Monday 19th November saw the unveiling of the 2020 edition of the Michelin Guide to Belgium and Luxembourg, with one new Two Star and seven new One Stars awarded. We caught up with one of the new One Star winners, Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson of Souvenir in Ghent, Belgium, to find out a little more about his life and his cuisine.
Vilhjalmur is certainly a chef on a mission. The 33 year old Icelander runs his creative kitchen around three key pillars: the rhythm of nature, local farmers and sustainability. He aims to demonstrate to his guests how rich the Flemish soil is, and his close relationship with nature gives life to creations that harmoniously follow the seasons.
How did you end up in Belgium?
Following an internship in London, I returned home to work in Iceland and it was then I realised that this was no longer what I wanted. As an island in the North Atlantic, Iceland is engaged in a constant battle with its location; everything is imported – or it was in those days. I didn't enjoy it anymore. I wanted to go to Europe, where everything was happening.
So then you went to Michelin Starred In de Wulf, in Dranouter, in the Flemish countryside?
I had made a shortlist of eight restaurants and In de Wulf was number one; they responded quickly and it all progressed very naturally. People ask me why I chose to Belgium – but that's not how it happened. I chose a restaurant and that restaurant just turned out to be in Belgium.
Did In de Wulf change you as a chef?
Every restaurant I have worked at has changed me. What Kobe Desramaults did so well at In de Wulf was to conceptualise food and build ideas with it. I learned a lot from him about what I like and don't like to do.
At Hertog Jan (formerly 3 Michelin Stars) in Zedelgem, I learned to work within an exacting framework, in which every dish was always the same, and during my time at La Buvette in Saint-Gilles I found my love for freedom and expression.
Where does your love for vegetables come from?
I remember working with produce like papaya and kangaroo meat twelve years ago in Iceland and thinking, why? This doesn't make sense, does it?
In Belgium I found the proximity of the farmers and the produce inspiring. I still work with the same suppliers I worked with at In de Wulf - they have become friends and I feel a responsibility towards them. They put their necks on the line, yet receive no subsidies or support from retailers. The more I talk to them, the more I want to represent their ‘super local’ food culture. We are focused on vegetables because we believe that is the future.
But you do still have meat on your à la carte?
Yes, we are not a vegetarian restaurant and we want to be accessible to everyone. Personally, I prefer to eat nice sweetbreads once a month than an average piece of meat regularly. I have love and respect for meat. When my lamb supplier calls me and then I see the carcasses hanging in my kitchen, I am like a child at Christmas, thinking of what I am going to do with every part.
Which supplier would you like to put in the spotlight?
Mattias Plaetevoet from Lo-Reninge is one of my best friends. He took over his father's farm; they were the second farm to apply for the biodynamic certificate here – in 1982, I think. Hearing how they talk about their produce with love, pride and care is inspiring.
If you taste one of their ripe tomatoes on a sunny day, you understand that tomatoes are fruit. Sometimes that is the only thing my wife and I eat for lunch. At that moment you realise that life is beautiful. Tasting such produce gives you humility.
How hard is it to be creative all of the time?
It is challenging, particularly in periods such as the end of winter, when there is less fresh produce available. Everything that was, is gone, and everything that will be is not yet here. You must ferment and pickle in those difficult periods, otherwise you have nothing. The period around September is ideal; the summer produce is at its best and you already have winter produce starting to appear. That is exciting.
When I do have a creative blackout, I turn to poetry or music – or I just walk around and see how the light falls on buildings. These are things that can inspire you and give you energy.
Is it difficult to combine your vision with the high wishes of today's guests?
What we are trying to do is create a change in mentality. There is not enough land available to supply the growing world population. We are at a crossroads. Obstacles come your way, but if you are a pioneer, you confront them. Do I see myself as a pioneer? It is a strong term, but maybe, yes.
Is today's Souvenir what you had in mind?
We think our formula works, so we are continuing in this spirit. We want to be the best version of ourselves. In this way, we also work hard to create a sustainable environment for our employees; they work a maximum of 40hrs per week, not 90-100 hours like I used to. In order to protect our future, we have to make the right choices now, not only in terms of produce, but also in how we work and how we behave.
What are your dreams for the future?
I would like to help save the world by educating people about consumption and pushing for a new direction that we must all take. In time, I also want to return to the countryside; I miss the trees and the birds. I love the urban ambience, but I am a country boy at heart.
Find all of our newly Starred restaurants in the Michelin Guide Belgium & Luxembourg 2020, available now.