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Interview with Executive Chef Bart Vandaele of Belga Café - Washington, DC
March 2009

Katherine Martinelli: When did you start pairing beer with food?
Bart Vandaele: From the opening of my restaurant in October 2004.

KM: How do people respond to beer pairings?
BV: Very good. People have started to look at beer differently and this is something from my culture (Belgium). There is a beer for every occasion and there is a beer for every dish. The world of beer and food is very complex. Wine lovers are surprised and beer lovers are in awe. Ten years ago there was no attention to this and now it is the IT thing to do. I just love it and it’s fun to have people in awe and surprised. You just eat and drink beer, and in Belgium it has become more popular. It [beer and food pairing] was popular in the 70s and 80s, then it died away a little bit, but from 2000 on it has become popular again. Things go in waves and now Belgians are really into their own beer and cooking. Now it seems to be more and more Belgian heritage is fashionable. Here in the states it is completely exploding, and thanks to that people who come to the US they see there are Belgian restaurants, not only in New York, but in Boston, DC, Florida. Microbrewing has helped a lot of the beer culture in the US, it’s not just Budweiser and light beer anymore. The microbreweries make nice beer, a lot of them based on Belgian style.

KM: How do you go about pairing a beer with a dish? If you cook with beer, do you serve the same beer with it?
BV: Not always, but it can be done. It depends on how you want to do it. It [beer] is so versatile, and has so many flavors. You match or go opposite ways. If a dish is fatty, you serve something crisp or something sweet. For example, one of the most surprising is my smoked and poached foie gras with a sour red ale because you have that sweetness and tartness, like a balsamico base because [the ale is] in wooden casks for a long time. Then you start to investigate the beers and how they are made, and you make links to other products you use. Like red ales, wooden cask, cherries, balsamic. Knowledge is power. You have to drink it, and different temperatures make a difference. Not every beer has to be served ice cold.

Really when you cook with beer, beer becomes a big part of the whole dish. For Belgian beef stew the main ingredients are beef, onions, and brown beer red or trappist. I like Leffert Brown for that, it is a really good one, it has the sweetness and caramelization. You caramelize your beef and onions, then deglaze it with beer. The recipe is on the Belga website.

Different glasses make a big difference too, and I can talk to you for hours if you want to. The different glasses do something. Certain glasses are designed to let the carbonation get out of the beer faster. It’s all things that can play with the food you can serve with it, it can elevate the meal. The best beer to serve as an aperitif is Gueuze. What they do, they put it in Dom Perignon bottles, bring it to France, and have a second fermentation in a bottle, it’s the same process as champagne. A beer served in a champagne glass, it looks like champagne, but has a light foamy head like a beer, and a really fresh crisp taste. It must be served ice cold.

KM: Is there anything that you avoid in beer and food pairings?
BV: There is not much, but you have to watch if you start to cook with beer because certain things can become very tart if you cook with them. When you start to cook (heat, reduction or extra cold) that is a very different story on it own. It’s all trial and error. It's like wine. You have to learn your beers and know your food and try it and drink a lot of different beers at different temperatures and times and orders from dark to light, etc. For example, a brown beer if you poach fish in there, it [the fish] takes on a nutty flavor that you don’t recognize in the beer, but it gives it to the fish. But I wouldn’t serve the same beer with it, because that would be too overpowering. It’s too strong, but it cooks perfectly. I would go with a lighter version; we serve that [fish] on a bed of asparagus and mushrooms, so we serve something crisp, like Saison Dupont [Belgian Farmhouse Ale], seasoned beer. You definitely need to know how beers are made. The breweries will explain.

KM: Do you have a favorite pairing?
BV: We actually make an endive salad and we do a cold sambayon with Hoegaarden and then serve it with it. It’s going all the way around. It’s a recipe I made as a dessert, but I made it less sweet, and since it’s with Hoegaarden it has that crisp freshness of the Hoegaarden. The foie gras with sour red ale is great too.

KM: Are you doing anything else with beer?
BV: Beer cocktails. There are a bunch of cocktails out there where you mix beer by itself, or you add beer to a cocktail. We created one where we added a sorbet of beer to a cocktail and it makes it really interesting. It creates a foam on top of the cocktail and it adds a flavor to it because it’s beer added to sorbet, so flavor and texture. We have a Peach Martini but we slow down on the vodka and we finish it off with peach beer; it’s a lighter version of a martini. It’s not too sweet and has crispness to it. Very popular. Desserts also, we use beer in desserts, we make ice creams, sorbets, crème brulees. Works really well. You have the advantage [in pairing beer with dessert], any beer with fruit and you’re on the right track right there. Pair it with a Cocktail Rouge. Or you have the sweeter red ales, or you can go completely backwards and finish with Hoegaarden and Hoegaarden ice cream. We do an ice cream float that is Hoegaarden ice cream with honey topped with Hoegaarden.

KM: Are you increasing your beer and food pairings as a response to the economy – i.e. lower price point for customers and lower cost to you?
BV: No. Belgian beer prices are not down from the previous year than to the euro, dollar and all the other costs, but the idea of making a special at a better price as a beer with food pairing is a good idea. Thanks.