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Chef Gerald Venderwegen On Stepping In For Bistro BE's First Weeks

Miami is a melting pot of cuisines (bet you've never heard that one before) but amongst the purist restaurants, the fusion concepts, the grande venues and the little hole in the walls, there seemed to be type of cuisine that was amiss: Belgian.

Enter Bistro BE. For roughly two weeks the restaurant has been serving up Belgian classics in Miami, however you'll be surprised to hear that Chef Frederik Appelt hasn't actually been at the helm of the kitchen. Instead, his trusty colleague Chef Gerald Venderwegen has been holding down the fort.

Now don't go thinking that Appelt has flown the coop. The chef has a baby on the way, and is back in Belgium with his wife to await her arrival. Vanderwegen is filling in, ensuring that everything is up and running for the founding chef's return. After the jump, he reveals how his first two weeks have gone, from trying to run an American kitchen the "Belgian" way, to battling the common misconception that people from Belgium eat waffles all day.

How do you think the first week went?
The first week for me was very hectic because I had to get used to the American system, just the way people work. I'm trying to get the Belgium system operational in my kitchen so I can focus on the food myself. We will be operational this weekend to do things my way.

What are some of the challenges you've faced?
It's a really big challenge because people are used to making mistakes and getting fired [in America]. I don't work that way. I feel that if I invest time and effort into somebody and I give them a chance they will hopefully try to get better at what I ask them to do and they'll be dedicated and loyal to me. I started out as a waiter, then a Maitre D', and then I moved to the kitchen. So I paid my dues. If you come to work with diligence and focus, you will learn as much as possible in as little time as possible.

What was the best part about the opening?
I get the impression that there's really not anything like this business in Miami. Maybe they have some people that try to do French cuisine, but this is a restaurant that tries to do Belgian cuisine, which is a derivative of the French cuisine. In Belgium, we call this grandma style. We're trying to give people the feel that you get from Belgium home cooking.

What is Belgium "home cooking?"
It's like beef stew, rabbit stew, chicken stew. Those are the things you get on Sundays when grandma would cook. Then there are some dishes that are a little bit more refined, like scallops. There are some really classic old school preparations, like cheese croquettes and shrimp croquettes. And then we've got some crossover dishes. The mussel waffle is a really good example of that. You Americans think that we make a lot of waffles, but we actually don't. I don't know what else we're typically associated with here in America but, for example, nobody has waffles for breakfast in Belgium.

So do you ever have waffles?
Yes we do, but it's very typical with us to have them at a fair. That's when we have typical waffle houses. [The fairs] land in the city, they're there for two to three weeks, and then they pack up and move to another city. That is actually when we Belgians will all get some waffles. We get them once a year.

Is this your first restaurant concept in the U.S.?
Yes. In Belgium I have several. I'm the chef who's starting up this business because the actual chef had to go back home to his wife because she's pregnant. Coincidentally I just got out of a contract with an associate in Belgium at a restaurant called Valduc. The style of cooking that we tend to do here is like [the style of cooking] at Valduc, but I don't know which way the bosses want to go with this business. The other chef has made this menu and I don't know how steady we will keep it. In the restaurant that I just came from I was used to changing the whole menu every month just to keep the customers, because we had a lot of regular customers.

What are some problems you're running into now?
The biggest problem here is that companies deliver food in huge quantities. I need to find people to deliver to me in smaller quantities because my primary concern when I run a kitchen is to get my produce fresh and crispy. Our system is not to get a huge quantity and then sell it and see if we need to order more. We demand a lot better service from our fresh produce companies. In Belgium, I made my order every day.

What were people's first reaction to your Bistro BE?
It has been really stressful for me this week because I am not used to the way things work here and I am really sensitive to the quality of my food. I'm an executive chef and I've put in 96 hours this week. Chefs apparently tell other people what to do here, but my theory is to show people how I want them to do it, from washing the dishes to taking out the garbage to finishing up the dessert. The spirit that I try to install in people is that I did all this when I was starting out and I need all my personel to respect that. That's the way we learn as chefs in Belgium. We have a different system of hiring and firing people in Belgium. We pay our dues and do not demand pay in hours when we come in.

So you will both be running the restaurant when you come back?
Yes… Frederik Appelt is the chef who created the menu and what I am trying to do is get the kitchen operational for him.

Once Frederic Appelt comes back, will you still be here?
Once his wife gives birth to a beautiful, healthy daughter he will be moving here with his family. I will most definitely be here until Chef Appelt gets here, but for now I am here to do what they called and hired me to do.

Is there anything that you'll change after the first week?
Actually, for now my main concern is to get the restaurant operational. It's very difficult to do that because for me it's a whole new system, a whole new world. Yes, I will probably be changing some things, but I don't know about the menu because I try to respect the menu my colleagues have created, and if I change something it will always be in cooperation with him.
· Bistro BE [Official Site]
· All Coverage of Bistro BE [EMIA]

Bistro BE

1111 SW 1st Ave, Miami, FL 33130 305-375-0975

Bistro BE

1111 SW 1st Ave Miami, Florida 33130