Growth strategy pays off for top Belgian restaurant

By Eric Holmberg

BRUGES, Belgium (Reuters) – Sommelier Joachim Boudens bends down and plucks a few stalks of sorrel from the ground. He eats the herb, testing its flavour.

He knows it has just the right sour taste because it was grown on his own farm, which provides vegetables, herbs and flowers to Hertog Jan, Belgium’s latest three-star Michelin restaurant.

The fresh sorrel is destined for a lunchtime dish of asparagus and small red radishes being picked nearby will accompany salmon and caviar on the dinner menu.

Chef Gert De Mangeleer, 34, has taken Hertog Jan to the top of the culinary world with a cooking style based on fresh, local ingredients and perfection in preparation.

“The taste wasn’t good, the quality wasn’t good. So that was why we decided to start (cultivating) vegetables and flowers and herbs by ourselves,” De Mangeleer said.

Three restaurants in Belgium and 106 restaurants worldwide were awarded the top three-star rating in the 2012 Michelin Guide. De Karmeliet, also in Bruges, and Hof van Cleve in Kruishoutem are the other two in Belgium.

Hertog Jan now has a six month waiting list for Friday and Saturday dinner.

De Mangeleer and Hertog Jan earned all three stars since 2007.

When De Mangeleer and Boudens, the restaurant’s head sommelier, started at the eatery more than a decade ago Hertog Jan was a local restaurant serving meatballs, waffles and spaghetti.

“We always said to each other, ‘One day we will have three stars,'” De Mangeleer said.

The restaurant regulars weren’t interested when De Mangeleer started introducing new dishes. It took a magazine article to attract new customers willing to try his original creations.

De Mangeleer and Boudens purchased the farm two years ago. It allows De Mangeleer to completely control how his vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown and when they are picked.

Bart Praet, the 23-year-old head gardener, used to be a chef at Hertog Jan before he swapped his hobby for his job. Praet volunteered to leave the kitchen, after a year, when De Mangeleer needed someone to run the farm.

They are planning to transform the farm’s late 18th century barn into a kitchen and to attach a glass-enclosed restaurant. Boudens and De Mangeleer are waiting for permits to alter the building, but it will take up to two years to renovate once they are approved.

Just as in the early days at Hertog Jan earning three Michelin stars seemed crazy.

“In that moment, we still believed in it because we wanted three stars,” De Mangeleer said. “And when we want something, we will have it.”

(Editing by Charlie Dunmore and Patricia Reaney)

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