it was apparent that you are very focused and organized. So do you think that up to a certain extent every creative mind is disorganized?
Exactly, so you need the right people to organize and add structure. We have been building our operation and we built another restaurant and the bakery that we just added is part of it. Everything is getting bigger but with an organized structure which is what I like now and am happy to be able to share with my team and people through food and it’s appreciated. That is what I am really happy about and to be able share with my team and people through food.
People perceive you as one of a cult group of chefs but how do you see yourself as a chef?
When I started up about ten years ago and when I was doing my apprenticeships at the age of eighteen I staged at Oud Sluis, which is a very different style from what I do but automatically when you start cooking you are very influenced by what you see around you. At a certain stage you block other influences from your mind and start wondering about what you are going to cook or how you will go about it. It took me a few years to define my style and find my direction but I am very happy with what I am doing now. You eventually find your own philosophy of food and start on your own journey as I have going on for a few years now.
Do you think comparisons of styles of cooking amongst chefs are valid and is it fair to categorize chefs in that manner?
I think no matter what field you are in and whether you make music or art or anything else you are going to be categorized. It is convenient to put people in a box. We are all trying to establish our own identities. For me the most important thing is that when you come to my restaurant and eat my food and have the experience of being in my restaurant then it is fair if you make up your mind about what I am doing. Just by my recipes or reading about me you cannot judge or define my work. Then you can place me in old school or whatever style but don’t judge me without having the experience. Just by reading about me or the restaurant on Twitter it is not fair to form an opinion.
Before you went on stage we heard a discussion about the relevance of social media presence in our industry. What is your opinion about it?
I think it’s important because it has allowed in the last few years for people to make a certain image in their mind about what to expect or why they want to go to a restaurant. Earlier the only mediums we had were the Michelin guide or other such publications. When people came to your restaurant after being directed by these they expected a certain standard but now there is so much more information out there so in fact people have become selective about where they want to go. That by itself has created diversity in cooking and restaurants are getting more attention. It has also helped to create an emotional link between customers and restaurants and people want to come because of that.
Is there anything about your image or any impression you want to change?
I don’t know.
Everyone in the industry seems to be working at some breakthrough aspect to stay ahead of the pack. When I first started cooking I really felt like I was in this rat race and I think that is something still very present in the industry. It still happens that for example some novelty plates are showing up in a certain restaurant then everyone else must get them too or pursue the desire to be the first in something else. It’s all very competitive and I don’t want to be in that competitive environment. I just want to have my freedom and my mind up encumbered by these things. It is easier said than done but that decision to get out of that race is not so easy.
There is one aspect of social media that most chefs and restaurateurs are not so appreciative of. It has enabled anyone and everyone to become a food critic. Any opinion about that?
I don’t appreciate that but I like it when someone visits my restaurant and we have an interesting conversation about food and they know food but I am always a little apprehensive of people. I am very open to dialogue or critique but first I want to know if that individual knows this field and is knowledgeable.
There are frequent food conferences like these all over the world. Are we going overboard with such events?
I am very selective about where I go. The thing is that I love to travel and I didn’t travel much in the last ten years. So now in the last few years I take the opportunity to do that while going to these events. As we were talking earlier it’s wonderful to see all these places. Last week I was in New York and next week I will be in Salzburg and two weeks ago I was in Sweden. In December I will be at The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa, California.
Do you think your celebrity comes with responsibility and do you think now that you are well-known, you have the opportunity to change people’s opinions about our industry?
I think that’s very important and if you are going to make rock stars out of chefs and put them on the stage then we chefs should all take some responsibility and speak out about what we are concerned about in the food world. We are supposed to know the food world what is wrong in this world, about the problems of the farming industry. There are so many issues and that is something Rene Redzepi does in an exceptional way. Chefs like him take their power and use it for a purpose.
You are interested in where your products come from and how they are produced. What are your thoughts about GMO’s and large corporations?
There are a lot of problems in the food industry which is the biggest industry in the world and definitely GMO’s are a part of those. They sneak in unobtrusively and have power in the governments and food industry everywhere. I think as chefs it is important to inform and educate people about what is going on maybe have TV shows about GMO’s and show how they are crawling into all foods. You cannot protest what you don’t know about or are unaware of.
Health concerns are leading people to question additives and chemical processes in use in kitchens. Do you use additives in your kitchens?
We do but now what we are doing that is health-related and cancer-related is use of diverse lacto baccillae. We are now interested in the fermentation processes in our kitchen because I do think that area has been neglected. In fact we are working with University of Antwerp and a professor of micro-biology on the diversity of lacto-bacillus in our foods. It is amazing to find how these cultures of bacteria in our body can protect you from so many things. It’s something we know so little about and the power they have. We want to pasteurize everything, sterilize everything while the most important thing is to allow these natural processes to exist. At the end of the day the human body is only 10% DNA and the rest is made up of micro biological bacteria from its surroundings.
As chefs we get requests to accommodate food allergies. Why are they becoming so commonplace?
When I started in the food industry I did not have any food allergies and now there are very prevalent allergies and intolerance to a lot of food stuff like for example lactose intolerance. In ten years a lot has changed which makes me think about how the human metabolism has changed and how it is determined by where you live and how your body reacts to your surroundings. It is now important when you travel also to have information about foods you can or cannot have and you need to be in sync with your surroundings.
The biggest issue is the food industry which has changed so much last week we had Chad Robertson from Tartine in San Fransisco over in our restaurant and he spoke about food intolerances and related issues as being all just marketing. It is easy to generalize like that but there is obviously a bigger story behind that. I want to explain everything I do with my food and I feel the food industry should be transparent and must explain to us and answer our questions.
Is that not a huge issue for individuals to deal with?
Yes, but if there is a demand and people become informed about these things then we can get answers.
Who do you keep in touch or exchange information with amongst your peers?
I guess I don’t really do that so much as I don’t really have the urge to call this guy or that when I have a new technique or something. For me it is more interesting to meet someone like Chad Robertson. I don’t really have this urge to start talking about work or what I am doing. For example if I see a friend like Inaki Aizpitarte from Chateaubriand we are not going to be talking about work when we meet but just hang out. Sometimes conversations go in that direction but there is never a definite plan for it. My environment and my work I share with people who work with me.
Has anyone in particular influenced your work?
Definitely I have been influenced and inspired by others. I love the food of Alain Passard, Michel Bras as they are people who have been around for a long time.
What else are you working on?
Now we are organizing a food festival at the end of May next year. It will be all about the power of food and how young people can contribute. Currently we do one for farmers in the countryside around my village. There is a huge gap right now between farmers and the city and information about what is happening in the city is not being shared with farmers to show them alternatives. In the last thirty years 65% of farmers have stopped farming or gone bankrupt. Nobody is giving them information about new farming practices like biological farming which can be profitable. My intent is to connect these people to allow them to share information about alternatives available to them as a way is a way to bring a change within your own immediate community. It is perceived that if a farmer is using pesticides and herbicides it is only because he is a money craving producer but many times it is because he does not know the alternatives as they didn’t learn that in schools. For me this is not about media attention but genuinely bringing about a change by showing young farmers different ways of farming and inform them that there is a demand for these products if they grow them and an alternative to monoculture that is prevalent.