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Top Antwerp chef opens restaurant staffed by refugees

Seppe Nobels. © Graanmarkt 13

One of the country’s top chefs, Seppe Nobels of Graanmarkt 13 in Antwerp, is to extend the life of a temporary project and open a new restaurant staffed by refugees he has taught himself.

Nobels is world-famous for his Antwerp restaurant, which concentrates on vegetable cookery. Not vegan or vegetarian – supplements are available in the form of langoustines, for example, or even sea bass and steak. But the focus was always on vegetables, and that won him the first-ever Michelin Green Star.

In June he announced he was parting company with Graanmarkt 13 after 13 years, and now he has another project planned.

The new restaurant, named Instroom (a pun on the rise in the water level of a river and the intake of new students), is on the edge of the port of Antwerp, in what used to be a canteen for shipbuilders and dock workers close to the Harbour House and the MAS museum.

His plan: to staff the place with the help of the Flemish official employment and training office VDAB with 12 refugees who he would train as cooks. The training would last eight weeks, followed by two months in the restaurant. At that point, they would prepare dishes from their own countries, but with the Nobels touch.

The project was originally intended as a pop-up venture but now Nobels has decided to turn his full attention on Instroom.

Creating an Instroom dish involves three steps,” he told Knack magazine.

First, the students prepare their dish in the traditional way and explain why that dish is important to them. In the evening, and usually until late at night, I do my homework: I turn their dishes inside out. The next day we discuss. The rule is that the reworked dish is made with 80 percent local products and 20 percent from their home country. On day three we make the dish together.”

Nobels is a world-famous chef, Michelin starred, and ran a highly successful restaurant before giving it all up to work with refugees by the docks. The magazine asked him why.

I have always been socially engaged. I got that from home. My father, Frank, was a member of the college of aldermen in Mechelen for eighteen years, my mother played theatre for many years at the former Mechels Miniatuurtheater, the current Arsenaal,” he explained.

As a chef I quickly felt that I wanted to have an impact, I didn’t just want to strive for awards in fine dining or gastronomy. I want to set something in motion at the kitchen table. My latest award is the green Michelin star, the award for years of insisting on healthy principles: eating healthier by placing vegetables at the centre of our kitchen. After I had done that for 13 years with Graanmarkt 13, I had the feeling that I had reached my high point.”

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