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Filip Claeys
Restaurant De Jonkman

Filip Claeys

It was during a trip to Japan that Filip Claeys first gained an appreciation of his own terrain. “Standing at the fish auction in Tokyo, I realised I’d been taking the wrong approach,” the chef recalls. “There, the most gorgeous tuna was caught locally and sold fresh at the market. I understood that instead of serving second-rate tuna from across the world in my restaurant, I could be serving fresh North Sea fish. Far from home, I learned to be chauvinistic.”

North Sea fish takes centre stage

Since then, the chef at two-star restaurant De Jonkman in Bruges is proud to serve Atlantic horse mackerel and tub gurnard. “When I began this practice, it cost me 40% of my customers. At the time, diners at an exclusive restaurant didn’t expect to encounter by-catch on their plates. They wanted lobster or cod.” Still, Filip stuck to his plans and even intensified his efforts, finding fifteen like-minded chefs who also wanted to help North Sea fish gain recognition, preferably lesser-known species. He dubbed their collective “The North Sea Chefs”. “I found it unimaginable that so much fish was simply being tossed back or ground up into meal to farm other species of fish we were more willing to eat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with by-catch, it’s purely a case of ‘unknown makes unloved’. I wanted the North Sea Chefs to change that.”

And they did. Nowadays, no-one is surprised to see mackerel or dogfish on a menu, and supermarkets are also selling previously unloved species. “As chefs, we set the example. If you are willing to swim against the current, you can make a change.”

Filip Claeys

From local products to beer pairing

"As chefs, we set the example. If you are willing to swim against the current, you can make a change."

This chef’s love for the products of Belgium’s own waters has only grown since. “I drive over to the fish market in Ostend myself each week. The fisher from Dini 0.62 supplies me with live shrimp at my request, instead of cooking them on board. That gives me raw brown shrimp that I fry or make into a tempura. Back at the restaurant, I keep them in a tank filled with sea water and don’t take them out until a few minutes before serving. Using fresh, raw shrimp makes an enormous difference in flavour. What self-respecting chef would buy pre-cooked lobster, after all? It’s the exact same thing.” Local oysters raised at Ostend’s “oyster pit” are also fantastic. “The pit’s combination of salt and brackish water produces oysters that are subtly saline with a nutty aftertaste. Since first tasting those oysters, I refuse to serve any others.”

Filip is enthusiastic about other local products as well. “Our Trappist beers are fantastic. They are known and appreciated worldwide. It makes me very proud to have been awarded ‘Best Beer Menu’ by Gault&Millau in 2020. Our drinks menu features as many as 140 local beers and besides wine pairings, we also offer beers matched to our dishes. It’s usually our international customers that choose these. Flemings could stand to take a bit more pride in our cultural heritage!”

Cooking according to the rhythm of the seasons

De Jonkman’s signature dishes show off what sophisticated dishes by-catch can be used to create. For instance, Filip serves a soup of brown North Sea crab that uses a flavourful stock created from the smaller crabs and fish trapped in the same nets, finished with coffee oil. De Jonkman changes its menu every six weeks. “That way I can cook according to the rhythm of the seasons. Fruits and vegetables have their seasons, but so do fish. You don’t eat sole when they’re spawning. Global warming has had an impact as well. There’s barely any cod to be found around here these days, as they prefer colder climes. In recompense, though, we’re seeing squid in the North Sea now. We need to be willing to look beyond what we ate previously and see what our fishers are catching for us in their nets each day.”

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