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Pastry Chef Roger Van Damme weighs up the perfect recipe for work-life balance

Pastry Chef Roger Van Damme weighs up the perfect recipe for work-life balance

The Dutch master of pastry and desserts Chef Roger Van Damme, of Het Gebaar in Antwerp, Belgium on finding the right balance between life and the kitchen.

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Roger Van Damme is a pastry chef. He was always a pastry chef and never considered being anything else. In fact you could say he was born to it.

"My father was a chef, my grandfather was a chef and my great grandfather," said Van Damme.

“When I was twelve years old I already knew I was going to be a pastry chef. I went to pastry school for seven years, and after I spent a year or two traveling, after which, at 23 years of age I started working for myself. "

While many of us are flaking around Southeast Asia on a gap year, Van Damme was already committing to the stress of restaurant ownership. That takes serious dedication and self-belief. If you have traveled the world in those carefree in-years, you'll know just how life-changing an experience it can be, especially in terms of opening your mind. Van Damme though, doesn't lack that at all, he exudes empathy and open-mindedness.

"Looking back I would have liked to have spent another 10 years, I could not have changed it today, I'm almost 50 years old I get to travel all the time, I get to learn so many new things, I get to collaborate with other chefs, so I guessed it worked out. "

Cooking is an art, baking is a science and the discipline and meticulousness needed to create what Van Damme does.

"Pastry chefs need to weigh every ingredient, they can't approximate, they have to be very strict, very scientific," he says.

"I think of a lot of pastry chefs like from a pharmacy or medical background, people who are used to working in a lab."

"Chefs are better at tasting than pastry chefs. Chefs have so many more ingredients to work with, but we have fruit, butter, eggs and sugar. The customer is the one who knows where to eat or to throw something unusual on the menu. It usually contains something they don't usually see on a dessert menu, then they skip dessert. "

“It is changing now but 20 years ago it was different. Today, you have young chefs coming to the pastry kitchen and it's great but with pastry chefs and pastry restaurants, they are a completely different world. "

Even though Van Damme has the discipline to be a precise pastry chef, he has in recent years learned to counter that with a more relaxed attitude to how he runs his business. At Het Gebaar, his Michelin star tearoom, he only opens for lunch .

"My body is not broken, I have the spirit to learn new things, I can't do that."

"For me, it's just a joke. It comes from when I was younger, working in the tearoom. We have been working on seven in the evening. Now we open at 11 am and we close at 6 pm. I just want to have a life outside the kitchen and I'm very happy with my decision.

"I wouldn't change a thing. I started very young, working a lot. I tried a lot of things and I made a lot of mistakes, but that's paying off now because I choose to work less. My body is not broken, I have a spirit of learning new things, I can't do that. "

While Van Damme has applied his pastry chef to make the perfect recipe for work life balance, he can do it because he has a foundation of work under his belt. He also has an unbridled passion for desserts .

"Dessert is important because it's the last dish you eat in a restaurant. Everyone started to clean. That's different now you go to the dessert room to start working on desserts. "

Things are shifting in the dessert world, but Van Damme, remains somewhat old school about certain things.

“In my mind, we have to follow a certain order, so for me, to dessert always has to last. I'm not inclined to change the world and bring the dessert out first. We need to stay with our two feet on the ground.

“Desserts are not decadent, they are art, they are like flowers. I’m always impressed and inspired by Cirque de Soleil, or like when I see Celine Dion coming out on stage. What more do you want? It’s perfect.”

Clearly open to the inspiration of others, Van Damme is also dedicated to the role he has to inspire those he is mentoring in his kitchen. At Identitá Golose, he took the main stage for a demonstration with a young chef from his kitchen and while she was only 21, he allowed her to take the reins and complemented her throughout the demonstration. It must have been a fairly rewarding experience for her. Mentoring the young people in his kitchen he spends a lot of time thinking about.

LOOKING TO SPORT FOR INSPIRATION

“I have a friend who is the trainer of Ajax Amsterdam, he has kids who have a lot of money that he has to manage, I have my kids that I have to teach, maybe they don’t have money, but the management is the same, to get to a consistent level where we are playing every day, the Champions League.”

What kind of advice has gotten from the top tier of football that he puts into practice in his kitchen?

“The things that you think can’t be done, you need to tell your staff that it’s possible,” he says.

“Sometimes I have ideas about what I want to do, and in my own head, I have my doubts about whether it is possible or not. But I never show that doubt to my students, I tell them it is one hundred per cent possible and they learn from that, they rise to the occasion. If someone tells you that it is possible, then you believe them and if you believe, you can do anything.”

What if you’re ‘star striker’ isn’t scoring goals? How can you get them to hit the target again?

“If a member of your staff is not performing at the level you know they can go to eat with them. Take them out of the kitchen, somewhere like Identitá Golose, where they can get inspired and be exposed to new things. You need to be proud of your staff.”

And three words to describe to qualities needed to be a world-leading pastry chef?

Strictness , perfectionism , curiosity

Van Damme certainly has these qualities and has been applied to him and to give him happiness.

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