The winner of the annual Roux Scholarship is given the opportunity to stage anywhere in the world for three months, all expenses paid. When Tom Barnes, now head chef of Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, won the 2014 edition, he chose to work under Peter Goossens at the 3* Belgian restaurant Hof van Cleve - named the 50th best restaurant in the world at the 2017 World's 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Hof van Cleve is found just west of the small Belgian town of Kruishoutem not far from the Dutch border, very much in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by quintessential farming countryside - so remote that Tom Barnes had to cycle to and from work every day for his three month stage, staying in a local hotel.
With previous winners of the Scholarship choosing to stage under household names such as Guy Savoy, Thomas Keller and Pierre Gagnaire; I was intrigued to find out just what it was about Hof van Cleve that saw Tom Barnes choose three months there as his prize.
I travelled to Belgium via Lille in France, first taking the Eurostar and then two more trains, arriving at Waregem train station - the closest station to the restaurant - at eight in the evening. From there I had to walk along endless countryside motorways for two hours with my suitcase to reach the same hotel that Tom Barnes had stayed in two years previous, disturbing a herd of bulls, three dogs, a horse and a goose along the way. All buses and cabs had shut up for the night.
I was taken to the restaurant the next morning by the very friendly hotel owner (who incidentally was in the blue Chardonnay business), and after a quick introduction to the brigade, was set up to chop leeks at the pass, something I’m well accustomed to having done the exact same thing at Le Gavroche, The Waterside Inn and Hibiscus. A stagiare is a stagiare, I thought to myself, as I watched the chefs around me prepare for lunch. Everyone wore blue aprons during prep and white hats for service.
Tom Barnes, or “Tommy Boy” as he is known to the chefs there, is still remembered fondly in the kitchen, which is small yet long and separated into five sections, with the pass making six. The restaurant itself has a maximum of forty covers, with twelve to fourteen chefs joining Peter Goosens in the kitchen at any one time. The Hof van Cleve family, including the wait staff, is just 24 strong.
Peter Goosens, himself, trained in Paris at Lenôtre, Robuchon, Pré Catelan and Pavillon d’Elysée, as well as in Saint-Tropez and with Paul Blanc. His menu at Hof van Cleve is classic French with Asian influences. He wasn’t in that morning and so I was in the hands of the sous chef, Floris Van Der Veken.
Tom Barnes said that it was the modern take on classic, seasonal produce that first drew him to Hof van Cleve as a young chef, with each dish “a work of art”. The presentation and flavour, he said after his three month stage, of the food was extraordinary. He had started his journey on the pastry section, and with my leeks polished off, I thought it best to start on Tom’s ladder.
On pastry I worked with a chef called Jonas Vanheede and when I arrived he was putting the finishing touches on a number of cakes. I helped decorate caramelised pecan and cream eclairs, classic lemon meringue pie and a raspberry and cherry quiche.
Jonas had fantastic English, something that Tom Barnes had mentioned about the chefs there in general, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him about the lasting consequences of radioactivity in old batches of Japanese tea powder, fresh batches of which were currently being used for the mousse that accompanied a grapefruit tart.
It was during our chat that Peter Goossens, in a personalised chef jacket, grey trousers and smart buckled shoes, arrived at the restaurant and came to say hello. He was amazed when I told him about my two hour journey across the countryside the night before.
“Why didn’t you call us? We would have sent someone out to get you!”
Laughing, he then called Floris over to tell him about my adventure, who then went on to tell the entire brigade. From then on, perhaps through a minor case of Chinese whispers, they affectionately knew me as the crazy Englishman who was chased down a motorway by a goose.
I stayed with Jonas in pastry to understand the 'Gariguette' strawberries dessert which is part of the seven course “Freshness of Nature” tasting menu. It was this dish that really opened my eyes to the style of presentation and skills of the chefs at Hof van Cleve.
'Gariguette' strawberries are early season fruit with sweet and aromatic flavours, slices of which are placed on top of a sheet of rhubarb with half a biscuit base and tonka bean cream slotted in between. Basil leaves, rhubarb slivers and a basil puree are then added, with an amazing salt and lemon sorbet that is made over a six month period placed on top. Strawberry juice, extracted from the fruit using a water bath, is finally poured by the diner at the table from a small, white jug.
The complexity of the dish was extraordinary and it was visually stunning. I sampled one with Peter Goossens and I’ve never seen a chef so very proud of the food in his kitchen. His eyes lit up with excitement as I struggled to find the words to describe the dish. His commitment to flavour and respect for ingredients was exemplified by the lemon sorbet. To think that you can make a basic sorbet from start to finish in 24 hours and Peter Goossens salts lemons and leaves them for six months before he even starts.
That the chefs had also made strawberry juice from the 'Gariguette' strawberries, giving the dessert two different incarnations of the fruit, meant that the strawberry had even more responsibility in the dish. But as the main ingredient, why shouldn’t it?
After my stint on pastry, a CDP named Niels Dedier offered to show me the fields surrounding the restaurant. Hof van Cleve has quite a bit of farmland and plan to grow all manner of seasonal vegetables. As Niels told me, the restaurant was once flanked by a field of wild marijuana, with the field now being put to more productive use. He also showed me the empty patch used to hold helicopters flown in with VIPs.
A two hour break followed lunch service, with the whole Hof van Cleve family reuniting afterwards to share a meal before dinner service began. We had meat loaf and salad and the chefs were all amazed when I told them that chefs in England don’t really give themselves time to eat, often preferring to scoff their food in order to get back to work.
“We need our energy!” said a CDP called Seppe Claeys, who had gone to school with Niels and joined on his recommendation.
“It’s surely the most important meal we make!”
With dinner service roaring into action, I watched as five different chefs plated at the pass with Peter Goossens overseeing every single dish. Here I found that that philosophy of giving the most important ingredient licence to rule the plate rang true with both the veal and lobster dishes, with the level of respect given to ingredients unlike anything I’d seen before.
The lobster used is from Northern Belgium and is protected, meaning that chefs can only use them for three months of the year – and they make full use of their time with it.
The lobster is poached and plated with Belgian asparagus, morals and sea aster. The remaining lobster is then turned into three more components for the dish, namely a powder, a foam and an oil. No part of the original lobster goes to waste, with the different textures giving the dish an almost ‘study of’ complexity.
Next, the veal dish is served with sweet onion, aubergine, artichoke and a garlic distillation. An accompanying bowl contains veal cheek with yoghurt and celery, veal bone marrow, all in a veal jus. Again, Peter Goossens is showing off the ability of veal to run its own dish without the need to really rely on other elements. I had never seen this before.
I was thrilled to have been taken through the majority of the menu by Peter Goossens himself and I found him and his brigade to be among the kindest I’ve come across. Not once did I hear a raised voice or a look of stress.
Andrew Jones, himself a Roux scholar, once told me at his restaurant in London, “If you look after your mise en place, the mise en place will look after you”. Hof van Cleve is a great example of this, with every minute detail prepped and ready. It really has to be considering the depth of detail that goes into every different dish.
Tom Barnes said that it was the modern take on classic, seasonal produce that first drew him to Hof van Cleve as a young chef. I now see why, of all the restaurants in the world he could have chosen as his prize for winning the 2014 Roux Scholarship, he chose this small, out-of-the-way restaurant.
What Peter Goossens is doing amid the short-tempered farm animals and endless Belgian fields is about as close to perfection as I’ve come across.