In an 18th-century neoclassical townhouse in central Antwerp, on a cobbled square that’s been used as a marketplace for over 500 years, a decidedly modern form of commerce and hospitality takes the form of Graanmarkt 13. The five-storey building, opened in 2010, was overhauled by architect Vincent van Duysen, a figurehead of Belgium’s ‘sensual’ minimalism movement, to comprise a top-floor apartment (now a rentable guesthouse) for founders Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven, retail space offering a tight edit of ‘trendless’ goods and, in the basement, a restaurant whose head chef, Seppe Nobels, has been such a hit, he’d been busy cooking for the Queen of Belgium when we meet him.
But, while his clientele may contain a royal following, what they’re after from Seppe is rather more humble: vegetables. That’s because, despite not being an all-out vegetarian restaurant, Seppe’s light-handed treatment of the fresh produce that comes from the restaurant’s own farm and garden takes centre stage in Graanmarkt 13’s culinary offering, and has been the subject of two books, Greens that taste like friendship and Vegetables that sparkle the conversation, both with names that define the cheery, bonhomie way Seppe wants you to eat.
Seppe: “When I was 12 years old, I wanted to become a chef or a farmer. My parents said that I needed to go through school first and then choose later, when I grew up. But I kept on telling them that, ‘No, I want to do something with my hands’.
“My mother is an actress and my father was in politics, so no, not a farming family. But, since I was a child, I’ve always found it important and necessary to put my hands in the ground. It’s amazing, I think, to connect your body with the earth in that way.
“The moment I decided to become a chef, it all became completely clear for me. I went to the Hotelschool Ter Duinen in Koksijde, the most famous school in Belgium for chef training. I then did a few internships at really good hotels in Belgium, Italy and the South of France, and actually I never came back to the idea of being a farmer until we opened Graanmarkt 13.
“When we opened I found myself cooking in a way that was imitating what I had seen at those places I had worked before. I was doing it with a lot of respect, but, while it wasn’t an exact copy, it wasn’t my own. I started thinking, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?’
“We are now ten years old but in the second year I changed the whole set up. I started my own rooftop garden, I started to work only with biological produce from our farmer, I became a beekeeper, I started working with local producers and, actually, I started resembling something like a farmer, because I was, and still am, really connected to the craftmanship of growing and the farming tradition of our area.
“The other reason I wanted to be a cook is that my mother, despite working very hard, would always cook on Sundays and during vacations. It was extremely important for our family to share a meal together around the table and those moments are the most beautiful memories of my youth.
“I think it’s important for me to show people in Graanmarkt 13 what a special experience being together around a table is. It’s a beautiful thing to share food and I notice it most when I’m at home with my two daughters and one of them asks me if I want a few green beans or some tomato salad. Restaurants now are totally about creating and facilitating experiences, ones that maybe feel more like being at home.
“A lot of people ask me, hey if you’re cooking all day at the restaurant, how do you manage to get home and cook for your family? But I always find the time, because you can’t compare cooking at home and in a restaurant – it’s completely different.
“The dishes that I cook at home are the typical, classic dishes. One of my favourites is chicory that is rolled in a nice ham or bacon, with a kind of bechamel or Mornay sauce with a lot of Flemish cheese and milk; it’s beautiful with potatoes.
“Our country is split up into two parts: we have Wallonia, the more mountainous part, and then Flanders, the Flemish part. I was born in Mechelen, between Brussels and Antwerp, where we have a beautiful morning market, and strong agriculture in the area.
“Our classic kitchen in Flanders is completely based on meat and fish – we don’t have too many vegetarian dishes so, like chefs in England who grew up with Sunday roasts and puddings, for me it was exactly the same.
“But now I’m creating completely new vegetable dishes, and one of my biggest dreams is that one of them becomes one of our typical, classic Flemish dishes, which will be served on the kitchen tables of peoples’ home. That’s something I would love to do, mostly because of how home cooking was so important for me.
“And, while vegetables are very important in my cooking, everyone in Belgium thinks I’m just a vegetarian chef, and that’s not fully the case. I’m just someone who wants to work with local producers and I try to cook as much as possible in a healthy way, which is why I cook a lot with vegetables. But at Graanmarkt 13 I also work with beautiful fish from the North Sea and lobsters from local fisherman.
“And then the game season is really important for me and I try to serve it a lot. The animals have a great, wild life in which they are free. So, I like to work with produce that has had a beautiful life and where there is a beautiful process. That’s something I really want to share with people, hence why we have open kitchens that diners can look straight into.
“I think that we should all be promoting our local heritage. I get really nervous when I read menus from around the world and see that everyone is working with the exact same ingredients: wasabi, soy sauce, ceviche of avocado; all the same things. Let’s share recipes and ways of preparing but please, let’s work with local ingredients, supporting producers who are near you.
“That said, the way people are eating and interacting with restaurants is really changing. Young people have a lot of questions these days; where does it come from? how do you grow your produce? is it local?
“People have questions because they don’t trust the way food was served in the past and I think it’s important to give an answer to them. I like to tell stories and make memories at the restaurant, and telling stories is not lying! It’s about the truth and I think the truth of what we do, where we source our ingredients and the respect we show for them can be tasted in the food we serve.
“Take the dish we have made, for example. It’s a tarte tatin which is not at all a local recipe, but I have taken the way of cooking and used chicory, which grows very well in this region and is, let’s say, the king of Belgian winter vegetables.
“I made it as a starter, rather than a desert, I changed the main ingredient (which is apples) and also didn’t use refined sugar because I prefer to use natural products, which, in this case, is honey from my own beehives on the rooftop of the restaurant.
“Then I served it with a local cheese and mustard leaves. I love to work with salad varieties that are not that well known, especially winter salads from our own biological farm run by our farmer who only plants seeds on the full moon and talks with the birds – I love him.
“It’s one of my best-selling dishes at the moment because it’s really easy and when you get the plate, you recognise immediately what it is. I don’t like mystery in cooking. If you work with fennel, cauliflower or whatever, please show your guests what you’ve used.
“My advice for people looking to improve their home cooking would be firstly to respect the seasons, and if you’re working in full season, most of the time the produce will be from the fields, not from glasshouses. The price of the produce will be a lot lower than if you’re buying strawberries in winter, for example, which will also be of poor quality. Connecting with where your food comes from will make you more invested in the food you make.
“For me, modernity and relevance in cooking are not about ‘less is more’ – I think that’s behind us. For me, a modern way of cooking is going completely back to the roots, saving our culinary heritage. It shouldn’t be too complicated or involve crazy techniques. If you look to the past, cooking was done in the forest with fire, and I think the future of food is going back to that experience.
“When I create new dishes, I always talk to friends of mine who are artists, and never other chefs. Talking with people who are in art, architecture or design helps me because they look at things the other way around.
“Graanmarkt 13 was designed by Vincent van Duysen and his skill means that we start our day completely differently, work in an environment that puts us in a good mindset, in a place that we feel is structured and where you see natural materials.
“Sometimes when I go to restaurants where the architecture and design is not right means, even if the food is amazing, I can’t appreciate it in the same way. For me, it’s crucial the space should be as inspiring as the food. That’s pure, raw and earthy materials, just like food.”
Seppe’s recipe for chicory tarte tatin and mustard leaf salad
100g mustard leafs
1 celeriac, roots attached
100g of sheep cheese
A few sprigs of rosemary
A few bay leaves
1 branch of thyme
4 circles of puff pastry with 10 cm diameter
Cut the chicory stalks lengthwise and cook in a pan in butter with salt, pepper and some nutmeg, until golden brown
Cut the roots from the body of a celeriac and blanch until tender in water seasoned with the rosemary, bay leaves and sea salt. Drain.
When golden, arrange the chicory in a suitable round baking dish, 10cm in diameter
Prick holes in the puff pastry with the tip of your fork
Sprinkle the chicory with peeled thyme leaves and then put the puff pastry on top. Bake for 20 minutes at 185ºC in a preheated oven
Put the mustard leaves and the crumbled sheep cheese on a plate with the celeriac roots and serve the chicory tarte on top of it. Finish with coarse sea salt and high quality honey