Feasting Famously with Chef Bart Vandaele
Top Chef Season 10 contestant and owner/Chef of DC’s own Belga Café lunches with us for his thoughts on the DC food scene, where he thinks it’s trending, and wonders if DC is ready for Michelin stars.
Walking down the restaurant and bar lined Barrack’s Row neighborhood of Capitol Hill, I see many familiar haunts that serve cold beer, and I am sure, decent food. Yet I am comforted with each step I take as it brings me closer to Belga Café.
Opened in 2004 by Chef Bart, this place has been consistently cranking out some seriously delicious Belgian-inspired food, providing amazing mussels, and some of the all-around best dishes (and beers) to be found in the District. However, it’s not Chef Bart’s entertaining and hilariously hard-to-understand-sometimes performance on Top Chef Season 10 that brings me here…ok, well, it sort of is. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to have lunch with this guy. He’s always happy, he had a crazy ass partner Josie in the last challenge that resulted in his elimination (tear), oh yeah, and there’s mussels on the half-shell with garlic butter and an ice cold Kasteel Rouge waiting for me on the inside. Onward we march in the name of food journalism!
Sitting at a small table by the bar, I look up in time to see Chef Bart jovially walking toward our table wearing a red/blue/orange plaid shirt, a brown Lacoste vest, and an amazingly patterned scarf – damn I wish I was European. He sits, orders coffee, and we chat.
To start, if you want to shop like Chef Bart, hit the “Social Safeway” in Georgetown. “It really depends where you are in DC,” he says, “back in my old days working at the Embassy, we would always shop at the ‘Social Safeway.’ It’s true! It is a social Safeway, and it really is a pick-up Safeway. It’s the happiest Safeway and it’s the best Safeway.” This makes me happy to hear (non-DC dwellers, sorry, you won’t get this).
Chef Bart isn’t exactly buying all vegetables to keep his lean frame. Despite the fact that he and his girlfriend (sorry ladies) travel often, when they head back to their home in Alexandria, they cook, and I mean cook. “We really keep it simple, she travels a lot so when you come home, you just really want, something like sausage baked in butter, peas and carrots, and steamed potatoes.” Wait…that is simple?!? He honestly laughs and says, “Hey, when you’re at home, that’s comfort food.” He goes on to say his friends come over and they cook, “chicken wrapped with ham and cheese sauce, with mashed potatoes.” I mean really? I feel bad for whoever lives next to Chef Bart – those burgers and hot dogs you serve your guests just aren’t stacking up my friend.
When he’s not cooking simple food for his friends (I’m still waiting on my invite to come over Chef), he likes to go where he feels welcome and comfortable. Extreme formality does not appear to jive with Chef Bart. “When we’re out and don’t really know where to go, and we want to feel at home,” he says, “we always go to Brabo.;” referring to award winning Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s Alexandria restaurant. “We really are always so welcome there, if you don’t know where to go, you don’t have to think too much, we just go there. We are never disappointed.”
Heading into the District for those of us normal people who actually have social skills and are not forced to the lonely suburbs, Chef Bart says, “I love places like The Source. “Scott Drewno, just has a different style of cuisine which is always so nice,” referring to the Executive Chef of Wolfgang Puck’s DC spot next to the Newseum.
“I was always a big fan of Central when Cedric was there,” Chef Bart continues. Cedric in this case being Chef de Cuisine Cedric Maupillier who spent years working at La Cotes St. Jacques, a three star Michelin restaurant in France before coming to the States to spend two years working under Michel Richard as Sous Chef at Citronelle, and ultimately opening Central Michel Richard in January of 2007. Cedric is now at the helm of the wildly successful Adams Morgan hot-spot Mintwood Place. “We like Mintwood now also,” he of course adds.
“I still like Zatinya…I like Mike also, we were at his place Graffiato for New Year’s in fact. And Bandolero we just did also. He’s really, really good and he’s fun to hang out with – he’s pretty much crazy.”
I feel obliged to ask what Chef Bart thinks of Spike Mendelsohn given the closeness with which people speak of Mike Isabella and Spike. “I think he’s a good Chef, but he puts himself completely on the other side,” Chef Bart says of Spike. “He goes a little bit more towards the ‘fast-casual.’ Is it a business choice – yes. Is it a wise one – I think definitely. Look at the lines out there, it’s always packed.”
It is packed, and it is true Spike has found a niche in the DC food scene. So I want to know what Chef Bart thinks of the DC food scene, especially as an outsider coming from working in two and three Michelin stared restaurants throughout Europe. “I came over here and it’s like ‘oh let’s go here, let’s go and explore, let’s just go and see what we have.”
He continues adding, “I’m spoiled big time, but [to begin with] you had one or two places in DC that were really, really fantastic. And then Citronelle came and it [the DC food scene] went up a bit, but now, it’s really, really exploding. It puts everyone on the edge, you can’t slack anymore. New York is coming, the Europeans are come. It’s good, it’s getting more competitive, everyone’s turning it up and that’s good. It will be hard competition. Is it good – yes.”
Is DC ready for three-stared Michelin again?
Speaking of Michelin stars, I ask Chef Bart if he thinks DC will ever get to that Michelin level of a city. “It’s weird; I’ve been questioning that myself. One of my favorite places is Fiola, but it’s not what he could be for a maestro. These are all very, very good, but can you compare that to a three-star that you have in New York, or LA, or Chicago, I don’t know. I mean, Komi is like, the best place in DC, but is that really comparable to any of those guys from NY, I don’t know. But is it a choice for Komi and people in DC to do things this way, yes, absolutely. The other big question is, ‘is that what DC wants?’ and ‘is DC ready for three-stared Michelin again?’”
Honestly, he makes a great point, and follows it with the reason that I love the DC food scene. Chef Bart says, “The quality of affordable food in DC is way higher. The top came down and the bottom came up, and that’s symptomatic of DC and what it wants.” I couldn’t agree more. I think DC has the best, most affordable restaurants than any other city, and is perfect for the current market.
Ok, moving on to Top Chef (that’s why you’re reading this right?). If you are a fan of Top Chef, or saw a few episodes from Season 10, you’ll notice that Chef Bart often gets criticized for under-seasoning, or under-salting to be more specific, his food. He was even eliminated from the show for under seasoning rice, according to the judges. So as a fan, I had to know and asked point blank, does he think he under seasons his food? “I don’t think at all, you’ve been here multiple times [speaking to me], so you tell me?” I of course, say no, and I mean it. Nothing that has ever come from the kitchen at Belga Café has been anything less than amazing. “Do I season lighter? Probably. When I see how much salt my colleagues are using, and using on their own food while they eat, I don’t do that. Second, think of this, the next program they did, the sponsor was Healthy Choice. ‘Less salt, less salt, less salt’ everyone told me. Not very healthy choice friendly.” He smirks.
Chef Bart is the reason people like chefs. So maybe you’ve never met him, but you know him. The fun, casual guy who doesn’t take himself, or his restaurant too seriously, but that takes pride in everything he does and is meticulous without being pompous. He’s not just funny, he’s fun to be around with a contagious personality. Oh, and his food is beyond good – that’s a fact.
If you’ve never been to Café Belga, go now. Also, tweet at Chef Bart, “I’m learning to tweet” he says. Tell him @HungryLobbyist sent you. Hell, maybe it’ll score me an invite to one of those, chicken wrapped in ham and cheese parties he’s always having!
For those who are scared of the elephants and donkeys always fighting near the Hill, his new restaurant, B TOO, opens off the popular 14th Street NW this Spring.