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In the former chapel on the site of an old military hospital, the vast vaulted ceiling seems to peel and flake. A monumental chandelier sends luminous bulbs in an atomic starburst, jabbing at the surrounding stained-glass, which comes alive with post-modern iconography: ice cream cones, beer bottles, extracted wisdom teeth, love hearts. Meanwhile, a neon skull beams bleach-white above what used to be the altar. Today it’s a kitchen. Sergio Herman’s kitchen.
At the nave end of his new Antwerp restaurant, The Jane, not far from where the back row of pews might once have been, Herman sits opposite me, dark-eyed and intense. “The first title for the restaurant was La Chapelle,” he confesses. “But I thought that was too easy. You could use a cross or whatever as the symbol, but it was too simple. So I decided a few months before opening we’d change the name. It’s effectively a person now: Jane. For us it’s a woman that loves to eat, loves to travel, loves design and art. It’s our woman. You feel comfort, style, design. It’s nice and cosy.”
The Jane’s virginal white walls are softened by plush leather banquettes and comfy animal-print cushions, while the light that shines through the colourful windows warms the cool tiled floors. It’s like a statement of post-ecclesiastical chic, as cavernous and impressive as any house of God should be, and a far cry from Herman’s previous restaurant, the venerated but infinitely more homely Oud Sluis.
Even so, there’s a good feeling about the place, something Herman noticed straight away. “If you buy a house you must feel it, and this place had a good energy, a good vibe. We were looking for a location because I had plans to close Oud Sluis. I was there for 25 years in a small house owned by my parents, in a small city [Sluis in the Netherlands]. It’s not easy working there at such a high level. The space is too small and it was time to go for a new goal in my life. Together with my chef Nick [Bril], we were looking for a location here.”
For Herman, who grew up in Belgium, the northern city of Antwerp - famed for its bustling port, diamond trade and fashion industry - always loomed large in his future plans: “Belgium is like... food is in its DNA. People expect to eat, have lunch and dinner and drink good wines. That’s the culture of Belgium, and for me it was always that if we opened a new restaurant, we would go to Antwerp.” It’s a radical change of direction for the 44-year old chef, whose Old Sluis restaurant went on to win three Michelin stars. “Now is the moment to enjoy being a chef again, to cook and create more impulsively... my ego is not ‘I want three Michelin stars’ - what comes comes,” he insists.
The Jane’s focus is on playful design, music, art and relaxation, all with a touch of humour. The interiors were created by the Piet Boon design agency; the neon skull comes courtesy of the South African artist Kendell Geers; the chandelier is by the Lebanese lighting designers .PSLAB, while the staff uniforms are made by the Dutch fashion label G-Star. Together, the building and its many detailed flourishes offer tongue-in-cheek hints at gastronomy being the new religion, but it’s never preachy or pretentious - it never quite takes itself seriously enough for that.
Meanwhile, the menu retains enough of Herman’s solid grounding as a disciplined master chef to let his creativity run amok. “The food is not the same as Oud Sluis, but it is our style,” he explains. “Some dishes we have brought from there, the classics. Now we want to cook more with what the farmers bring, just have a little bit more fun. The dishes change more than before and that gives us a breath of fresh air. It’s more free. It has a little less detail than before, but we keep our style, and that’s nice.”
Our interview coincides with the launch of Herman’s new book ‘Desire’, a chunky coffee-table tome dedicated to his time at Oud Sluis. The beautifully illustrated dish-by-dish memoir is an emotional farewell to a big chapter in his life, with positive regard for the next one. Herman’s final dish at Oud Sluis was called Pigeon Continues On Its Way, “Because I am like a pigeon... home-loving but likes to stretch its wings as well.” Sergio Herman has fled the nest and landed at The Jane. Who knows what heights he’ll reach next.