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Having just picked up three Michelin stars, Belgian chef Gert De Mangeleer is a force to be reckoned with and something of a genius. Ambition and determination are what drive him on. Together with pluri awarded Joachim Boudens, sommelier and dining room manager, who is also his best friend, Gert opened Hertog Jan, a fine dining temple located in a farmhouse in Zedelgem, Belgium. A triumph that has delivered three stars to a chef not yet turned forty and with plenty to say about contemporary cuisine.
The dish he presented at Care’s the ethical Chef in Salina made a strong impact. He called it "La vie en rose": red Mazara prawns, beetroot and raspberry, a triumph of fiery red on a par with the sunsets of the Aeolian islands.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
What influenced me most was a weekend job serving beer to make a bit of cash when I was in my teens. Initially, I wanted to be an architect, but working in the right sort of venue gave me the desire to go to catering school and then open a pub serving grilled meat. I had no experience of gourmet restaurants, since I could never have afforded them. An internship in a starred restaurant was a revelation to me… and my damnation. At first we found an old pub no one would ever have invested in, but we found its atmosphere fascinating. We did everything alone, concentrating on the food, and the first star arrived in one year.
But it was still not what you wanted…
My dream was to achieve 3 stars before I was 40. I am 39, mission accomplished. I needed a place that could explain the importance of the close bond between food and the land. I imagined the ideal solution as being a restaurant on a farming estate. We bought a farm. It took many years and a few million Euros, a lot of sacrifice and hard work but we have managed to bring a great project to fruition with the Hertog Jan. In the old venue we do tapas. Many people work in the vegetable gardens. A restaurant looking out onto the farm explains the concept of seasonal cuisine and local food more effectively than any other view.
How did you manage to achieve success so quickly?
Focus: concentration and the right partner. My meeting with Joachim has been of fundamental importance in my life. After my wife, who has given me four children. The family is important to me and those who set themselves ambitious goals often neglect it. This has not been my case, even if I work 15 hours a day. Focus is the magic word, whatever you wish to achieve in life. The values I share with my staff are the same as Care’s. For some time now, we have been cultivating an environmental awareness and a new mindfulness of the chef’s role. I am obsessed by perfection, even more so after an inspiring trip to Japan.
Belgium Flanders boasts a high concentration of starred restaurants and up-and-coming chefs. Why is that?
The Flemish people are accustomed to a very high standard of cuisine and like to eat well. Another important factor is that many stars create competition, many sous-chefs open their own restaurants when they feel ready. An emulation effect is created between one generation and another.
What is the dish that reflects you most?
Tomatoes Collection 2017. A dish made from 135 different types of tomato: I have put five people in charge of it. I pair it with a fresh cream cheese. We look for seeds all over the world and grow them in a greenhouse. The tomatoes are hand-picked and peeled. If a table orders this dish, we do it differently for each diner to highlight its uniqueness.