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Is Belgium’s Souvenir the Future of Destination Dining?

Chef Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson on artful plates, no frites at his Ypres restaurant Souvenir.

All photos courtesy Souvenir

When chefs of Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson's pedigree open their own restaurants, they usually eye metropolitan areas. In Sigurdarson's case, Brussels, Belgium — where he worked at contemporary gastronomy restaurant La Buvette — may have been the expected locale. But the Iceland native took his cues from a former employer, the Michelin-starred In De Wulf, when he and his wife Joke Michiel opened Souvenir essentially in the middle of nowhere: In Ypres, Belgium, a small city of about 35,000 residents. These days, Ypres is perhaps best known as the site of fearsome battles during World War I, which essentially leveled the city. It may also soon be known for Sigurdarson and Michiel's approach to hospitality. Like many restaurants in the "contemporary gastronomy" vein, Souvenir's prix-fixe menus highlight beautifully plated, simply treated local ingredients — but Sigurdarson works hard to infuse the dining experience with a sense of fun.

"Everything about our restaurant has been motivated by family," Sigurdarson says. "In the beginning all you think about is wanting to cook conceptually, and you want to make something out there: 'It's going to be shocking and people are going to be amazed.'" That all shifted after Michiel gave birth to their first daughter just a month after the restaurant opened, a life change that Sigurdarson says made him a better cook. "Right now I just want to make really good food: Food that makes you smile, food that makes you feel good," he says. "And I think that's because of family. You want to make people happy." Here, Sigurdarson chats about opening a restaurant in unlikely surroundings, why he eschews Michelin stars, and why Belgium's wacky restaurant licensing practices ensure he won't be serving French fries anytime soon.

What was appealing to you about opening up in Ypres?
Ypres is a beautiful town. It was actually destroyed in the First World War. It's been rebuilt — it's a little conservative, a little bit old-school, and it's really off the beaten track in Belgium. But surrounding it is beautiful nature, there's a lot of farmers, and it's actually a very nice place to be. It has a feel of a small town, but most of the luxuries of a city. It's really cool. But there were no restaurants. [Laughs]

"You had to drive for at least an hour to find a half-decent restaurant."

We lived in the neighborhood — 20 minutes away, in another town — and I remember our endless struggles to find a restaurant to go to. I used to work in the neighborhood and I remember on my days off there was nothing to do: You had to drive for at least an hour to find a half-decent restaurant. It was massively frustrating. I wanted to do a restaurant that had a big-city metropolis vibe to it, in this small town. For me, I didn't want to go to Brussels or Antwerp to have a nice meal, I wanted to be in my surroundings. That was the biggest motivation, and it's paid off, because a lot of people who live here in the region leave: They go to Paris, Brussels, and Antwerp to go out to eat, so to have something that is 10 minutes away as opposed to two hours away, for them, it's great. Immediately, you have a big group of return customers. It's really nice.

Was there ever a concern in the beginning that maybe the locals can't sustain this restaurant?
We had no idea if this was going to work. [Laughs] I had not a clue. I thought, "This might not work," which was very strong thought for us, but so far, so good. The locals have been very embracing. They seem very happy with us, so that's cool.

In picking a name like Souvenir, though, did you have an inkling early on that this would also a destination restaurant? People from the city coming to you?
Well, "destination restaurant" is a very big statement. For me, when I go out to eat, what I enjoy is you go out with your friends and you have a good time. What remains after going out to eat is the memories, the souvenirs you have: the little menu that you kept or if you took a picture. A restaurant should be an experience that's fun. A lot of high-end restaurants, in my opinion, are a little bit stiff and very formal.

"What remains after going out to eat is the memories, the souvenirs you have."

It's that formality that we wanted to avoid. I don't have the guts to claim that we are a destination restaurant: That you should come from America to eat at [Souvenir]. But people still do; I think it's because they really appreciate the idea that you can come, have a small menu, it's good quality, and it's relaxed. That's really important for us, that people just take off their stress and their concerns and their headaches, they leave them at the door, they sit down, and they enjoy themselves.

You mentioned the lack of local restaurants. What were your early conversations with the local farmers like, when you told them about your project?
Most of these farmers, they're supplying to restaurants all over Belgium, but not many restaurants in the local area. They're always happy to have somebody that also understands that farming is a very difficult job: It's long hours, it's a very big commitment, and let's face it, there's not a lot of monetary value to it, either. You're not going to be a millionaire by being a fucking farmer.

So they were really happy to have somebody that understood the effort it took for them to do what they do. I had a lot of support from them. It's really awesome, what they do, because in Belgium, the way farming has changed, it's always been moving to bigger volumes, monoculture, agribusiness. There are a handful of artisan growers who are really turning their fields... who are agriculturalists. They're protecting the heritage and following the cycles of nature. It's necessary that we don't forget that. Because in this world of big agribusiness where they're planting 3,000 tons of carrots — the monoculturalization, it's sick.

Would you say that diners in Belgium are getting interested in supporting local farmers, too?
Belgium is a very protein-oriented country when it comes to dining: They want their big piece of steak. Of course, it's not for everyone. But there is a large movement of people that are getting more aware of it, that it's not just about the meat. Normally for them, vegetables are the little salad that's on the side with the meat that they don't eat — unless it's deep-fried. The culture is changing, but that's not just in Belgium, I think it's everywhere. People are getting more and more aware of it, and they're certainly more curious. I think a lot of chefs find a lot more inspiration working with vegetables than meat. I find much more inspiration in vegetables than in and meat and fish.

"If I see something that I have no idea what it is, I order it."

That said, how do you conceptualize a new dish?
I have a list every week that comes in with over 2,000 things like flowers and herbs, vegetables and everything. If I see something that I have no idea what it is, I order it. Then it comes in and I think, "No, I can't do anything with that," or I discover a hidden gem. The creative process is really just getting something in your hands and you react to it. And that's it. I don't like trying different techniques as a creative process. For instance, it's carrot season, and there are 12 different varieties of carrots available now in all sizes, shapes, colors. There's your inspiration. You have [one] in your hand, you feel its vibe because it's so beautiful. It's [about] trying to express the purity of the flavor and the product.

I'm not the kind of guy that does a lot of different gels and makes something look like it's something else. If it says "carrot" [on the menu], you can see a carrot on the plate... By the time I'm happy with the dish, the ingredient is out of season. [Laughs] You work this dish for three or four weeks or something and by the time you're sick of it, you're actually happy with it.

How much do you consider the plating of the dish before it's ready to be served to the diner?
Not very conscientiously. An old mentor of mine always told me, "Before you make a plate, you need to know how you want it to taste. Then once you're happy with how it tastes, you can think about how you want it to look." It's something we try to be very conscientious of because there's a lot of guys — and I don't mean any offense — but there are a lot of guys that are very conscientious of the way things should look. We try to be conscientious of how things should taste.

Of course, we try our best to make it look nice, but at the same time, without too many fireworks. Things need to be clean, things need to have harmony aesthetically, they need to be in balance. It needs to be composed. And I think people see that control: Everything is in its right place, and that has an impact on people. You don't need to be fancy... you need to be clean and direct. I think that's a lot more interesting.

When you first opened, was there a concern that people weren't going to get it — that you would have to manage diners' expectations away from steak?
I'm going to tell you a very funny story that is actually true. I am a trained chef from Iceland, and Iceland is not a member of the European Union. When we started on the restaurant, to my great surprise, despite my diploma, I couldn't get an affidavit for my diploma. I didn't get the thumbs up [from the government] that I could own my own restaurant. Then one of our consultants came back with: "But there is a loophole... This is going to make you laugh, but this is what it says in Belgium registration. You need to be a [certified] chef to have your restaurant... unless you don't serve potatoes or anything deep-fried." [Laughs] Because then you fall under the clause of ethnic foods. If you don't deep-fry anything or serve potatoes, you don't need to be a chef to own a restaurant.

"They had to study to be a chef for seven years to be able to deep-fry fries. It's ridiculous."This loophole generally explains the mindset that we have here, that to me, is foreign. In Belgium what is very common is a frietkot, a little house where you can buy deep-fried French fries. Every 150 meters in Belgium, there is a place that serves French fries, and every single person that has a frietkot is a chef. They had to study to be a chef for seven years to be able to deep-fry fries. It's ridiculous. Then here I am, I studied to be a chef — I've cooked on four different continents and I've worked in a lot of nice restaurants — and no, that's not okay [to own your own restaurant]. That was the mindset that I felt myself [up against]. But once I overcame that [mentally], people were very happy.

There's always the old generation that know what they want and they want what they know. I don't make these people happy, because they don't want to be happy. So, I don't focus on them; I just focus on the people that actually are happy and they come back and they love it. We've only been open for eight months now, 8-9 months, and we're still looking for our people. We're busy and people are still happy.

What are your goals for the restaurant moving forward? 
When we were first contemplating the feel of the restaurant, I didn't want a Michelin star. The only thing I wanted from my restaurant was it to be busy. Because I remember once, I went to a very good restaurant — a great restaurant, it's on the top 10 list of San Pellegrino['s World's Best Restaurants list] and everything. I went there for lunch, four or five years ago. And I was the only one in the restaurant. I felt so embarrassed to sit there… Four waiters standing there, the kitchen was in the basement and you could just see them standing there, and then little "dings" went on. One guy ran downstairs, ran up the stairs again, put the tray down, and then the other guy picked up the plate and changed the plate. It was a horrible experience.

"I don't give a damn about Michelin or anything."

You can't get nice atmosphere in a restaurant without it being alive and kicking like a hooligan. That was a strong motivation for us in the thinking process behind the restaurant. I wanted to have a nice atmosphere, and to have a nice atmosphere, you need to be busy, you need to be full, you need to have action. That's something that we want to continue. So I don't personally have aspirations for any of the common goals: I don’t give a damn about Michelin or anything. I just want a lot of happy clients. I don't know if that makes sense, but for us, it's the only thing that really matters. It needs to be fun.

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