Bart Vandaele at Belga

At the Chef’s Table

The completed Beer Poached Halibut recipe by Chef Bart Vandaele , while poached in a dark Abbey-style Belgian beer with a malty flavor, is great served and paired with a lighter pale lager, like Stella Artois. 

We met at Belga on the day that Belgium had just beat Algeria, 2-1, in the World Cup, and Chef Bart Vandaele wore his team’s colors in a red shirt with accents of yellow and black. This Star Chef’s Rising Star of 2006 and Top Chef participant hails from the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. 

He grew up immersed in the industry – his father was a chef and his family owned a restaurant, “The more my father told me not to pursue this as a career, the more I wanted to do it.”

He adds, “I had always grown up knowing about food and where it came from. My paternal grandmother had a grocery store, and behind the store, my grandfather was a butcher and processed animals people would bring in – I learned how to do this work at a very young age.   My maternal grandparents had a feed store, as well as a bar.”

Vandaele enrolled in culinary school in Ghent at age 12 and studied the finer points of culinary arts in the European tradition, which included service and management. 

After graduating and working for a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium, he had the opportunity to work as an executive chef in the diplomatic corps, landing him in DC with an embassy job in 1997.   

Vandaele used to live at Eastern Market near 7th and C streets and it was while having a meal at neighborhood mainstay Tunnicliff’s that he had a conversation that would change his career path.

“The conversation was about a neighborhood space where I might open a restaurant,” says Vandaele, “one that grew into opening Belga in 2004. 

One of the first of the wave of restaurants that have opened on Barracks Row,  Belga was the first all-Belgian restaurant in the District.  “We were asked to sign on to a category for an online (restaurant) system in the early days – I told them we didn’t fit their categories (French or European) and that when they had ‘Belgian’ as a selection, I would sign on.”

While offering dishes commonly associated Belgium, such as waffles, and mussels and frites, Belga Café’s menu also includes more exotic dishes such as Coquilles met Kaviaar (scallops with cavier) and Stoofpotje van konijnebil (braised rabbit legs in mustard beer sauce). The extensive beer list features Belga’s special beer cocktails as well as over 100 different beers. “At Belga we were able to start a real beer culture – what you find being produced in most microbreweries reflects back to Belgian beers,” Vandaele says.

For this chef who keeps a few chickens, grows many of his own herbs at his home (he has since moved to Alexandria), as well as herbs he grows on Belga’s roof, he loves the quiet time in the early morning hours tending to the plants before the day’s pace quickens.

With an upbeat and fun attitude towards his work Vandaele says, “I enjoy the craziness of this business – nothing ever becomes routine, because every day is different – I love what I do, and I do what I love.” 

While he misses Belgian specialties like Jambon d’Ardennes (a lighter version of prosciutto), Cuberdon (cone or nose-shaped) raspberry-flavored candy from Ghent, and might pack up some of the coveted mustard from Tierenteyn-Verlent on trips back to Belgium, he says with enthusiasm, “I always have cravings specific to different countries, but here I have the best of both worlds – Belgian and American.” 

Last year, he embarked on another project, B Too, a restaurant in the popular 14th Street corridor and between the two restaurants he now has 80 employees. 

“Some of my staff has been here for almost a decade,” he says, “it’s all about good communication – whether it’s with the staff or our customers.”

His impact on the DC culinary scene has resonated through an annual July event – Belgian Restaurant Week.  The week culminates with about 20 chefs preparing a feast of the best that Belgian cuisine has to offer.

As he gets ready to travel to Aspen for the annual Food & Wine Festival, he’ll be rubbing elbows with chefs like Tom Colicchio, Giada de Laurentis, Jacques Pepin and Marcus Samuelsson – and as a brand ambassador for Stella Artois, he’ll be on deck cooking with his favorite Belgian beers for a number of meals. Vandaele says, “At Belga we were able to start a real beer culture – what you find being produced in most microbreweries reflects back to Belgian beers.”

Here, you can try one of the chef’s seasonal dishes that uses some great Belgian beer:

 

Chef Bart Vandaele’s Beer Poached Halibut

Serves 4

2 pounds halibut
½ to ¾ pound baby or cherry tomatoes
½ to ¾ pound of leeks
¾ cup zucchini, chopped (ends removed)
½ cup onion, chopped
1 vanilla bean
2  bottles of dark beer (preferably a dark Abbey beer from Belgium)
16 leaves cilantro
12 ounces unsalted butter (1 ½ sticks)
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon thyme
¼ cup chicken stock or water
2 shallots, diced
2 bay leaves
¼ cup white vinegar
4 ounces (1/2 cup) dry white wine
½ cup baby gray shrimp (these come in from the North Sea; you may substitute chopped pieces of lobster or regular shrimp)

1. Halibut: In a large saucepan combine the beer, 2 ounces butter, thyme and cilantro. Simmer over low heat, melting the butter.  Add salt and pepper, to taste.  Once butter has melted, cook the halibut pieces in the liquid in a gentle simmer for 3 minutes.  When finished, remove halibut from liquid and set on a plate, covered.

2. Tomatoes: Put the baby tomatoes in a sauté pan with salt and pepper; cook over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes until they split; remove from heat and set aside.

3. Leeks: Clean and slice leeks in thin ribbons.  In a medium saucepan, heat 1 ounce of butter.  Mix in leeks, salt, pepper, 1 bay leaf, chicken stock (or water) and cook over medium heat until the leek becomes limp, but not browned. Set aside.

4. Zucchini puree: Melt 1 ounce of butter in a sauté pan.  Add ¼ cup chopped onions and 3/4 cup chopped zucchini.  Add about 1 cup water and ¼ cup heavy cream.  Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat until fork tender. Transfer to blender and puree; add salt and pepper to taste.

5. Vanilla beurre blanc: In a heavy saucepan, place chopped shallots, white vinegar and dry white wine. Add ¼ cup heavy cream and 1 stick (8 ounces) butter. Over low heat, stir until butter melts, but do not boil.  Add vanilla bean (open the pod and scrape seed into the liquid) salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer to blender and mix on low.  

6.  Baby gray shrimp – warm very gently for about a minute or two on low heat just to heat through – do not over-cook. Set aside.

7. Assembly:  Place a small bundle of leeks in the center of a plate, perch a piece of the halibut on top, followed by a few of the tomatoes.  Place a few dollops of zucchini puree around the fish, followed by a sprinkling of the baby shrimp.  Drizzle on a couple of tablespoons of the vanilla beurre blanc and serve.

The vibrant Chef Bart Vandaele at Belga’s helm prepares the leek ribbons that are subsequently ‘melted’ in butter and stock.
Chef Bart Vandaele instructs the author how to plate the Beer Poached Halibut recipe with placement of the classic vanilla beurre blanc.

Annette Nielsen is a writer and a cook who has been engaged in food, farming and sustainability issues for over two decades. The food editor of the Hill Rag, Nielsen’s experience includes catering, teaching a range of cooking classes for adults and youth, leading farm tours and coordinating artisanal food events.  She is the editor of two Adirondack Life cookbooks, Northern Bounty and Northern Comfort, and is at work on an Eastern Market cookbook.  Nielsen heads up Kitchen Cabinet Events, a culinary and farm-to-fork inspired event and cooking instruction business.