I meet with chef Lieven Lootens at Naturell, his restaurant in Ghent, Belgium. Naturell is rated among the top restaurants in the city by Tripadvisor. Lootens is also the proprietor of ‘t Aards Paradijs, which was named Belgium’s best vegetable restaurant in 2011 and the best for culinary flowers in 2018.
“I learnt how to cook when I was 10 or 12 years old,” he tells me, chuckling while explaining how he once made ice cream for the whole terrace. He subsequently entered the restaurant business with his father.
An interview with Lieven Lootens
“I liked the vibe of the city…I wanted to take over the restaurant from my father when I was about 20 years old. He said no, I was too young. He said, ‘A city has too much competition. You have to go into the countryside and then you can do what you want.”
His countryside fine-dining restaurant, ‘t Aards Paradijs, is in Merendree, a short drive north-west of Ghent. That business has been operational since the early 1990s.
A concept for immersive dining
Initially, Lootens wanted diners to watch a film and listen to music while dining at Naturell. The restaurant seats 35 to 40 diners and serves a seasonal tasting menu or a 10-course signature menu.
“I adore sounds and music that fits with a dish. We started here, for the first two or three months, with a movie that goes with the plates. Every plate had its own story and own little movie of a few minutes. At first, I wanted to make it a restaurant of all senses,” explains the chef.
“For some people it was a little bit too far. Also, it was very new. It was really hard to synchronise it with people coming in,” he adds. Some of the restaurants patrons had issues finding parking spots while others spent a few minutes longer than anticipated in bars.
“In the city people have their own way to have an evening…it was very complicated for people to watch, listen and eat. It was too much. Also, the movies were intensive to make; costing a lot of time, effort and money. Maybe that will come back, when I have a restaurant that’s even bigger and when we can have little more of a cinema setting,” says Lootens, whose culinary presentation is a form of edible art.
He points out that the tables in Naturell are orientated towards the open kitchen. He explains that it was his intention to have diners looking towards the kitchen and a screen. “I let it go because I heard people want to have their own conversations and don’t want to be disturbed,” he reflects.
Dining at Naturell in Ghent
Lootens explains that it took about a year to open Naturell, which occupies a corner location at the Appelbrugparkje. Two restaurants previously stood on the site.
“You need a good team. That’s the main part. You need a good team that you can trust and gives you the trust,” he says. “It’s working quite well,” he adds. That seems something of an understatement — the restaurant is busy and the people around me are clearly happy with the food that’s being served.
“I have always been interested in smells that go with a meal…I love to get smells into the menu,” he explains. “We have some smells that we integrate in the menu and stories that we tell about where the food comes from. The waiter will tell how the chef was walking about the beach, he saw this and that, and that’s why he made this plate. So , it’s just the story we tell and leave it with people’s imagination,” says Lootens.
The menu changes every six weeks or so, reflecting the products of the season.
“I try to find everything from not too far away. But if there’s a carrot that’s better in Holland then we get them in Holland. I don’t want to have a fish from the other side of the world; that I don’t do. We try to get our ingredients as local as possible,” he explains.
Finding inspiration from vegetables
Vegetables play an important role in the food served at both Naturell and ‘t Aards Paradijs.
“I was named the best vegetable chef in Belgium…I try to make dishes starting with vegetables. I think it’s the most important. They are really very seasonal; more than fish and meat, I think,” says Lootens.
“I think they are more inspiring for me because they have more beautiful colours and textures, and more differences in shapes. I really have something with vegetables and herbs. I really love herbs and things that grow in my own garden. We go outside in the countryside, at home, see those herbs and smell them. By the smell only you get teased by your senses. You associate them with other vegetables or the meat that you have. From there on you start building those flavours together. That’s how I create dishes when I have products from the season and can feel it, taste it and smell it,” he explains with passion.
I ask about the chefs that have inspired him.
“It’s more the people who produce that inspire me,” answers Lootens. “They have so much love for the things that they work with. I have somebody who delivers spices and very fresh herbs. He tells me about the aromas that I can find. Then I discover more in that product, get inspired and create.”
“I think it’s very personal how you interpret nature and how you react and respond to what you see. I don’t want to be inspired by the thoughts of other people, only the products,” he adds.
Lootens then talks about how he finds artists who do things that have never been done before inspirational.
“I always try to search for new things. Sometimes I’m satisfied. Mostly I’m not. When I am satisfied, I can keep a dish for a longer time. You should not rest because everything is possible to make better. I think work is never finished,” he says.
“When you think you know a lot you are just at the beginning. Because then there is so much more to discover,” says Lootens before heading back into Naturell’s open kitchen.
Naturell is at Jan Breydelstraat 10 in central Ghent (tel. +32 9 279 0708).
‘t Aards Paradijs is at Merendreedorp 65 in Nevele (tel. +32 9 371 5756).
The food photography illustrating this post is by Why Eye Photography, is based in the north-east of England.
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