- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

Bart Vandaele likes to stick to what he knows best — his Belgian roots. The executive chef and owner of Belga Cafe on Capitol Hill puts a little bit of home in every meal he makes.

With most of his family in the food industry, he practically grew up in the kitchen.

“I think the easiest part of my life was that I decided at age 11 what I wanted to do,” said Mr. Vandaele, who was raised in the Flemish-speaking region of North Belgium. “I wanted to be a chef.”

His father, a chef, discouraged him from joining the profession. Nonetheless, by age 12 he prevailed and began a six-year course of study at the Culinary Institute for Restaurant and Hotel Management in Bruges.

Then, after serving a year in the Belgian navy, he worked full time at various local establishments such as Piet Huysentruyt and Restaurant Scholteshof. Mr. Vandaele felt he didn’t need to go to Spain or France to learn more about his trade.

“We always joke, if the French want to eat well, they come to Belgium,” he said. “I didn’t need to go [elsewhere] to learn a trade we already know in Belgium. I was more than happy and learned more than enough.”

During those years, he worked with bold and flavorful ingredients and expanded his knowledge and skills. He learned how to plan daily menus simply by gathering whatever ingredients were available in the garden, which could range from fruits and vegetables to even chickens.

Former employee Ian Novick describes Mr. Vandaele, 39, as an artist.

“The guy cares about food, like every great chef should,” said Mr. Novick, now a resident of New York City. “Really great chefs are artists.”

Mr. Vandaele then took his career overseas. He served as executive chef for the European Union’s head diplomat to the United States, then became the executive chef at the Dutch Embassy.

“One Thursday, we were having drinks on Capitol Hill,” he said. “And we were down on Eighth Street and there were [about] three restaurants opening up down there, and I said, ‘Maybe I should open up one down there.’”

Not more than a couple of days later, he received a call from a real estate agent wanting to show him an available venue, he said. After dealing with permits, contractors and business plans, Mr. Vandaele said he selected the wine and beer lists and planned the first menu.

“It was a big stepping stone in my life,” he said.

Belga Cafe, which opened in 2004, was the first Belgian restaurant in the city, Mr. Vandaele said. One side of the cafe, at 514 Eighth St. SE, offers a vibrant decor while the other side is done in plain brick.

One of the things that makes the place a popular destination is the authentic food, said customer, neighbor and friend Michael Veltre.

“It’s one of the few places in D.C. that you can get good, authentic Belgian cuisine,” Mr. Veltre said. “[Mr. Vandaele] pours his heart and soul into everything that he cooks. He’s very careful with his preparation. He’s very careful with the menu selections and the creations. He creates everything himself.”

Some of the more traditional Belgian dishes include rabbit, Flemish beef stew, “real” Belgian fries, and mussels, each uniquely prepared with ingredients such as beer and fresh herbs.

He also incorporates something known as Eurofusion, which sometimes uses Asian ingredients or presentations. Venison filet and poached halibut are just a few of the many entrees presented in this style.

Additionally, Belga Cafe offers more than 100 beers, such as Palm and Grand Cru, in addition to wine and spirits, he said.

In September, Mr. Vandaele will be knighted by Belgium’s brewer’s guild.

“It was kind of surprising,” he said. “Somebody has to actually write a letter. I still have to figure out who did it.”

While the chef said he loves to make original Belgian dishes and serve beer and wine from his homeland, it’s more about the whole restaurant experience and bringing a part of his country to America.

“I want people to come in and feel comfortable,” he said. “I want to bring [the customers] the best experience I can.”

The essence of Belgium can be perfectly described in one phrase, he said: La joie de virre, French for “the lifestyle.”

“Everybody talks just about waffles and chocolate and beer, but it’s so much more than that,” he said. “Belgians like to get somewhere in life, but next to that, they also like family, they like enjoying life.”

Mr. Vandaele said he hopes to bring that ambience to his restaurant every day.

“It’s all part of the Belga,” he said.

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