Changing the approach in a restaurant that has been known for almost 125 years as a meat restaurant requires courage and vision. There is no shortage of daring and perseverance with chef David Martin from restaurant La Paix in Brussels. He lifted this iconic restaurant in the capital of Belgium to a higher level with his innovative philosophy and strong skills. Something that did not go unnoticed, as Michelin recently awarded him a second star and Gault & Millau gave him the title of Chef of the Year at the guide launch of 2019. Curious about the story of David Martin, we went with S. Pellegrino to visit this ‘Hungry Chef’ in Brussels.
La Paix: an icon in Brussels
Near the butcheries in the colourful city of Brussels you expect to find a good meat restaurant, so the location of the place La Paix used to be is certainly no surprise. But that you would find a two-star business here today is kind of a surprise. That things are what they are has everything to do with the history of La Paix. For more than a century, the restaurant has been the reference for tasty meat in Brussels. But since chef David Martin is leading the place, you will find much more than a good piece of meat here. A trip to Japan gave the chef an aha-erlebnis, which turned the classic menu into a gourmet kitchen with conceptual dishes that revolve around powerful flavours, craftsmanship and creativity. Not an obvious turnaround, but with one that is all the more fascinating.
The interior of La Paix intrigues because of the interesting mix of traditional elements that you can find in the typical Brussels brasserie, Japanese influences and characteristics of a gourmet restaurant. The interior is characterized by a contemporary open kitchen, a traditional wooden bar and a rather classic table cover with white linen. The large lobster tray in the middle of the restaurant is also an interesting object that manages to create the right atmosphere. And the valet service of course also ensures the right feeling. Eating at La Paix is a no-nonsense experience. It is a place that is ideal for a business lunch or an intimate tête-à-tête, two situations in which privacy, space and the right atmosphere are of great importance. And that’s all right in this case.
A conversation with David Martin
As soon as you enter La Paix and start talking to chef David Martin, you will be blown away by his energy and passion. This chef knows what he wants and what he stands for. You see that not only in the way he comes across, but also in his dishes. It shows how technically grounded and creative David Martin is. That he knows how to translate a concept into a tasteful, intriguing result is clear. Time for a few questions, although in fact we don’t have to ask him much, because once the chef starts talking about his passion for his profession, he tells his story as a real steam train. Unstoppable, powerful and fascinating.
Hungry for More: Nice to meet, David. Your passion immediately catches our attention. What is important to you in the culinary profession?
David Martin: David Martin: In the culinary world we have to look for chefs who can make a difference. Even if they want to prepare chicken with stoemp. If that is their inspiration and it is well prepared, then in my eyes that is completely perfect. We have to be different because of our individuality and not because of the look of certain dishes. Whatever type of kitchen you choose, I think it’s fine, as long as there is only one vision behind it and it is made with knowledge and passion. For example, I prepare the Citron Norvégienne for dessert. That is my own interpretation of the Omelette Norvégienne. I insert a piece of my own identity. That is why I do not pay much attention to what others do. Everybody does his thing and that is fascinating.
Hungry for More: Would you see gastronomy as a form of art?
David Martin: Cooking is absolutely a form of creation, where you make a certain idea concrete in a certain form. But the key to food art is not in the visual result. For me it is not about the looks of a dish, but about the philosophy and the taste. That’s how it is with people as well. You appreciate them by the way you experience them. When you see a beautiful woman, you cannot judge if she’s interesting based on her appearance alone. Therefore you first have to talk to her and get further acquainted. With food it’s just the same. You have to taste and understand the dishes to be able to judge them.
Hungry for More: That brings us seamlessly to the trend of restaurant reviews. New channels where restaurants are judged keep on popping up. What’s your take on that?
David Martin: I would never say that I am going to test restaurants. Giving points or assessments, it still remains quite subjective. Eating well is all about a total experience, and not only the food is important, but also the atmosphere, the company, and so on. What you certainly cannot do is pass a judgment without having been there, because as I said, I think that looks and reputation do not really matter that much.
Well, giving points is of course good for the competitive feeling. Although I do not like it if there can only be one winner. There are so many restaurants that do a great job and deserve to be valorised for it. So long story short, I think everyone should go dining at a variety of places, so they can form their own opinion.
Hungry for More: What is typical about La Paix’s kitchen? In any case, the team seems to be walking around quietly and happily here.
David Martin: I think it’s very important to work with a good team and you can only achieve that through a good work-life balance and a correct approach. When your people are happy, they will perform much better and that is something the guests immediately feel. It makes no sense to work 24/7. Because then you are anything but sharp and happy. That is why our restaurant is only open for lunch on weekdays and on Friday evenings. I think it’s fantastic to work with my team to come up with new things that everyone can contribute to. Not only I as a chef can think of new things, it is the work of a whole team. We do not have recipe books here, so newcomers can’t simply come here and perform without thinking. No, from people that want to work at La Paix I expect a different type of commitment.
What I also want to say is that we at La Paix resolutely opt for a good kitchen and not for a ‘beautiful’ kitchen. I think it is essential that the dishes are made with love and expertise. Real cooking requires dedication. You have to be focused and passionate.
Hungry for More: Should we see your vision as traditional (by referring to the craft of cooking) or as progressive (by working conceptually)?
David Martin: That does not really matter to me. It is fundamental to work with powerful flavours. By removing elements from certain recipes you can continue to develop them further. That is much stronger than adding all kinds of things.
When people come to eat at La Paix, I want them to remember it. It must be an experience that is different from everything else. We are not the type of restaurant that pimps familiar food to make something special out of it. Such a bearnaise with curry or all kinds of other additions I find absolutely no added value. We want to create things and we do that by starting from ‘nothing’, not by wanting to make something better by changing things. Our approach requires more thinking and effort. But I strongly believe that creation is much more than tuning and pimping dishes.
Hungry for More: Not so long ago you decided to take a different approach at La Paix. Wasn’t that a difficult decision?
David Martin: : Definitely. La Paix has been around for about 125 years and it is only in the last 5 years that we have chosen a new approach. I was so tired of always doing the same thing, so we just took the step. We still start from artisanship, without the use of crazy machines, etc. To be able to offer top quality you need good products, but also love and the time to prepare the food. Let’s take the example of a piece of fish that we prepare by cooking it in butter at a very soft temperature. This gives you the taste of the fish and the softness of the butter, instead of the predominant taste of a butter sauce that is served so often. The same goes for lobster. I find it so unfortunate that it tastes overcooked in most places. But what do you think… If you touch a hot pot, your body also pulls through the pain. The same applies to a lobster that you throw in boiling water. It cannot taste good anymore. That’s why I use the product differently and I go for a much lighter cuisson, so you can feel the structure, the fibers and the real taste.
Anyway, it has not been an easy change. In the beginning we lost a lot of customers with the new concept at La Paix. People who came for a fillet of steak or steak tartar could not appreciate the novelties. People are creatures of habit. Initially we tried to adjust the menu gradually, but when we saw that people were not inclined to test new things, we made a more drastic switch. It’s really not easy to find your own path as a chef, but I had come to a point where change was the only way. I could no longer appreciate my own kitchen…
Hungry for More: Where do you find inspiration day after day?
David Martin: I really find inspiration everywhere. I grew up in the south of France and my youth there offers me a lot of inspiration, even today. When I was fourteen I stopped school because I knew I wanted to become a chef. There are still a lot of chefs in our family.
But also the impressions I get every day have an impact on what I choose to put on the plate. My discovery of the Japanese cuisine has played an important role in my personal development as a chef. For example, many interesting techniques are used there, which we then redevelop from a European point of view. In this way we create a new identity.
Yet it is not an easy task to come to the perfect dishes. We want something to be put on the menu when it is totally refined. That is why we do not change menu unnecessarily often. But of course we do follow the seasons.
Hungry for More: You are an ambassador of S.Pellegrino. Can you tell us more about this collaboration?
David Martin: Certainly. It started when I got the question from them to become an ambassador for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition. I loved to coach young people and see young people with so much talent. Encouraging them to get better gave me great satisfaction. I feel a good click with the younger generation of chefs, such as Frederic Chastro from Soma in Antwerp or Marcelo Ballardin from Oak in Ghent. They sometimes come here to eat and are inspired, and the reverse is just as much as possible. What I will not do is share recipes with people that they would then copy, but I like to share techniques with people who want to grow. If they have the right skills and attitude, they can use my input in the right way.
Hungry for More: You are working on a lot of other projects besides La Paix?
David Martin: Indeed. For example, we put our shoulders under Le Resto at Brussels Airport and we have projects such as Le Lieu with Serge Luypaert and Goedele Van Renterghem, and Les ateliers de la Mer with Igor Jovanovic. We also started Brasserie Bozar, but that has now been sold to the new owner. What is essential for me in such initiatives is that I do it together with people whom I am close to and can work well with.
A good and smart entrepreneur does not want to keep everything for himself. You must learn to share with your team and your partners. You need to coach the young chefs who stay with you in the restaurant. If you want to take everything for yourself, you will lose everything. It will never be enough. That’s not what I want to happen.
Hungry for More: And then the ultimate last question. What are your plans, ambitions and dreams?
David Martin: Well, I’ve already accomplished more than I ever could imagine. More friends, more restaurants, more financial security. So what I want to do is live happily ever after. I certainly do not want to work until I am exhausted or soured. You have to be able to look back and not regret anything. So maybe I’ll start a small good bistro with just a couple of seats. Or maybe I’ll start my own garage. That might be nice.
Hungry for More: Thank you for sharing your story with us, David. We keep following your projects and are already curious about what is coming.
At the table
Once at the table, let’s take a look at the chef. He serves us today the discovery menu, which gives a nice picture of his cooking style.
‘Rillettes’ of mackerel and pistachio.
Grated oysters with mushrooms.
Porc and mousse of ham.
Crispy tartlette ‘Moscovite’ / Caviar / Potato cream with algae / fresh nuts
Moelleux made of farm eggs from ‘La Ferme des Coudriers’ / Parmesan / Porcini mushrooms / Bacon from the ‘Alsace’ region.
Blue lobster from Bretange (cooked ‘blue’ or ‘rare’) / Black olives / pistacchio / Anchovy from Cantabrique.
Beef / confit or Kriek beer vinegar / Carrots / Potatoe / Raifort.
Soufflé with Norvegian style lemon (hot & cold) / Pear / Vanilla from La Réunion.
1000 leaves / Pear / Whiskey
Sweet bites to go with the coffee and tea: a Basque Tart with black cherries, a chocolate bar with no added sugar and Sorbet of Hamburg Muscat from the Mont Ventoux.
David Martin is a chef who isn’t afraid of a challenge. He definitely masters the art of cooking and he’s extremely passionate about his profession. At restaurant La Paix you can really taste the philosophy of the chef. It’s a vision that is characterized by authenticity, craftsmanship and good taste.