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Belgium’s top chef sounds the alarm for his industry

Goossens in front of his farmhouse restaurant. © Belga

More than two months after the introduction of the complete lockdown of the country, Belgium’s top chef has spoken out about the future of the restaurant industry in the post-corona era.

In an extensive interview published by De Standaard, Peter Goossens, chef-proprietor of Hof Van Cleve, hits out at how the government appears to have abandoned the entire horeca (hotel-restaurant-cafe) industry.

Today sees the re-opening of a number of sectors that were closed down in March: shops, hairdressers, street markets and museums. But of the first victims of the lockdown, the horeca industry, there is still no relief in sight.

After all this time, the government has not even managed to give us any perspective on the future,” Goossens said.

Goossens is Belgium’s only remaining three-star chef, and his restaurant in Kruishoutem in East Flanders is a piece of complex machinery. Starting up again after such a delay is not a simple matter of lighting the stove.

We are a machine, with 25 employees who need at least a week to get everything ready,” he explained. “To polish everything perfectly to place orders. Work out menus. Because by now there’s no point planning anything with asparagus or young peas, they will no longer be there.”

And as much as the kitchen needs to be brought up to speed, there remains the question of front of house: what is social distancing going to do to the restaurant experience, and the restaurant economy?

In normal times, the restaurant had room for 45 covers, and the break-even point was 30-35 diners per shift – not a problem when customers are coming from across the world to this former village of 8,000 inhabitants, now fused with neighbour Zingem into the new municipality of Kruisem.

But will the restrictions on capacity allow the restaurant to open in the first place? Goossens considered the possibility of opening with 50% of the former clientele, and rejected it outright.

That’s not possible. I can’t put up a team of 25 people to serve 20 customers. If we can only open halfway, there are two options for me: stay closed or sack people, and I really don’t want to do that. I respect my staff, and when you turn on the TV these days, all you hear about is layoffs. A thousand people at Brussels Airlines. They should also take that into account. We can’t have thousands of people from the catering industry ending up on the street.”
If you visit the Hof Van Cleve website now, you can book a table starting on June 8, but that is whistling in the dark, he says.

We actually started it last Monday because we can’t wait. That’s another thing they don’t realise. It is not because I say I’m open tomorrow that there are people at the door. You have to work proactively.”

And he accuses the government of the opposite position: of leaving an entire industry – and in particular one which is such a part of Belgium’s image abroad – in a state of uncertainty about its very future.

It makes me despondent,” he says. “I built up my business for 35 years. I left part of my family and health to one side to achieve a goal. And just when you are ready, it is gone overnight because that’s what they decided in Brussels.

I understand the reason. There was the virus, and something had to be done. But now the time has come for us to move forward again. To start again, to do business, to make decisions. Yet all I see is people covering their backs when it comes to the catering industry. Politicians say it is up to the virologists. The virologists say it is up to the politicians. And in the meantime, we watch helplessly from the sidelines as our businesses case come to a standstill. Then I get angry, yes.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times