When Kobe Desramaults was 23, he cut short a series of stages at restaurants around the world to return home and save his mother's restaurant. Home was Dranouter, a village in West Flanders that most would describe as being in the middle of nowhere. Gradually, Desramaults managed to help his mother out of debt and turn what was a French-style bistro ("It attracted lots of people from across the border because it was cheaper," he says) into a soulful, ambitious restaurant that couldn't exist anywhere else. In De Wulf, which has a few rooms upstairs for those that come in for lunch and dinner, is now among the world's most noted destination restaurants. In the following interview, Desramaults talks about getting into cooking, what he does at the restaurant, and his goals for the future.
How did you get interested in cooking?
My mother used to have a restaurant, and I was around it when I was a kid. But when I was twelve to the point where I was like 18, I didn't really care about it. I went to a lot of schools because it didn't really appeal to me. I didn't find too many things I was interested in, so it turned out bad. When I was eighteen, my mother sent me to an apprenticeship to a restaurant because it was the only option left. That's how it started.
What happened next?
I started working in a place called Picasso in the countryside here. It was a little place, and it was just me and the chef. From then on, I went to Oud Sluis, which at that point had two Michelin stars. I was there for two years, which was a big influence on me and grew my passion. I worked for ten months with Carles Abellan at Comerç 24, and then I came back home. My mother was going to sell the restaurant, and I didn't want that to happen. She gave me a shot to take it over. She gave it one year, and that's what it took to get some attention and get things going a little better.
So In De Wulf is in the same place your family's restaurant used to be?
In 1979, my parents bought the farm here and started up a little bistro. After a few years, they built some extra rooms, and that's how they carried on.
This a broad question, so take a stab at it any way you like: what do you do at In De Wulf?
It's a bit silly nowadays to say that you cook locally, but it's true: we try to be as creative as possible with what's around us and try to develop a community with people. We want to be as self-sustainable as we can. That's difficult, because it's hard to find ambitious farmers. But for the last years, it's been better. We've been able to start shaping things in that philosophy.
The dishes we serve are usually very, very simple. I try to use as few ingredients as possible in a dish. I like that style of cooking, as it allows to give you more of a memory. If you have a dish with two or so ingredients that really blow you away, it's going to stay in your mind. We have about twenty little courses inspired by that idea.
What's an example of a dish that reflects your approach?
We made a dish of fresh sunchokes that come from our farmer. We just roast them and cook them in very good butter for like four hours straight, very slowly. At the end, no butter comes inside, but the inside ends up being like a vegetable foie gras. I'd rather not serve regular foie gras, so I just do that and serve it sliced. It changes people's perception on ingredients, I think. And it's not technically crazy. It's just effort and time, and it yields something new in a way.
I hate the feeling of going to a restaurant and then not being able to move afterwards. I don't want to feel like I need to go right to bed. That's why I like to keep everything balanced and small, without ingredients that are too heavy.
And what are some products that you use that would help the case that what you do is unique?
Here's a good example: we are going to start working hop fruits in a few weeks, and we'll only have them for a short time. These are the little white shoots that, at the beginning of the season, still remain in the ground. You have to pick them up with your hands because it's so fragile. They look like little soy beans. It's nice peppery, crispy kind of vegetable. We have them for a few weeks here because it's such a moderate climate. Other regions have them for even less.
Let's talk about the issue of remoteness. How did coming here after working in big cities affect you as a cook?
When I first started here, I was very influenced by Oud Sluis, which is completely different. I thought that is the cooking I wanted to do. I started buying all my products from the big markets in Paris, and then I started thinking about what we were actually doing here. How can I work with my neighbor? I started to get curious about the things growing around here, and I started building a kind of team in the community. We really try to communicate that to guests and tell them that certain dishes might only be on the menu for a day or two, because that's how long the product is around. I want the menu to be organic and adaptive.
I love it. It's hard to have a restaurant in this location because you don't have people dropping in. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun and it's great to see people who make a day out of coming here. They are informed and ready to have this experience. They are open to it. That freedom as a chef is amazing.
Who is coming to the restaurant these days?
The restaurant is just on the border with France, so when my mom was running the bistro, it was mostly French. But as I took over, it became more Flemish. Now, it's fifty percent Flemish, thirty percent French, and the rest foreigners.
Just how hard was it at the beginning, and when did that change?
My mother was in lots of debt, so from the beginning it was difficult. Selling it would have been the way to make some money. So, it was harder to get out of that than just me starting up a new restaurant. But it didn't make sense to me to let that go. I spent my youth there on those fields with my friends. That's the biggest part of who I am. It's only been two years that we've been making profit as a restaurant.
No one came in for weeks at the beginning, but we got a review in a local magazine that was very good. That made us a full restaurant, and then little by little other things started happening. But it came in waves because we were so remote and far away.
How many people do you have in the kitchen? It seems like many, many cooks want to stage there?
We have six stages and six chefs. I love having them. I love the idea of being able to travel and see things as a young cook. It's a lot of fun for me to see that. We have twenty-two people total on staff.
What are your goals, what do you think about when you think about the future of the restaurant?
We put a lot of effort into making our business more accessible, so that young people can see the possibilities of what we do here — of growing community, of seeing potential in the community. I want young people to learn about bread, making charcuterie, all of these crafts. Those things are so relevant to the local ecology and economy, which is very important. There's no future without that, so that's why I try to make this place not too expensive. I dislike the term "high-end" for that reason.