Bart Vandaele’s favorite playground has always been the kitchen. As a toddler in his family’s restaurant in Belgium, pots and pans were his toys. At only 12, Vandaele enrolled at the Culinary Institute for Restaurant and Hotel Management in Bruges, Belgium, where he embarked on a six year program of academics and culinary externships in both cuisine and pastry at Michelin-starred Belgian restaurants.
After completing his formal education, Vandaele spent a year at the Zeebrugge Naval Base working as a line cook at the officer’s kitchen before taking on a commis chef position at the one Michelin starred Piet Huysentruyt in Wortegem-Petegem, Belgium. After three years of work under Chef Huysentruty, Vandaele was moved up to Second Chef, responsible for the kitchen in the chef’s absence and teaching cooking classes. He held the position for three years before moving to two Michelin-starred Restaurant Scholteshof in Hasselt where he held a Sous Chef position for a year under the renowned Roger Souvereyns. Vandaele’s restaurant experience took a turn when he became the Executive Chef for the Head of Delegation of the European Commission to the United States in Belgium, which led to his next Executive Chef position at the Royal Dutch Embassy. During his six years at the embassies, Vandaele created a daily changing menu and organized luxurious lunch and dinner parties for senators, governors, ambassadors, and lobbyists.
During a stroll around the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC in 2003, Vandaele saw an empty retail space that felt right for his next venture. With a Belgian design team, Vandaele oversaw the compltete gutting and redesign of the space to suit his Belgian roots. As Executive Chef of Belga Cafe in DC, Vandaele acts as a Belgian culinary ambassador, using American and Asian ingredients to build dishes that celebrate the rich history of Belgian cuisine and beer. His Endive Sushi begins with the boiling of the classic Belgian vegetable in nutmeg and curry-scented water. The endive is marinated, wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma and served with an orange-cardomom gelee and tobeko.
Interview with Chef Bart Vandaele of Belga Café – Washington, D.C.Antoinette Bruno:
Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
My parents always inspired me because they had a café, event hall and restaurant in Belgium where I would play in the kitchen constantly. I was always around food and always cooking.
AB: Did you attend culinary school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
BV: I always knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. I attended culinary school from 12-18 years old in Bruges, Belgium. I would definitely recommend a culinary school in Europe – you learn the whole package of the restaurant business: wine tasting, bar menus, and cooking. But you are not a chef until you run a kitchen. I finally became a chef at 28! In my kitchen, I don’t require training – just heart and balls. Cooks are here to learn, not just take a paycheck.
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
BV: My Dad laid down a foundation for me and taught me the basics of how to run big events realistically. Piet Huysentruyt taught me about real Belgian cooking, living on the edge, trying new dishes, and the importance of knowing basic techniques. Roger Souvereyns had a very down-to-earth approach, a vision about everything in the restaurant. He owns an herb garden with five gardeners!
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BV: I want to give back and teach the diners something. Sometimes I cook what I like, sometimes I cook what my diners like and sometimes I experiment. That is the fun part of being a chef and owner: it’s like inviting people into your living room. Unfortunately, you have to charge them!
AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
BV: Love, heart, and soul. I use speculaas which is a Belgian mix of gingerbread-like spices. I use it in cookies, sauces, or as a dust for duck. I also like to use Sirop De Liege, a syrup made from apples, pears and dates. I use it on bread, cheese, pancakes, waffles, sabayon, and ice cream. I love the rich flavor it imparts.
AB: What flavor combinations do you favor?
BV: I like sweet and sour together and I like a contrast of textures like soft and crunchy. Opposites attract and they fill in the gaps. I like to create two sauces instead of one. For example, with red wine sauce, I break it down into two components.
AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
BV: A spoon, a rubber spatula, a knife and a good cutting board.
AB:Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
BV: I poach fish in beer, which makes it incredibly flavorful. I’ve rediscovered confit; it’s such a perfect, gentle method of cooking. I also like to smoke things like pasta and foie gras.
AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
BV: Why do you want to come and cook for me?
AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BV: Go get trained in Europe. You must have so much love for the job, because you’re going to have to work a lot. You have to love food and drinks, learning and people – especially those who support you.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
BV: I really like Nobu Now.
AB: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
BV: Las Vegas, New York, D.C., and Chicago. Daniel in New York is amazing and Senso in Las Vegas is great.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in your city?
BV: Zaytinya, because Mediterranean is something I don’t know how to cook and Citronelle is always amazing.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
BV: I think “back to earth” is a trend. People have discovered that vegetables grow in the earth, and they are more and more informed about products and what is in season! On the other hand, the culinary world has gone mad – chefs think they’re Albert Einstein. Good techniques are evolving but it may go too far. It’s fun, they’re driving others to create interesting things, but we should be careful not to go too far.
AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
BV: I see myself involved in more restaurants in D.C and maybe other locales as well. I really want to focus on Belgian cuisine in a “home-style” environment.