With his European flare and rambunctious personality, Belgium native Bart Vandaele has taken D.C. by storm since opening up his wildly popular Belga Café (514 8th Street, SE; Washington, DC; (202) 544- 0100; www.belgacafe.com) in 2004. As Executive Chef and Owner of the District’s original Belgian café, Vandaele, who was recognized as a Rising Star of 2006 by starchefs.com, has successfully melded the rich culinary traditions of his homeland with the comfortable, relaxed attitude of Barracks Row in this neighborhood gathering place.
Raised in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, Vandaele developed a passion for the kitchen at a very young age. Surrounded by family members active in the industry, including café managers, butchers, chefs and restaurant owners, Vandaele began his training early in life, citing that even as a toddler his favorite playground was the kitchen. The largest influence on young Vandaele came from his chef-father, whom created traditional, regional Belgian cuisine in his own innovative and unique style at the family’s restaurant. With a strong culinary presence at home and an abundance of local, fresh ingredients, Vandaele decided to embark on a culinary career at the young age of 12, the typical age Belgium school children choose the profession they plan to pursue. As part of his schooling, Vandaele received culinary training at the Culinary Institute for Restaurant and Hotel Management in Brugge, Belgium, where he embarked on a six-year program of academics and culinary externships, learning a multitude of skills, ranging from culinary techniques to managerial skills to business operations.
In addition to years of formal training, Vandaele gained much of his knowledge, drive and creativity through his experiences in some of Europe’s top fine dining locales. Working at renowned Belgian restaurants such as Piet Huysentruyt and Restaurant Scholteshof, of which received two Michelin stars while Vandaele served as Sous Chef under respected Chef Roger Souvereyns. Here, he honed his craft as well as expanded his knowledge and passion for the profession. Working his way up through the culinary ranks in these competitive kitchens for over seven years, Vandaele discovered bold, vibrant flavor combinations, the fusion of traditional Belgium cuisine with international fare and a close comradery amongst his peers.
Recommended by Huysentruyt, Vandaele’s next career move brought him to America’s capital, where he served as Executive Chef for the European Union’s head diplomat to the United States, followed by the position of Executive Chef at the Dutch Embassy. In the midst of the District’s political society, he concocted dishes for some of D.C.’s elite, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, H.E. Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and former United Nation’s Secretary General Kofi Annan. But it was moving forward on his own with the conception and creation of Belga Café that proved to be Vandaele’s biggest challenge.
Inspired to bring D.C. a bit of his homeland, Vandaele wanted to establish a place that elevated and expanded the common American conception of Belgian cuisine.
While still highlighting dishes commonly associated with the streets of Brussels, such as waffles, mussels and frites, Belga Café enhances the flavors and introduces 8th Street to more exotic flavors from his native land as well as creating a warm, friendly and energetic space that resembles the European’s attitude and enthuses guests. At Belga there are only two rules that Vandaele enforces: nothing goes to waste and everyone is family.
This motto is clearly the underlying factor in the menu as guests dine on delicious dishes such as Vlaamse Reus (leg of rabbit with Rodenbach beer) or ‘Belga’ Heilbot (halibut poached in Kasteel Brown beer with asparagus, mushrooms, crispy pancetta and Belgium’s famous baby gray shrimp). In addition to the tasty plates coming from the kitchen, Vandaele ensures guests will think they are visiting a European beer garden when looking at the extensive beer list, featuring Belga’s special beer cocktails as well as popular Belgian brews including Delirium, Duvel and Kwak Pauwel. Vandaele works closely with Master Beer Sommelier Jens Piferoen to co-author this vast menu of over 100 different beers.
Most recently, Vandaele has been selected as a National Brand Ambassador for the Belgium brews Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe Blond, and Leffe Brown. Based on the celebration of Belgian flavors, Vandaele is the perfect candidate for this position, who has long been influenced by the renowned beers, often utilizing the different flavors in his food, and his goal of bringing the idiosyncrasies of Belgium cuisine and culture to the States.
Nearing its fifth anniversary, Belga Café and Vandaele have provided D.C. with a necessary balance of food, international flare and fun. A dining room that is constantly filled with couples, families and friends, Belga and Vandaele have become ingrained in this Barracks Row community making it a culinary destination. The key to his triumphs, quite simple according to Vandaele, “We do nothing the ‘normal way’ here. We do it the Belga way. And that way focuses on comfort, simplicity and success.”
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