Geert and I met in 1999 when I started as a sommelier at the two-Michelin-starred Molentje restaurant in Zeebrugge, where he was the second chef. After one week we went for a drink after work and we just clicked. We had the same vision, philosophy and drive in our job, but not only that – we also became very close friends and we still are.
Because we got on so well we decided to stay working together and at a certain moment someone asked us to run his wine bistro. That place was already called Hertog Jan – we didn’t choose the name – and we moved there; Geert as the chef and I was responsible for front of house. Little by little we changed the bistro into a restaurant and after three years we wanted to do our own thing.
One of the ideas was to start a new restaurant, maybe in Bruges, but our boss suggested we could take over his restaurant instead, so we decided to do that. We had worked hard there for three years and we had started to be known, we had some articles in magazines and it was working well.
At that time it was quite simple. There was a kitchen and a dining room, the customers knew Geert in the kitchen, me out front. Taking over the restaurant was a good decision; of course we had to pay our former boss for the restaurant but otherwise you have to start with buying or hiring a building and design the kitchen, so there are a lot of things to do and you have a lot of more costs when you start like that.
We took over the place on 1 July 2005 and in November we received the first Michelin star. We were always very driven. Geert was busy in the kitchen, me in the service – we tried to do the best we could. After four years we received a second star.
When we became friends, when we went for that drink, we were dreaming like little boys. And our dream was always to receive three stars. We never said that in public, but it was our drive and ambition.
At that time we were hiring the premises and we thought it would be good to invest in a building, but we also wanted to add something extra to the experience of eating and drinking, so we looked for a new location. We wanted a unique place and we found the old farm where we are now.
A certain tranquillity
We also have a lot of land here where we can grow our own vegetables so it was nice to see the whole story was starting to click. You need a certain time to find your identity and to have your own style. At Hertog Jan we are always thinking about how we can do better, but we are at a point where we can say with confidence about things, “yes, that is something we can do” or we say, “no, that is not for Hertog Jan”. That gives a relaxed feeling it may also be because we got a bit older and wiser, it gives a certain tranquillity.
I wasn’t always front of house. I went to hotel school in Belgium and you always have both cooking and serving. During school I loved the cooking more than the serving – in school you always have to clean things during service and it was very boring. But serving is so much more than that and I discovered this through a weekend job at a one-star restaurant in Ostend. I asked for a job in the kitchen but they only had a place in the service. So I took that – I thought it is important to know about both sides.
I stayed there for my entire school time and I could grow and discovered the nice thing about service, the contact with the guests, making up the dining room, dealing with problems. That was the moment I decided service might be something that suits me better than the kitchen and then I specialised more in the service side. I followed an extra year with special education for sommeliers, then afterwards I started working as a sommelier and I followed a few extra courses on wine. So in the beginning of my career I was really focused on being a sommelier. I won some prizes, I was sommelier of Belgium in 2004 and in 2011 the restaurant customers in Belgium voted me as sommelier of the year.
In 2005 we had just one cook and one server, but we went from zero stars to three stars in six years, so that is quite fast and sometimes it was very hard to manage all those things because you need more staff and you have to manage it.
From the start Geert and I were very compatible. I am good at organising and he is very creative. Sometimes he comes up with ideas and I give them shape because I am better at organising. It is a good collaboration; we understand each other very well. I know who he is he knows who I am, we don’t have secrets, we are very open. People often ask us ‘how can you do it” because we don’t have investors, we paid for it all ourselves, we don’t have rich parents so we worked very hard and we know how hard it was to reach this point and we know we can have a bad day and we are here for each other.
I am the godfather of his oldest daughter, sometimes we go on holiday together as families. It is almost like I am a brother or a part of the family, it feels very good.
It was very natural when we first met, maybe it sounds a bit strange but it was like we fell in love – we had a connection and it feels so good and without words, we don’t have to explain, it just works well. We respect each other. People don’t believe it but in all these years we have not had a fight. Sometimes you have a discussion but we will talk about it.
Geert will always say “I can run the restaurant with you but not with my wife”. That is nice, it gives a comfortable feeling.