In part four of our food nominations, Nicholas Scheidt (1978) – the Alsatian owner and chef at La Buvette in Saint Gilles – nominates Vilhjalmur Hilmar Sigurdarson (1986), who is currently chef and owner of restaurant Souvenir.
How would you best describe what you do?
Well I make food. That is of course a simplification and doesn’t at all encapsulate what it entails to run a restaurant but I always say that if people come hungry and leave not hungry, I didn’t do a good job, I just fulfilled a task. People should come hungry and leave happy. Going out to a restaurant is all about synergy, experiencing something special and just enjoying life in general. Dining out is fast becoming a unique form of entertainment in the age of instant gratification, every visit to a restaurant is unique – from the company you have to the food that you eat – and not something you can easily recreate. We are a restaurant, we make food but that’s just the start of it.
As a chef cooking in Belgium today, what do you think is your main purpose?
The food scene is changing fast, and if you ask me what is “food art?” then I would say that it depends on who’s doing the eating as well as who’s doing the cooking. Regardless, food is becoming more conceptual and people are slowly becoming more open minded towards it. As chefs, we have somewhat of a moral and professional responsibility when it comes to food, focusing on locality and eating healthy is a topic. Along with abstaining from the use of imported fish in favour of lesser-known, sustainable and local species, we need to somewhat educate our clients without giving them the feeling that they’re being lectured. Genius is giving people what they never knew they wanted and my purpose is to explore that concept.
“Vilhjalmur has a very unusual career. He is from Iceland and arrived to Belgium via London. I feel pretty close to him. What is remarkable is how he has managed to synthesize great gastronomic tradition with the openness of contemporary cuisine.” Nicolas Scheidt
What key moment/person would you attribute to you becoming a chef?
When I was still studying, I always used to work on the side in restaurants. I always enjoyed it very much and it immediately felt satisfyingly, at some point I grew dissociated with my field of studies and decided to focus on cooking. It appealed to me for its simplicity, and you just had to grit through it and work your ass off, no diplomacy or subterfuge needed at all. At a certain point though, many menial tasks (and trust me, there are a lot of those) simply got too mundane and boring. At that point I discovered the highest level of gastronomy and through that I realized that the ultimate goal of cooking is to constantly work towards self-improvement, every day I compete with myself. With that mindset, even the most menial tasks become a source of gratification and it helped me set my goals, but I try not to take myself, or anything for that matter, too seriously.
To date, what concepts, meals or dishes are you the proudest of?
I love working with vegetables – it’s a passion. Around 50% of our menu is vegetarian and every time a customer comes to us and says something along the lines of “if vegetables always tasted like that, I’d be a vegetarian starting tomorrow,” I feel immensely proud. For a lot of people in Belgium, vegetables really remain a sideshow to the main event that is a piece of meat or fish – most people barely eat them. We love showing people that a vegetarian dish can be just as rich, fulfilling and good as a meat or fish dish, and in most cases it remains more interesting. I might even be so bold as to say that our consumption patterns of proteins is no longer sustainable; I mean we’ve literally had to change how the animals grow and live to be able to supply protein to our growing population. Our ever increasing population will at some point be faced with the facts and we’ll have to realise that we have to change how we compose our diet to be able to feed everyone.