Food & Drink

A short walk from the garden: Belgian chef Gert De Mangeleer is succeeding in self-sufficiency

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

During the mild months of early summer, the garden at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Hertog Jan — located 20 minutes outside of the Belgian city of Bruges — is in full bloom. The pale orange outlines of butternut squash peek out from beneath a thick cover of wide, flat leaves. Radishes grow in neat rows along one edge, while golden nasturtium flowers sprout in another corner. But Hertog Jan’s garden functions as more than fancy landscape design: it is an experiment in self-sufficiency.

The lush expanse covers an area of more than 1.5 hectares and provides the restaurant with around 600 kinds of plants throughout the year — 95 percent of the vegetables, fruits and herbs used in the kitchen. The garden is where chef-patron Gert De Mangeleer goes for inspiration.

“I walk around three to five times a day and get ideas from smelling the vegetables, looking at the colors and checking what’s really fresh,” he says. “I always start with vegetables and then build my dishes around them.”

With a head of closely cropped brown curls and a trim, athletic build, the 37-year-old De Mangeleer radiates a boyish exuberance when he talks about food and cooking. He grew up in the kitchen — figuratively and literally — working in neighborhood restaurants from the age of 14. By the time he was 22, he had already become the head chef of a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Bruges, where he met his future business partner, sommelier Joachim Boudens. Eventually, the two friends decided to strike out on their own. They took over the original Hertog Jan in 2005 — which was then a brasserie serving tavern fare such as meatballs in tomato sauce and beef stew — and transformed the humble eatery into a progressive fine-dining establishment. Five years later, De Mangeleer became the youngest chef in Belgian history to be awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide.

Even before the lofty praise, De Mangeleer and Boudens had set their sights on expansion.

“We knew we had more potential. We had grown quickly from a team of two people to a staff of 30, but the old location was quite small,” the chef recalls.

Space, however, was not the only consideration. They were looking for a place that would reflect the unique personality of the restaurant and root Hertog Jan firmly in its home terrain of West Flanders. They were inspired by dining destinations such as Bras, a modernist haven set amid idyllic pastures in the south of France, where pioneering chef Michel Bras created a style of cooking based on the plants cultivated in a vast garden surrounding the restaurant. De Mangeleer wanted to try growing his own fruits and vegetables, so he and Boudens purchased the farmland where Hertog Jan now stands and started planting the fields, adding new crops year by year. After a lengthy (and costly) renovation of the 180-year-old barn that overlooks the property, the restaurant reopened in 2014.

The design of the new space embodies the spirit of the cuisine — contemporary, clean and finely calibrated — while embracing the history of the building and its environment. The barn, with its vaulted roof and massive red doors intact, houses a high-tech kitchen that can be viewed through large glass windows from the adjoining dining room — a sleek glass box outfitted with dark wood, stone and leather accents. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the marvelous grounds.

When I arrive for dinner in late May, Boudens invites me to stroll around the garden before taking me to my table. “It helps relax the mind,” he says.

The garden is the leitmotif that runs throughout Hertog Jan’s eclectic tasting menu. An avid traveler, De Mangeleer works with international influences while staying true to his locavore philosophy. The deconstructed pork terrine — an elevated take on a classic Belgian dish — comes garlanded with a bouquet of green herbs and delicate purple chive blossoms. Langoustine dim sum dumplings are wrapped in bright orange slices of raw butternut squash and bathed in a creamy seafood bisque. In a nod to Michel Bras’ iconic Gargouillou dish, “A Walk through the Garden” showcases the ever-changing bounty of Hertog Jan’s farm, with dozens of vegetables and edible flowers served in different preparations. Each bite brings to mind the plants I had seen earlier.

One of the highlights of the meal is a single, perfect spear of white asparagus, grilled with kimchi and covered in a mousseline of smoked bone marrow sprinkled with bottarga. Although Hertog Jan is not a vegetarian restaurant, De Mangeleer casts his vegetables in starring roles.

“In the end, the food is quite natural — just vegetables, herbs, meat, and fish that we try to combine in an artistic way,” he says.

Before I leave the restaurant, the chef hands me a palm-sized folder decorated with drawings of flowers. “Something to take home with you from Flanders,” he says. Inside, I find the menu, along with a tiny vial containing fennel seeds from the garden.

This autumn, De Mangeleer’s travels will bring him to Japan for a series of dinner collaborations in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. The events will kick off on Nov. 24 at Florilege in Tokyo’s Aoyama area, where he will cook for three nights alongside chef Hiroyasu Kawate. On Dec. 2 and 3, De Mangeleer will be the guest chef at Rakushin in Osaka, before wrapping up his tour of Japan at Kyoto’s Gion Ichido on Dec. 6 and 7.

Florilege 2-5-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 03-6440-0878; Rakushin 1-6-14 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka; Gion Ichido 589 Gion-machi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. For more information on Hertog Jan, visit www.hertog-jan.com.

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