The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Maarten Van Essche

Maarten Van Essche

Sustainable chef de cuisine (1979)

Can you describe what you do?

As a chef, my aim is to create a dining atmosphere that triggers all senses. I try to cook as sustainable as possible by listening to nature itself.

Since 2014, I set up temporary restaurants in and around Mechelen. By opening my own restaurants, I am able to consider every aspect of the experience, from the moment our guests enter and are seated, to the atmosphere they dine in. I pay attention to every detail: music and light, right down to the toilet soap and the scent of the restaurant.

My latest location is Wilder at the Villa near Beersel, in the vicinity of Brussels. I work closely together with small-scale organic farmers near Mechelen for the supplies. Recently, we bought a house in Heffen, a little village in the North-West of Mechelen, where I want to start a restaurant as well.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

Mechelen is a small place where a lot of creative people with a fresh mind are willing to invest in their city.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Because of its rich history in the Middle Ages, there are a lot beautiful buildings that are still standing to this day.

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

I went to school in Mechelen throughout my youth, but I also experienced the most important insight for my future career while studying and graduating in Interior Design here. During my studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of beauty. I felt the need to create and produce myself, and in the end I found the freedom to do this in cooking.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Even though there are already a few farmers growing their organic crops here, I would like to see more sustainable practices in the restaurants but also in other organisations. The city could make a little more effort to improve in that area… but I know it takes time to grow and change.

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

I would go for a walk on a sunny day, somewhere surrounded by nature. Start at the Nekker and ’t Mechels Broek for some stunning views of the fields, then follow the Dyle river into town. We enter Mechelen through the nice parc, the Kruidtuin or Herb Garden, then we walk on the floating walkway Dijlepad until we reach the Vismarkt. We have a coffee at Kaffee-ine and a sandwich at Sister Bean. The Begijnenstraat brings us to the main St. Rumbolds cathedral, and on our way we would pass the renowned arts center Nona. We should also stop by Stassart 11, a beautiful site at a former convent that houses the unique flower and decoration shop De Borght and a restaurant. There are also two impressive museums in Mechelen which are a must to visit: Hof Van Busleyden and Kazerne Dossin. We would end our trip at Wagenoord, a co-working space that houses an eatery. Finally, we would buy some cheese at the renowned Schockaert shop and eat it sitting near the water at the Winketkaai.

Can you talk to us about a local legend, a neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

I’m still impressed with the amount of wealth and reputation Mechelen possessed in the Middle Ages. At the end of the 15th century, Archduchess Margaret of Austria named Mechelen the “capital of the Low Countries”. I can just imagine her wandering around the narrow streets of the city, hand in hand with her nephew, Emperor Charles. Brewery “Het Anker” offers a range of beers that is named after him.