What are you doing?
I’ve been working in the kitchen for 47 years this year! My parents have always had a restaurant in Nieuwpoort in Belgium and I was even born in their restaurant. I started to work when I was 11 years old.
Well, then you immediately know what your calling is!
Have you also followed a chef’s training?
Yes, my father obliged me to. I did COOVI-PIVIT, the hotel school, for 7 years. My father died of stress at a young age, he was only 58 years old. I was allowed to run my parents’ restaurant, but I didn’t want to.
I left when I was 19 years old. I traveled a lot, I worked everywhere. I have worked in Israel, America, Morocco, Italy, Thailand, Greece, France, Germany and the Netherlands. I was alone then. Although I was married to another woman at the time, I had been gone for 10 years from those 20 years. I completely devoted myself to my work.
What did you do in Belgium?
The last five years in Belgium, I was head chef at Expo in Brussels. An exhibition hall, with ever changing events and festivities take place, the largest national and international trade fairs are organized there.
How did you end up in Spain?
About twenty years ago I lived here for a while. Until I went back to Belgium. I met my current wife in the restaurant where I worked then, in Brasschaat. I also opened a restaurant in Belgium, but that was a bit disappointing. The Brussels expo closed and they asked me if I would go to France, to work at the Paris expo, but my wife didn’t like that. I was also tired from the stress of the work for the Brussels Expo. We were both only working, we didn’t even see the kids grow up. Then we decided: we are leaving for Spain, this is it!
It is already the fifth season that we live here with our family.
Spain has always appealed to me.
So cooking is really your passion?
Yes, absolutely. I am always and only busy with cooking. Even when I’m free, I still watch cooking programs and read culinary magazines or search the internet for recipes. My wife Anja sometimes goes crazy.
But she says I can’t prepare everything, or we’ll all get too fat.
I think everyone is bothered by that now (Corona quarantine)
Yes, although I have to say: the last three weeks we have been eating vegan, no meat, no fish, no potatoes, nothing. Pure vegetables, I found it difficult at first, but I immersed myself in it via the internet. But my wife wants to prepare it herself, because otherwise she is afraid that I will put ingredients in it that don’t belong in it.
Vegan is very contemporary, I think Estepona is also waiting for that?
Yes, in the restaurant Cat’s Kitchen (part of Agrojardin), where I work, the food is also very natural, we make everything ourselves. We work with only fresh stuff, I am also working on a new menu and I think I will add a few vegan dishes.
Me and my Belgian Partner, Jan Staels, were working on a new project to set up: a Belgian brasserie in Estepona, with patisserie and ice cream parlor, all homemade. And we would open in May or June. We would also give workshops there. Jan Staels is well known in these areas. We were going to sign for the building and then Jan suddenly had to go to Belgium for his mother and that was fortunate in this case, because we had to be quarantined a week later. Otherwise we were now at sky-high costs. We live with 4 people at home, of course. My wife works as a waitress at Costa Natura. And with growing children, it all costs more, more, more.
So you met your wife Anja at the restaurant?
Yes, but it took two more years before we got into a relationship. We now have a daughter of 16 and a son of 13 years old.
What are the plans for Corona? Do you want to continue?
My partner is still in Belgium, he works now in a bakery. In any case, we will open, but when, that is still unclear. I’m going to cook Belgian and my partner does the pastry. We are going to do what we are good at. Wait and see if there still are visitors. It is a risk.
Where did you plan the brasserie?
The building we had in mind was opposite Cat’s Kitchen, it had all we would need… It was big enough, nice kitchen, great space for giving workshops. Well, we are going to see, but the brasserie will be near Estepona anyway.
What I regret is that Cat’s Kitchen is so far away, you don’t just get there walking.
No, but we are open on Friday and Saturday evenings and there are still 200 to 400 people. This is also because we have live music … The rest of the days the restaurant closes at six o’clock. Cat’s Kitchen is a hot, booming business. We would reopen on May 11, but we decided not to, as it makes no sense. Preparing everything alone costs a lot of money and we may only have so little capacity. Fortunately, we still have the ERTE (unemployment benefit), we have been locked up for 7 weeks, we will survive another month.
How did you end up in Estepona?
I started in Mijas at Max Beach, a Belgian restaurant and then I was asked to cook at Dominion Beach, a resort near Estepona. So we moved to Estepona, we lived in the center, near the sea, but we had no terrace. But we didn’t think that was important at the time, because we were only working. The kids were at school and a lot of family came along, so they were never alone in the summer. But after 6 months we missed a terrace.
My wife then decided to buy something in Manilva. We now have a very large terrace, 150m2.
I guess you are happy with that, now with this quarantine?
Phew, well! In Estepona we lived 100 meters from the beach, but if you can only sit inside … That’s not healthy, is it ?!
And your children? Did they go to a Spanish or an international school?
Our children went to a Spanish school from day one. They now go to school in Manilva. They have been living in Spain for four years now, my daughter Victoria speaks very well Spanish.
So your plans are basically: opening l’Atelier Belge and then stopping at Cat’s Kitchen?
Yes, but when we don’t know, of course … until then I will continue to work at Cat’s Kitchen, I will never ever leave them like that, because I love working there. I have two super bosses.
Are you much happier in Spain?
Yes, we were constantly stressed in Belgium. Here we have no stress. In Belgium I had to drive for 45 minutes to get to work. When I had to go to the Expo in Brussels, I sometimes had to leave at two o’clock at night…And then I wouldn’t come home until eight or nine in the evening … And my wife was only working too. That is not a life. We just didn’t see the kids.
Do you have a lot of friends coming over from Belgium?
Yes, in the beginning they all came, but in the meantime we have already made many friends here. Many Belgians live here, also in Manilva. And I work with two Belgian chefs, Toby and Jean-Pierre at Cat’s Kitchen. We have as well some Italian and English friends.
How is your Spanish?
I can do all my orders in Spanish and I understand it well, but speaking Spanish 100%…no I don’t. I barely speak Spanish in the kitchen. I can speak with someone quite well, but not without mistakes. I learned Spanish from colleagues, through collaboration. I arrived in Spain and immediately got to work. My wife speaks it a little bit and my daughter speaks it perfectly. Nicolas, my son, also speaks good Spanish. Our children speak well Spanish, Polish, Flemish, Dutch and English.
Because your wife is from Poland?
Yes and at home we speak English, Polish and Dutch. The children speak Polish with each other and with my wife.
What are your hobbies?
Is that all?
Yes, I don’t have any other hobbies. I am writing a book about cooking. About world cuisine. Now I have time for it. I write recipes, which I also come up with myself. I like the Mediterranean kitchen the most. I enjoy working with fish and shellfish. In combination with meat. And I only work with fresh products, I hate working with frozen products.
What is really your top dish? What are you known for?
In Spain I am known for the pot roast, the mussels. If I prepare that, they’ll go nuts! Cat’s Kitchen also has its own brewery, they make their own beer. And I invented some dishes with their beer, you can watch that on YouTube.
I never had a problem finding a job. I have already had 4 jobs in the past 5 years. I have twice been unlucky with employers who did not pay, Belgians too. But no further problem. I always have work through word of mouth and I am always the head of the kitchen.
That was disappointing…
‘You always live by the weather’ I always say, and when it’s gone it’s gone.
But the people in Estepona who helped me will be so rewarded. Anyhow, we are doing very well. In Belgium it was sometimes not so easy. I said to my wife: ‘We should have done this 20 years earlier!’
You want to keep cooking until the end and publish your cookbook?
My partner Jan Staels knows more about working with the computer than I do, so that’s great. When the restaurant opens, we simultaneously want to launch the book l’Atelier Belge. And the dishes published in the book, are there to taste in our brasserie and even more fun: they can also learn to make them in our workshops.
We are very busy with this book. But I have to make all the dishes I write down first, that is a problem. Not all ingredients can always be bought or found here. But I already have about forty dishes. It will be fine.
Where do you get the products for your cooking skills?
I get them locally, Cat’s kitchen is surrounded by many organic farmers. And the local butcher. Everything as fresh as possible. My boss also lets me free, we only want quality. For example, we have a burger that is baked on charcoal. We only bake on charcoal, by the way. That meat is perfect, you don’t have to do anything. Baking and ready. Other burgers are cheaper, but you can taste that too.
How long are your working days in general? As a chef you usually make long days, right?
Indeed, I worked for 7 out of 7 days with previous employers and every day during 10 to 12 hours.
Now in this job I have two days off and the other days I start at nine in the morning and I work 8 hours. The kitchen closes at four in the afternoon, except on Friday and Saturday. In the summer we are open in the evenings, but then we work in two shifts. So usually on Friday and Saturday I make long days, about 12 to 13 hours.
I was already training staff for the summer.
What do you do on your days off?
Reading cooking magazines on the terrace. My wife thinks I’m crazy. But she usually cooks and she does that well.
How long have you lived in Manilva now?
We have been living in Manilva for 7 months now. It is much more quiet here and we have no problems with parking. That was a problem in Estepona. Coming home in the evening in the summer and then driving around for half an hour, cursing to find a parking space. Here I have a garage and a terrace. And I live 180 meters from the sea with a fantastic view. But what I do miss is going for a walk with my wife after work and have a drink somewhere, you don’t do that here, you still need the car. Now we have a drink on our own terrace. We already have our usual spot in Manilva and then we meet our friends from here.
What do you think is the best restaurant in Estepona?
Taberna Miguel, one of the best in Estepona, a Spanish restaurant. Super good food. The owner goes sailing in the morning and catches fish and when I meet him he says what kind of fish he has caught. My criticism always drives my wife and children crazy. I pay attention to everything. We go for dinner as often as we can. Another favorite is Restaurante Playa in Sabinillas. This month everybody in our family is celebrating their birthday. But now in quarantine we can’t go for dinner, that saves a lot of money. We go out a lot, but not always in luxury. It also depends on what the children want to eat: which is usually pizza. And I also like to drink a glass of white wine, but that is not useful when I still have to drive a car.
What do you like most about Estepona?
There is a lot of tourism in Estepona, but there are also a lot of Spaniards. I like to hang out with them. At least there aren’t too many screaming English people here. Spaniards can also be noisy, they also like to party. But Estepona is going to be booming, ‘the place to be’.
What annoys you in Spain?
The bureaucracy. Not only in Estepona, but everywhere. The opposite is also true. Some things go faster here than in Belgium… Hospitals, for example, are well organized. Only at times you have to wait longer for an appointment.
And not being able to park is of course irritating… fortunately that doesn’t bother me in Manilva.
Do you have any holiday plans?
I promised to the children that we would rent a mobile home and that we would then drive through Spain in the autumn: visit Extremadura etc … See how that is.
Do you want to continue living in Spain?
Yes, I will not leave and neither will my wife. The children can choose what they want to do themselves, they must lead their own lives. Sometimes they idealize Belgium. When they are 18 years old they decide what they want. You can’t stop that. They are always welcome.