If you’re planning a visit to Belgium, take these tips from Chef Bart Vandaele of DC’s Belga Café. A native of Belgium whose worked under renown chefs in Belgium, and served as executive chef for European dignitaries in the U.S. capital, Chef Bart is a master of Belgian cuisine. In fact, after opening his flagship restaurant nearly fifteen years ago he became known as ‘the Belgian guy’ for putting Belgian food on the map in the area.
Belgian ingredients are literally based on down-to-earth cooking, Chef Bart shares and why he implements this down-home cooking at his restaurant. “I call it down to earth because literally it’s food that’s very closely connected to your backyard in Belgium. It’s your chickens or rabbits, or if you’re close to the sea, it’s mussels and scallops, and root vegetables, those are essential. It’s really about the cabbage, that Brussel sprout, and the potato—the potato for example is really big, there’s no meal without the potato.”
It was during our recent #MezzeTravel Twitter chat, Chef Bart shared among the best things about Belgian culture expressed through food is that Belgium is the land of the good life. Food is Belgian culture, a type of friendship, with warmth, a feast, and way of life.
During the chat, he also shared that Belgian food can be characterized regionally, for example, in the northern coastal region of Flanders food is centered around the fish and mussels, and in the South, the region of Wallonia it’s about the hams, wild game, and essentially winter fare that are a must-try. Popular things to eat in the capital city of Brussels include traditional street foods and down-to-earth classics like mussels, carbonades or stews, frites or fries, and of course, famed Belgian waffles.
When it comes to Belgium’s classic dishes, ingredients are like a circle of life and presentation is just a part of it, he believes. “[The food] is like a fashion and things are coming back, and that’s why you have tradition to reference. If the dish doesn’t endure it’s a fluke; if it doesn’t become tradition then it’s not really part of the culture. Real tradition lives in the books from the 1970s, for example, and things will come back if they’re truly part of the culture. A time is coming when people will come back to tradition, the values of food.”
If you’re wondering how to discern a truly Belgian food experience, Chef Bart advises that qualities of Belgian cuisine start with the culture and look at tradition. It is in that same vein that he develops his own menu for his restaurants, Belga Café and even the more contemporary B Too. He says it’s important to maintain definitive characteristics while keeping the dish relevant to modern times.
“You look at classic recipes, and if they have endured they’re there to be referenced, restudied, redone,” so that the main ingredients are essentially drawn forward generation after generation. If it wasn’t for the creative process of bringing forth tradition, he wouldn’t be a chef.
But, if you’re out wondering the popular streets of Brussels where countless tantalizing menus and even tourist-catching photographs on signs vie for your attention, don’t get too caught up in the fleeting visuals. Like it is at Belga Café, to eat well in Belgium is, “really about the food and the love that was put into it, not about the fringes and décor on the plate—that comes and goes,” Chef Bart shares.
“It’s the meat and potatoes, that love in it, that stew you make, that people eat over-and-over again. That’s tried and true tradition really. You can tweak, to make [a dish] lighter in summer or heavier in the winter, but the recipe itself because of its tradition will endure.” He means that though inspiration is found to innovate Belgian dishes, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed for classic recipes to remain, and to maintain their warmth and heart.
At Belga Café, for example, DC-area patrons will find traditional dishes like Brussels sprouts deep fried and prepared with bacon and topped with gobs of yogurt sauce, as well as steak tartare that’s prepared classically and served with cornichons, capers, but rather than just onions and raw egg yolk, Chef Bart’s version features fried onions and a fried quail egg.
Among Chef Bart’s favorite Belgian food and drink include, Een pintje or a little pint of beer like Stella Artois, Duvel or Brugse Zot, fries from a sidewalk friet stall, shrimp croquettes, and the Flemish dish Waterzooi, a stew dish made traditionally with fish or more commonly now, chicken. For the sweet-tooth Chef Bart enjoys famed Belgian chocolate and the Liège waffle, Belgium’s tiny, traditional and rich caramelized sugar loaded treat.
If you’re near DC, stop into Belga Café to try some common dishes from the sidewalk café of Brussels like traveler-favorite Moules Frites, mussels and fries, but also very quintessential Belgian dishes like Pappardelle Met Gesmoorde Lams Shouder, a plate of braised lamb shoulder with pappardelle pasta and herb butter, tomatoes and a red wine sauce, as well as Vlaamse Stiverij Met Frieten, a Flemish beef stew with Corsendonk Brune sauces, Belgian fires, mayonnaise, and braised red cabbage.