An another wildly credulous, adoring profile of a chef, Kobe Desramaults and his merry team of ambitious young foraging and fermentation majors, all blissfully devoted to creating precious food in a precious echo chamber, for the delectation of precious food-tourists. The food is so devastating! There aren’t nearly enough of these profiles in the food world!
“The dish, like its title, is a devastating little poem about the place Kobe Desramaults calls home. A reminder of how many times this corner of the world has been decimated by war, and come back.
With his Michelin-starred restaurant, In De Wulf (The Wolf), Kobe Desramaults is the latest innovative chef to turn nowhere — here, a remote corner of Belgium — into a culinary somewhere.
“So what do people think of the skulls?”- asks Kobe in the kitchen from his crew members. It’s the predinner huddle at In De Wulf, the isolated restaurant in the foggy hills of Dranouter, on the northwestern edge of Belgium, and the chef, Kobe Desramaults, wants to know if serving food on bones instead of on plates might be creeping out the customers.
Well? old English cook with a dark goatee, referring to the interns. The narrow skulls actually belong to Duroc pigs from just over the border in France.
Kobe Desramaults cutting into a lamb’s head before preparing brains. Right: pork head cheese, served on the skull of a Duroc pig raised for the restaurant in the nearby French town of Borre
Desramaults turned the meat into silky bites of head cheese and blasted the bones in the oven until they were pristine, but the skulls were still unmistakably … skull-shaped. Desramaults smiles, bouncing his weight from one foot to the other. He is 33 and built like an old-timey boxer, tall, broad-shouldered and tattooed, with eloquent blue eyes and a mess of long curls. Belgium’s finer kitchens have long aspired to mimic those of the French, but at both In De Wulf and his bistro De Vitrine in nearby Ghent, Desramaults riffs on the cuisine of his native Flanders, Belgium’s overlooked Flemish region where Dutch is the first language. For those who trek to the backwoods of Dranouter, often staying the night in one of the beautifully spare guest rooms after dinner, Desramaults is quietly turning out some of the most exciting tasting menus in the world.
He doesn’t import ingredients from afar, choosing instead to conjure fireworks with what he can find nearby and in neighboring French and Flemish villages — vegetables grown by organic farmers down the road, fruits and flowers foraged in the hills, wild mushrooms from the Ardennes forest, fish and sea kale from rocky pockets on the northern coast. He is fluent in modern gastronomic techniques such as the use of liquid nitrogen and sous-vide baths, sure, but he studies older traditions too, like aging meat. Take the single-subject pigeon dish served at In De Wulf, which hangs with the guts intact to deepen its funk, then rests again filled and covered with hay. After seven weeks, the meat is the color of a bruise. Desramaults serves it smoked, thinly sliced, and with no fork in sight — because, he says, “it’s good for people to eat with their hands.”
Desramaults is a country boy. He grew up the middle child of two working-class Flemish parents who bought an old farmhouse the year he was born and opened In De Wulf, which they ran as a cafe, peddling meat and potatoes to locals and the folk musicians who visited to perform. He did the dishes when he wanted to earn money to buy a new skateboard or take out a girl. But after a few years apprenticing in fine-dining kitchens in Spain and the Netherlands, he convinced his mother to let him take over the struggling restaurant in the middle of a field, far away from the gleaming dining capitals of Europe. By the time he was 25, Michelin was calling about a star.
Some chefs change their menus with the season, but Desramaults is constantly editing, so these daily meetings feel more like workshops. “One table complained yesterday that the crab had too much vinegar,” he says, raising thick, ginger-hued eyebrows and looking around at his crew. They are not afraid to speak up. “Not one table,” the baby-faced Flemish sommelier jumps in, “just one person at one table.” But Desramaults, brooding, tinkers with the crab before service, tasting and retasting, asking cooks to share their notes at the steel island behind the line. The dish is more precise now: sheer slices of raw pear compressed with bright tarragon vinegar, rolled around spoonfuls of sweet, creamy crab meat from the North Sea. Like many of his dishes, it evokes a walk through the countryside of Flanders, the wilderness edging in.
The loft office above the dining room was Desramaults’s home before he moved into an apartment in the village with his girlfriend. Here, surrounded by cookbooks and framed photographs of his family, he writes a weekly column for the daily newspaper De Morgen, confessing his fascination with Marco Pierre White, the famously temperamental British chef who had three Michelin stars by the time he was Desramaults’s age, or telling the story of one of his dishwashers. He’s enough of a superstar in Belgium that fans ask to take pictures with him in the dining room, and his Facebook post on minister Hilde Crevits’s plan to turn Zeebrugge into a hub for seafood from Vietnam was picked up by national papers and radio stations — but during service he works right next to his stagiaires, peeling walnuts or picking yellow petals from clusters of mustard flowers, participating in the endless, delicate grunt work of the kitchen.
This comradeship may have something to do with why he’s generally adored by his cooks. His crew is remarkably close, living together in three houses in Ghent, two for cooks and wait staff, the other for stagiaires. Regardless of their rank, they say Desramaults is like an older brother, a teacher, unlike any chef they’ve worked for in the past. Desramaults didn’t go to college, but in a way he’s built the only university that might have appealed to him, full of ambitious young foraging and fermentation majors who are such nerds, they take on esoteric independent studies in their free time. Rose Greene, In De Wulf’s brainy Irish sous-chef, has just come across a forgotten technique for making drinking sodas with whey left over from making yogurt or cheese. She already keeps a detailed logbook to track her fermentation projects, which include over 25 kinds of vinegars and a dangerously rich and salty miso made with raw Flanders Red beef.
Sarah Lemke, who goes by Biggie, is a short, gravelly-voiced American with the muscular arms of a welder. A friend forwarded her Desramaults’s tweet about a job opening and it led her from rural Wisconsin to Flanders, where she’s mastered chewy sourdoughs with Belgium’s softer wheats. Her newest project is a gorgeous, hefty rye, layered with sprouted, fermented and coarsely ground rye berries, cooked outside in the wood-fired oven. Lemke’s breads are so good, in fact, that Desramaults has decided to open a bakery in Ghent with her next year.
“F.Y.I., chef, we only have one more diaper in the house!” Lemke shouts from the fermentation room. Eight weeks ago, Desramaults and his girlfriend, Eva Devriendt, an artist he first met when she picked up work at the restaurant as a dishwasher, had a baby girl. Mira, wearing a hooded onesie with bear ears, is tucked under a blanket, napping in a car seat in the pastry kitchen while Devriendt demolishes the staircase of the family’s new home, which is located on a sprawling farm with a long-defunct brick brewery that was stripped of its copper piping by the Germans in World War I. During the staff’s family meal, Labron-Johnson, the cook, sits on the tiled stairs with Mira on his knees while he takes sideways bites of baked fish and potato. “Oh, look,” he whispers, “she’s stopped crying!” It’s fair to say that the level of devotion Desramaults draws from his crew is unusual.
Early winter in west Flanders can be particularly dreary: the gray clouds low as a basement ceiling, the rain turning fields into bogs of boot-sucking mud. There is peppery watercress and a predictable range of root vegetables, but not much else is growing, so Desramaults evokes freshness with pickles, vinegars, syrups and sugar he infused with meadowsweet petals earlier in the year. When he gets word from his father about a wild medlar — a tree that, in the winter, bears fruit that is somewhere between an apple and a rose hip — he immediately hops into his black Range Rover and sets off to find it in the woods. There are no signs on the path, but with help from his father on the phone, he finds the tree. As he pulls down dozens of small medlars with soft, slightly wrinkled husks, filling up a cardboard box, a passerby scolds him: “Le petit voleur!” The little thief.
As a teenager, Desramaults says, “I could never focus on what didn’t interest me.” He was kicked out of several schools, went through a brief phase of vegetarianism and showed loyalty to his gang of teenage skateboarders by shaving its initials into the hair on the back of his head with some help from his younger brother. Ghent, an hour by car from Dranouter, is where he went with friends to drink and to go out. On the night of the launch party for his second restaurant, about two years ago, he celebrated by jumping into the freezing canal that winds its way through the city’s medieval architecture.
De Vitrine, his restaurant here, is a former butcher shop where meat rails still line the ceiling, cheekily named for the distinguishing feature of its neighboring street, where prostitutes sit in the massive windows playing Candy Crush in shiny knickers, waiting for customers. Every two weeks, Desramaults drives over to hammer out a new menu with his cooks. The food at De Vitrine seems casual only because it’s a noisy little brasserie. But the dishes are clever and complex, and just as preoccupied with regional ingredients — Desramaults brings along tubs of thick, yellowish cream from the In De Wulf walk-in, and the same farmers send organic pork and vegetables.
His cooks sit down at an empty booth together, get a few macho jokes out of the way, then talk flavors and techniques with intensity, running through the new dishes in Desramaults’s head one by one, from a wintry mussel broth made with white beer to a tart rose-hip ice cream. One of his farmers in Dranouter has grown pale, sweet celery, and he wants them to weave it into karnemelkstampers, a traditional Flemish peasant dish made with mashed potatoes and buttermilk served differently all over the region — with grey shrimp on the coast, poached eggs and soft white cheese in the city. De Vitrine will serve it as hot, creamy potato froth with lobster from Oosterschelde, an estuary over the Dutch border.
Much of the seafood Desramaults works with comes from Dunkirk, the ancient fishing town nearby on the northern French coast, which was heavily bombed during the German occupation in World War II. That’s where he gets the scallops for a particularly soulful dish at In De Wulf, described on the menu as “scallop of Dunkerque roasted in algae and ashes.” The dish, like its title, is a devastating little poem about the place he calls home. A reminder of how many times this corner of the world has been decimated by war, and come back. Like so much of the work he does, it acts as a signpost to the nooks and crannies of Flanders and the borders of its map, where Kobe Desramaults finds wild and beautiful things can grow, among the roots and rocks, and even in the rubble.
Post by Tejal Rao