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Have a Beer With…Chef Bart Vandaele of Belga Cafe

As District old-timers like to remind anyone listening, it wasn’t long ago that DC was a beer wasteland, with nothing but swill gracing local taps.  With only a few notable exceptions, there was nothing in the way of craft to speak of.  It was into that gap that Chef Bart Vandaele stepped seventeen years ago.  I recently had the chance to speak with the chef at B Too, his Logan Circle restaurant, to discuss beer and food, innovation versus tradition, and glassware.

Chef Bart moved here from his home in Belgium to serve as executive chef for the EU’s chief diplomat in 1997.  His main interest is and always has been food. “Cuisine is priority number one,” he says, “but beer is fun.  It is alcohol, after all”.  But he also says that his upbringing has led him to view beer “as a quality of life issue,” one that DC was sorely lacking.  And so, some fifteen years ago, he helped to bring what were then rare Belgian beers to the District – Stella Artois, Leffe, and Hoegaarden.

Even with those beers appearing around town, there weren’t many places to find them.  Back then, the only serious craft beer outlet was the now defunct Brickskeller.  The chef remembers it fondly as a place with “lots of great beers, but food wasn’t a major concern”.   With a craving for his country’s cuisine à la bière and years of culinary experience under his belt, Chef Bart set out to bring beer and food together in a way that DC hadn’t seen before.

The result was Barracks Row’s Belga Café, a high end restaurant with an extensive bottle list featuring previously unheard of beers from the deep reaches of Belgium.  This was in 2004, long before the craft beer renaissance swept into the capital. Belga, along with Brasserie Beck, the Belgian restaurant established by Robert Wiedmeier in 2007, treated beer as a beverage deserving of fine food.

Vandaele believes that this attitude – that beer should be treated “like a noble product” – is shared by both Belgian and American craft brewers and that the main differences between the two are stylistic.  In fact, he argues, the two grew symbiotically in America and so should “say thanks to one another” more often.

That’s why he’s such a fan of trans-Atlantic partnerships.  Nothing pleases him more than when the worlds collide, like when US brewers use a Belgian house yeast.  When asked about what development in American craft beer he’s most interested in, his first response was Spencer Brewery, the first American Trappist outfit.

It’s that kind of intermingling that’s making many of the old delineations defunct.  It’s no longer safe to say that Trappist beer is x, sours come from y.  Inspiration doesn’t respect national boundaries.  While he has deep roots in Belgium, Chef Bart doesn’t shy away from the muddied waters.  The eponymous house beer at B Too is a hybrid itself.  Made by Van Honsebrouck, it’s a 5.2% table beer with pilsner malt, Continental hops, and Belgian yeast.  It’s definitely Belgian, but it’s a scaled down version meant to be “easier to drink” than surreptitiously boozy tripels.

That said, Vandaele does believe that tradition serves a function. For instance, every one of the 150 beers at B Too is served in its proper glass – a European convention rarely practiced stateside.  But Chef Bart believes it makes a difference in the final product.  Sometimes, methods become tradition because they work.

Take sour beers.  The Belgians have long brewed a variety of sours, honing and tweaking their techniques as they went along.  Chef Bart, who grew up in Roeselare, home of the Flanders red style, argues that the accumulated knowledge redounds to everyone’s benefit.  There are hundreds of years of expertise to draw on – even the equipment has evolved to best fit the style – so a Belgian brewery has no excuse for making subpar sours.  In America, some brewers jump into sours without looking back on what’s been learned and perfected, resulting in a wide range of quality.  It’s not that Americans can’t make great sours; the chef rattled off a handful of new American takes on Belgian styles he was excited about.  It’s a matter of consistency.

When Vandaele takes a break from overseeing the kitchens at his two restaurants, he’s gratified to see that DC has become “a high quality, beer-centric town”.  And he stresses that it is indeed a town: cities, he says, are impersonal, while in towns, “you know everyone who walks in the door”.  So the next time you head in to B Too or Belga Café, be sure to say hello to Chef Bart.

All photos by Scott Suchman

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