One Year In: A Belgian Chef Leaves his Mark on D.C.
In chef/owner Bart Vandaele's B Too, a giant portrait of a pig snout hangs on one of the walls, peeking out cheekily from behind amber curtains. The snout sits above a corner of the restaurant, perhaps sniffing the guests' waffles or oinking at their selections.
The snout isn't the only farm guest taking in the handsome, old-fashioned wood tones and Belgian-inspired dishes at the Washington, D.C., establishment. There is also a portrait of a cow that covers an entire wall. "We're creating a scenery for the guests," Chef Vandaele explains simply.
B Too, which turned 1 in May, is a contemporary Belgian restaurant that celebrates Chef Vandaele's home country, from the tableware designed by a Belgian artist to the twists on Belgian waffles—lobster waffle and wild mushroom waffle being just a couple—and the selection of more than 150 Belgian beers. Chef Vandaele is a fiercely independent restaurateur who says he's bored if he's not learning, wants to take on new roles until he simply can't, and gets his kicks experimenting with his dishes.
A seasoned restaurateur who opened up Belga Cafe in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago, Chef Vandaele says he learned many lessons bringing B Too to fruition last May. His first instinct with B Too was to see how someone else might run the operations and learn from his methods. It was a flop.
"After six months, our food costs were too high, our labor costs were too high—I ended up implementing all my old systems from Belga to B Too," he says. "The biggest thing that I learned, I think, coming from Belga, is: I really know a lot about the restaurant business, and when I believe strongly in myself, we're in way better shape than before."
Chef Vandaele designed an open kitchen at B Too as his connection to the dining room. He is particular about cleanliness, has nothing to hide in the back of the house, and says the open kitchen lets him see both sides of the restaurant. "It's fun for the guys, also, to see what's happening in the dining room. It's fun to observe a table that has a beautiful experience. It's nice for the guys when the guest passes by. It stimulates them; otherwise, they're in the back of the house."
The front of the house is stimulating for guests, as well, thanks to the $60,000 acoustical ceilings Chef Vandaele brought in. He calls the ceilings his biggest, and most invisible, success story. They make the restaurant quiet and tranquil, to the point that even with 100 guests dining in, the restaurant is not loud.
A lack of noise gives guests more time to focus on the food: mussels and waffles, proteins such as stuffed quail and duck breast, and, of course, Belgian frites. The inspiration for the food is "a constant, mind boggling thing of mine," Chef Vandaele says. "I'm just constantly thinking about it: How can I change it? It's not just about inventing new stuff (and we do a boatload of it), but, for example, the whole waffle craze we have in the U.S. now—even Taco Bell makes waffles—I've been doing that for the last 10 years. I've been using waffles in pretty much every dish. I've never tried it in a drink, but that would be a new challenge."
This self-imposed dare is little surprise from the man who tires of sameness. "I'll get bored if I don't get excited anymore, if I don't learn anything. I don't want to be at one thing the best of the best. I just want to be, at multiple things, way better than the rest."
To that end, Chef Vandaele is a brand ambassador for Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe Blond, and Leffe Brown. He has been Knighted by multiple Belgian orders, including the Order of Leopold II. He created Belgium Restaurant Week in D.C. and competed on season 10 of “Top Chef.” He also raises pet chickens.
Hobbies aside, he says his passion is wine, and he follows the tannin tastes to wineries in France, Italy, and Spain, while also serving as wine director of B Too. He does all the finance for his own restaurants, and he's also majority owner of the restaurants amongst a group of investors.
Why is it important to him that he wear so many hats? "Maybe because I'm a little bit ADD and a control freak; maybe it's because I love to do this," he offers.
By Sonya Chudgar