BELGIUM: Vincent Florizoone

Mythology of a Young Innovator: Vincent FlorizooneBy Maria Lisella

Chef Vincent Florizoone. Photo by Maria Lisella.
A splashy entrance is not Vincent Florizoone’s style. If anything, his understated arrival at an interview on the 44th Floor of the New York Times building was inauspicious. Lanky and handsome, he is charming in a relaxed way, no affectations or airs. At at the mere mention of food he is alert, happy and ready to chat about his most recent tasting adventure.

Voted the most innovative chef of Flanders in 2010, the Belgian culinary magazine SMAAK called him a star in 2008; and while even younger, in 2007, Vincent Florizoone received the Trophée Champagne Jacquart, a very prestigious prize for a top chef under 35 years old without a Michelin star.

He outgrew his restaurant, Petit Cabaret in Veurne, and relocated to a bigger place in Nieuwpoort in June 2008 where he opened Grand Cabaret. That same year, he earned his first quotation from GaultMillau 14/20.
Two years ago, Florizoone was the leading chef in a group of equally impressive peers who were chosen to impart their knowledge of modern Flemish cuisine to British chefs and media at Harrods.

Today at 32, Florizoone is an integrated composite of all of his training – from learning next to mom and dad, both of whom own their own restaurants, to studying under the mighty toque of Belgian chef, Gianpierre Bruneau who saw in Florizoone a shooting star. Bruneau paved the way for young Florizoone to study under and alongside Alfonso Iaccarino in Sorrento, Italy and Ferran Adrià at el Bulli in Spain. Taking a page from Iaccarino, much of the produce Florizoone uses at his restaurant has been grown within kilometers of his restaurant.

Recently, Florizoone cooked up a storm in New York City as a way to introduce Big Apple gastronomic media and travel communities to the rich panorama of Modern-Day Flemish Cuisine.
ML: How have you come to represent what is so new in Flemish cuisine?
VZ: I appreciate classic dishes, deconstructing a bit, enhancing them, while not really altering their basic nature. The classics are experiencing a renaissance and they should – they are being presented in new ways, they look different but their roots are very true to their origin.

Hennepot is a good example – in Flemish dialect it means hen in a pot literally…a dish cooked in a pot of clay that can be served at room temperature; I’ve translated it with gelatin, de-boned chicken, sorbet made with granny smith apples, and other ingredients, but it is still hennepot.

ML: How did you get involved in Harrod’s Flemish Fortnight?
VZ:Harrods googled me because they looked for different chefs to illustrate various aspects of Flemish cooking, and I was the youngest who was also preparing and presenting traditional Flemish cuisine in a new way but I was in stellar company: Desmidt is now a two-star chef (Restaurant Bartholomeus in Knokke) and one of the best in Belgium; when I eat there I can never find anything wrong at all with what has been prepared – it’s always perfect and amazing. Try as I might just to tease him, nothing is ever wrong.
ML: There is very little about you on the web in English at least, so when did you start cooking?
VZ: My grandfather, brother, father and mother are all cooks, chefs; my parents each have their own restaurant – hers is on the seaside in Koksijde and seats 220; while his is in Teper outside of Pouprin and seats 45. I always worked in restaurants with my parents — have been cooking since I was 16.

ML: When did you decide to become a professional?
VZ: My father wanted me to be a doctor so I studied Greek and Latin; he warned me to do well in languages, so I succeeded at Greek and Latin but failed at everything else, a planned failure that was a gateway to what I loved best.

ML: Did you attend a culinary institute? How and where did you apprentice?
VZ: At that time, Belgium had maybe four Michelin-starred restaurants, today there are at least 22. When I was 18, I worked with Gianpierre Bruneau who is like the Gordon Ramsey of Belgium — the “living hell,” and also the best person to work with and the best place to have worked – what I really learned was discipline. Bruneau is a very hard task-master — he formed me.

ML: How did you get to work at the three-Michelin-starred Relais Don Alfonso in Sorrento and at Ferran Adrià’s el Bulli in Spain?
VZ: It was a dream to go to Italy to learn the classics – Bruneau asked me if I just wanted to go to cook pastas, but it was more than that of course – I wanted to work at a two or three-star Michelin starred restaurant; my goal was to become an all-around chef, to be as knowledgeable as I could be.

Before I knew it, Bruneau arranged it; I had one day’s notice – I packed and arrived in Sorrento, Italy where I studied under Alfonso Iaccarino for three years. Once voted as best Mediterranean restaurant in the world, people like Bill Clinton and Maggie Thatcher would fly to Sorrento just for a meal there, so you can imagine the quality.

At El Bulli, it was all about learning the best dishes – from tapas to dessert — experimentation, innovation – Ferran has been called the world’s greatest chef, the Salvador Dali of the kitchen and Time magazine placed him on the list of the 100 most influential people of our times.
ML: What were the differences between working in Belgium versus working in the Mediterranean?

VZ: No rush, no stress…it was amazing. During the first month, I understood the language and after three, I could speak it…I was immersed in it. I would receive my list of tasks but to be completed within the day not the two hours I was used to, so I learned to slow down, pace myself. Alfonso Iaccarino has acres of rich volcanic soil near the sea, it is almost purple where he cultivates vegetables or purchases raw materials from small producers in the area.

I worked with 14 cooks from 11 nations and on our days off each month we would invite the group to our apartments and cook something from our country so we could sample as much as possible. I have tasted cockroaches from Thailand and fresh grasshoppers, so I can say I have a very all-around palatte.
ML: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
VZ: Make Up by Bonelli Gianluiggi and do you know why I love it, because it is just pictures, no recipes, few words…I hunt for inspiration, do not need to be dictated to but sometimes I need a jumping off point, visuals do that for me. We taste with the tongue, the nose and the eye also very much wants something to, so you have to feed that desire.

ML: What advice would you give to young people who aspire to be professional chefs?
VZ: I would say anyone can be a good cook – it takes hard work, the most important element – then a commitment to be fast, a multi-tasker, to get the various dishes to the table all at once while they are still warm…everything tastes good if prepared with love.

ML: What advice would you give at-home cooks who want to upgrade their own expertise?
VZ: In a perfect world, it would be optimum if they could work in a famous chef’s kitchen, intern, but that is not usually possible. I would suggest the simplest thing – cook and use vegetables and fruits according to season and that includes knowing when to avoid fish during their breeding time or they will disappear that much sooner.

ML: And, finally, what impressions would you like visitors to Belgium to take home with them in terms of the cuisine?
VZ: We have a very rich culinary tradition for sure – I would ask visitors to forget mussels and waffles, although when they are good, they are very good. Our mussel season is from September through April, so fall, winter, spring, but apart from those times, do not go near the mussels. Do taste our beers, they are the best anywhere…in Maine, Ebenezer Christopher’s sells 35 Belgian beeers, some we cannot even get at home, but among my favorites are the Belgian Geuze, of which there are many.

New York-based, Maria Lisella may be reached at: View more of her work at