When two culinary masterminds team up in a kitchen, the magic happens. That’s exactly what J and I experienced on the Thanksgiving night during the collaborative dinner helmed by Gert de Mangeleer and Hiroyasu Kawate. Gert de Mangeleer is the Head Chef of Hertog Jan, the restaurant he opened in 2005 together with his friend and a highly acclaimed sommelier Joachim Boudens. By 2010 he became the youngest chef in Belgian history to be awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide and maintained the accolades ever since. Guided by locavore philosophy Gert uses modern techniques to create a style of cooking based on the plants cultivated in his own farm.
Meanwhile, Hiroyasu Kawate is young up and coming chef who has quickly gained recognition after opening Florilège in 2009, which culminated in winning Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants “One to Watch” Award in 2016. In his kitchen, Kawate-san brings together the best of French culinary techniques and Japanese ingredients-driven, hyper-seasonal food philosophy. Most importantly, he is a huge proponent of sustainability, which is reflected in many of his creations.
The kitchen of the Florilège provided a perfect ground for the four hands dinner. We, the diners a.k.a. spectators, were seated around the single rectangular counter and had an unobstructed view of the gastronomic masterclass via Florilège’s completely open kitchen. The room was filled with distinguished guests many of whom seemed to know Kawate-san on a personal basis, while the Belgian Ambassador to Japan made a special appearance to deliver the remarks and introduce the pride of Belgian epicurean world. Warmly greeted by the two chefs themselves we were treated to a little souvenir – chopsticks with the engraved names of both restaurants. The dinner was all-inclusive so our glasses were also instantly filled with a mint & thyme infused champaign, a combination which gave the drink a nice herbal flavor. As expected, the menu featured seasonal ingredients and specialty dishes of both chefs. We promptly started with the first amuse bouche: a paper-thin passion fruit meringue shell cracked in my mouth to explode into multiple sensational flavors from the foie gras mousse inside. Terrific textural play and even better flavor combination of bergamot, fennel and Coca Cola – all forming a heavenly bite. I was especially surprised by the Coca Cola crisps which provided a little tingling sensation, while the fennel seeds went very well with the duck liver mousse. Second amuse bouche represented Kawata-san’s cooking and seemed to deliver a different flavor profile aiming to further awaken the palate: using the liquid nitrogen, a frozen soufflé of butterbur sprout and fromage blanc were frozen and served on the sprouts itself. This seasonal mountain vegetable, a novelty for me, had a nutty and slightly bitter taste. Back to Chef Gert’s creations we tasted Potato – velvety potato foam (which felt more like a mousse) with coffee, vanilla and 24-months aged Mimolette. It’s the oldest dish at Hertog Jan created 10 years ago which they still serve. The moment it was served, I was hit with an intoxicating aroma of the coffee. When paired with vanilla, it provided the depth of flavor to the puree, while the touch of the lobster juice and grated just-about-to-melt Mimolette cheese on top added comforting creaminess to the dish. Florilège presented its next course – Kou-Bako Crab. Stunning to look at, this dish utilized the meat of male as well as female crabs and her roe. Cured in-house, the meat was covered with gel consommé and topped with roe and red shiso leaves. I really liked how the sweetness from the consommé complimented the umami and savory flavors of the crab. Moving back to Chef Gert’s cooking domain we sampled the next two of his dishes. Buri-Daikon was a visually stimulating creation inspired by the famous Japanese dish. Each bite gave way to complex depth of flavors. Melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail sashimi was wrapped in the thin “petals” of black radish. It was bedded on the creamy fresh cheese and elevated by the flavorful buttery sauce with a hint of diced chives and ponzu (which might or might not have been there). It was expertly paired with a white wine from Hokkaido. Equally memorable were the shima ebi prawn dim sum dumplings delicately wrapped in bright orange slices of raw butternut squash and bathed in a creamy bisque. Cardamom powder and cocoa dibs on top lent a depth of flavor, while the combination of the salted shellfish broth and the sweetness of the fruit created a truly decadent mélange. The dish was complimented by the mixed drink made of the shochu marinated with tangerines and sweet and sour mikan juice. Unwilling to leave behind a single drop of the sauces on either of the two dishes, I shamelessly dipped my incredibly soft steamed bun into the remains of the sauce. Chef Kawata’s next course – his signature Delivered Cow dish – is an embodiment of his sustainable cooking philosophy. In order to minimize food waste, he serves meat from cows which are beyond breeding age, and thus considered to have a tougher meat. Our beautiful beef carpaccio was served alongside beef tongue and heart, oyster sauce and oil with green herbs. While the beef was a bit tough in my opinion, I enjoyed the rich flavor of the wagyu. Alongside, we also sampled a sweet hot sake. Chef Gert drew his inspiration for the next course by walking through local markets and gardens and getting inspired by the produce. A seemingly simple salad contained multitude of vegetables, herbs and flowers which, prepared and seasoned in its own way, stood out individually while also creating a harmonious mélange on the plate, just like a meticulously manicured and designed garden. J, who for your information is a huge anti-salad person, quickly exclaimed that this was the best salad he had ever had. I couldn’t agree more as I drank along the Japanese white wine. We were also treated to yet another souvenir, this time from the Chef Gert himself. Inside, I found the list of ingredients of the salad, along with a tiny vial containing fennel seeds from the garden of the chef back in Belgium. While waiting for the next creation from Florilège we also saw Chef Gert prepping the main course – a beautiful duck that had been aged in house for 10 days and smoked and grilled with hay. How beautiful is the steam rising off the fresh-off-the-grill duck? Florilège team served their last savory dish – Sardine. A pile of lightly cooked vegetables hid one the tastiest sardines I have ever tasted. I was a bit skeptical at first, since due to its strong flavor profile, its not one of my favorite fish. But in this particular case I was smitten. There was an insanely pleasant sweetness coming out of the fish which matched and balanced its strong umami flavor. Out of the five courses presented by Florilège, this certainly was my top choice. The final two of the main courses were created by the Chef Gert and featured that beautiful duck I showed you earlier. The first vibrant artsy plate featured the aged duck, foie paste, beetroots, and liquorice. The duck was beautifully cooked: tender and pink in the middle, with a touch of delightfully smoky flavor. That, paired with a sliver of the rich foie paste and the sweetness of the beetroot, made the perfect forkful. As an accompaniment to the main duck course, we were also served a salad as an additional side. It featured crispy caramelized duck (which by the way had the most addictive crunch) mixed with seasonal herbs, grapefruit, red onion, pine nuts and my absolute favorite pomegranate seeds, which never fail to add a bright tart flavor to the dish. We moved on to desserts and our first was a Brown Cane Sugar – Mugwort gelly, caramel ice-cream and brown sugar powder. Sadly, the combination of the herbal flavors of the gel and the caramel didn’t quite work worm me. The second dessert was a Caramel Chocolate where the Chef Gert combined dark Belgian chocolate with three of the traditional Japanese ingredients – yuzu, koji and green Sancho – to create a complex yet delightful dessert. I marveled at the combination of sweet, salty, citrus-y and crunchy from the first bite to the last. The night was wrapped up with a cup of freshly brewed green tea, Belgian chocolate and two ground cherries as a simple palate cleanser. It was a wonderful experience to watch two incredible chefs work together in real time and see them assemble each dish. The energy coming from the open kitchen was insane. The opportunity to sample Gert de Mangeleer’s seven dishes was truly priceless, and cannot wait to visit his restaurant Hertog Jan in Bruges at some point. His style of cooking characterized by the multitude of flavor and texture combinations, as well as cooking techniques were incredible. I also look forward to revisiting Florilège to see where Kawata-san’s culinary talent takes him, he is certainly one to watch.
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