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.”