The Brussels neighbourhood of Ilot Sacré is quietly mourning the loss of Rudy Van Lancker, owner of the famous restaurant Chez Léon on the Rue des Bouchers.
Colleagues and neighbours have reacted with shock and sadness, Bruzz reports, with many passing by the family-owned restaurant to pay their respects, including other restaurant owners who– like Van Lancker– have been a part of the Brussels culinary scene for decades.
“I was quite upset yesterday,” Achmed, owner of neighbouring restaurant The Lobster House, told Bruzz. “It was a shock. When I heard the news I thought ‘fuck, not Rudy after all.’”
Catering industry still suffering from pandemic closures
Van Lancker’s death was a suicide, and has renewed calls from the Brussels Hotel and Catering Federation for psychological support for hotel and catering entrepreneurs.
The sector has suffered tremendously as a result of the health crisis, with long periods of forced closure, expensive and often inconsistent requirements for reopening (such as installation of plexiglass, the creation of outdoor terraces, and enforcement of the Covid Safety Ticket, to name only a few) and staff shortages as a result of sick and quarantining employees.
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“I used to have eight staff, now I only have two,” said Achmed, explaining that his passion has only become more difficult.
“You have to do what you can to cling to the positive, otherwise you won't make it. For me, that is my family. I am 61 and am slowly starting to slow down. I have been doing this for 35 years, but I would never leave it to my children. It is too stressful, this business can destroy you. I love this work, don't get me wrong, but I have also had nights where I hardly slept two hours because of all the worries.”
A difficult job in difficult times
At Brasserie Arcadi, owner Kevin Ridelle commiserated.
“I didn't know Rudy personally, but as a restaurant owner I feel sorry for him. I recognise the situation, because we are all struggling. What you see on the news doesn't compare to reality. You have to be here every day to really feel it.”
He says that he and other restaurant owners have a comradery born of shared difficulties over the last few years of the pandemic.
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“We laugh about it a bit sometimes. I'll talk to the owner of the restaurant across from us and we'll ask each other 'and how much loss did you make today?' It's not funny, but it helps, you share the same fate. You can lean on each other a bit. When I have customers, for example, I sometimes point them to the business across the street, and vice versa. You help each other a little, learn to rely on each other.”
A neighbourhood staple for over a century
Chez Léon has been a part of its Brussels neighbourhood for 120 years.
The first restaurant by Léon Van Lancker opened even longer ago, in 1888, under the name “A la Ville d'Anvers.” A few years later came Chez Léon near La Grande Place, which became a symbol of Belgian cuisine.
“Everyone comes to taste one of the House's mussel recipes. There is also lobster, fish and meat, but the real initiates can be identified by their predilection for the ‘Moule Marinière Spéciale’, an almost secret recipe accompanied by fries and, for example, a delicious Léon beer,” the restaurant’s website explains.
In 2021, the torch was passed between the 5th and 6th generations of Van Lancker, from Rudy to son Kevin who now runs the family restaurant.