This past summer, while preparing for a series of eight-year anniversary festivities for Belga Café, Washington D.C.’s first Belgian restaurant, planning the opening of a second restaurant, B Too, and acting as national brand ambassador for Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Leffe, Chef Bart Vandaele quietly slipped away for several weeks to compete on Top Chef Seattle, which premieres November 7, 2012, on Bravo.
Why take on this challenge in the midst of one of the busiest times in his life? Vandaele reflects, “It comes at the best and the worst time in my life. Everything in life goes like this. It cannot be better — and worse — at the same time.” Why television and why now? “It’s the next level, the next step, an honor. Plus, I am the first Belgian chef to be on!” He was able to pull off his disappearing act during this hectic time only with the help of those around him. “You prepare and hope that every team member that has been with you does their job. And they did! I have good people around me. My chef and sous chef have been with me for seven and a half years. I have cleaning and prep staff that have been with me from day one.”
Returning from filming, Vandaele hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, he may have added one. Even though he and his staff celebrate each of Belga Café‘s milestones, this year’s festivities are particularly, well, festive. “It’s a big year for me, so why not celebrate? I’m very proud of it!” A pioneer of sorts, not just in serving Belgian cuisine, but also in opening his flagship restaurant in the Barracks Row neighborhood eight years ago, Vandaele says of Belga Café‘s 8th Street location, “I was, in a way, the godfather of that street. In the beginning, everyone thought we were crazy, but it was all I could afford at the time. Now, there are many new restaurants coming to my street. And, so we are always evolving, always upgrading.”
As the neighborhood has changed, so has diners’ appreciation for quality beer. Almost a decade ago, beer played a distant second fiddle to wine at most restaurants. Not at Belga Café, which has always boasted a lengthy and unique beer list, however. “We are the first ones to embrace that, but I think beer is more accessible and has more flavor facets than wine. Wine is very fragile. With beer, there’s a little bit less mistakes you can make and, at the same time, you have more possibilities. You can cook a dish with a sweet beer and then pair it with a sour beer.”
If it sounds like Vandaele does things differently, it’s because he does. Namely, he does things the Belga way. He explains, “The Belga way is pretty much a line in between American/Belgian/European conventions and my way. We’re making little tweaks left and right about how things are done. It’s the whole philosophy. Really, it’s all about the joie de vivre and the lifestyle of Belgium!”
Chef Vandaele is fond of saying “Everything with a ‘b’ is better,” so it’s no surprise that his newest restaurant is named B Too. He reveals, “It’s going to be a little bit bigger, and bolder. We’re going to be even more Belgian! We’ll have a waffle bar and a beer and wine cellar. We’re bringing in a chef from Belgium. The cooking though, is going to be recognizable; you’ll see that it’s from my hand.”
Nearly a decade after opening (“It still feels like yesterday,” Vandaele admits), he chalks up the continued success and popularity of Belga Café to ”work, work, work for your guests.” He adds, “The guests are the most important thing. It’s not about me, the ratings, or the numbers I do. It’s giving the people who come in the perfect experience. That’s the key to longevity.”
Join Chef Vandaele and his team this week as they fete eight delicious years of Belga Café. October 23rd kicks off the launch of $15.99 Mussel Tuesdays. Enjoy Belgium’s national dish for just $15.99 per pot or enjoy one of Belga’s other two special mussel dishes, including The Mussel Sandwich. On October 24th at 6:30PM, attend the Leopold II Wine Dinner. An Old World feast of classic Belgian cuisine will feature caviar, foie gras, and elite wines from Belga’s cellar. $179 per guest includes wine pairings. The next night, on October 25th at 6:30PM, attend the 8-for-$80 Tasting Menu Dinner. Chef Vandaele will be your guide on an eight-course journey through Belgium’s culinary landscape. On October 26, stroll by Belga’s Sidewalk Waffle Cart to enjoy sweet and savory waffles hot off the iron. On Saturday, October 27th, roll out of bed in PJs and head straight for the Belga Pajama Brunch from 9AM-4PM to sip a complimentary mimosa, and choose from sweet and savory waffles, crepes, omelettes, and more. Finally, go upscale early in the day on Sunday, October 28th at Belga Café’s Champagne and Chocolate Decadence Brunch. Raise a glass of Champagne with Chef Vandaele and indulge in a delicious brunch dish. Click here to reserve and learn more about these events.
B Too is set to open December 12, 2012, at 1324 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. Check back for more news on this welcome addition to the D.C. dining scene. And don’t forget to tune in to Top Chef Seattle to cheer for Chef Vandaele!