Geeta Bansal Interviews René Mathieu, Chef at Chateau Bourlingster

Categories: On the Line
René Mathieu

Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit to Luxembourg, where René Mathieu wows both royalty and commoners alike. Enjoy!

Last year at a food conference, my friend René was horrified and shocked when, at a small group meeting with chefs Michel Troisgros and Pierre Gagnaire of France, I totally broke protocol and chose to ask my own questions (in my passable French) of these esteemed chefs (American brashness replacing the European sensibilities). René knows a thing or two about protocol, as he was the chef de cuisine for three years for the Duc and Duchesse of Luxembourg. There were more interpreters and cameras in the room than chefs, and my passable French was not well-appreciated by the officiating moderators and translators, to the amusement of two Spanish culinary-school instructors in the room with us.

After our meeting with Gagnaire

Mathieu is a mild, elegant (and very tall) Belgian chef from the Lilliputian land of Luxembourg. Last year, he was awarded his first Michelin star for the food he creates for the elegant dining room of the La Distillerie restaurant at Château Bourlingster. This year, the accolades are already piling up, as he has been named Chef of the Year for Legumes in entire Benelux region. We share a passion for food and the many brilliant chefs we admire, such as Gagnaire, Albert Adria, René Redzepi, Arabelle Meirlaen and Soon Hang Degeimbre, among others. In his long career, he has received multiple accolades and awards in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Several years ago, my husband and I drove to Luxembourg from Brussels (a detour on the way to France), following a gastronomic trail of amazing chefs and restaurants. We had heard of the picturesque Château and its chef from friends in Europe. Needless to say, René's work shows his mastery and love of the culinary craft. Last week, René, after reading a few of my interviews, said that I am only writing about the top guns, and I have many other friends in Europe who are talented, creative chefs. So I decided to introduce my friend René to the food addicts in our part of the world.

The Chateau at night

Not many visitors travel specifically to the Benelux region in Europe, comprised of three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The last is the smallest of the three, with an area of only 998 square miles and a population of 400,000. The Château Bourlingster (set in the country) is an extremely charming castle, completely rebuilt and modernized in 2006. After three years of tough times and hard work by René and Selim Schiltz (the owner of Château Bourlingster), it is now recognized in Belgium, France and Germany as one of the top tables of the region. As he says: One structure, one team and one vision is necessary to accomplish his goal of making it the best in the region and known all over the world.

So this week, we're taking a detour from Spain to the fairytale landscape of Luxembourg, to the small town of Bourlingster, where René informed me a few weeks ago that it was 6 degrees Celsius [or 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit] with 30 millimeters of snow on the ground. (Needless to say, he doesn't believe it gets cold in California.) He started his career in his native country of Belgium, where, during his early years, Pierre Bruneau, a three-starred Michelin chef, took him under his wing after having visited (incognito, René says) his modest restaurant Le Capucin Gourmand in Belgium. Bruneau inspired him to reach for more and gave him the confidence to reach for the stars (of the Michelin variety, of course). At age 26, he was awarded his first Michelin star, and it was a good time in his life until the end of his marriage in 2002. The following year, he left Belgium to start afresh in Luxembourg.

My questions for Chef René Mathieu:

Was this a family profession?

No, not at all. I was born in Laroche in the Ardenne area of Belgium. I was one of six children in a very modest family. My maternal grandmother was a cook for a royal family, and she generated the love of cuisine in me, especially the love of herbs, flowers, vegetables and wild plants. When I was 8, I started a daily routine of going into the forest with my grandfather Louis, who guarded the forests for the royal family. He initiated me to all aspects of the forest: which wild plants were edible, which were not, and the veritable natural pharmacy in the forest. To this day, I use this knowledge in my cuisine and share it with my team and my family to keep the tradition alive.

Flavors of Nature

When did you enter in this industry?

When I was 13, I had my first contact with the restaurant life. From that moment, I knew that this is what I want to do with my life--become a cook. School did not interest me anymore. I obtained a training position at the very first restaurant [I approached] and stayed there for four years. After that, I apprenticed at another restaurant, but it did not match my vision of what I wanted my food to be. At the age of 21, I opened my own petite auberge, which became a springboard for my career.

What is your philosophy of food?

In a world in which everything is accelerating, in which everything changes very quickly, tastes are always evolving. Borders open up, spaces get closer, . . . Because the flavors are an endless source of pleasure and surprises, the gastronomic universe cannot remain compartmentalized in its habits or fall into monotony and weariness of taste. It deserves to be studied, to be explored . . . that we always select the best products available.

My work is mainly in this research, where we need to highlight the work of craftsmen who respect their products. This is the essential foundation for the creation of my recipes that can reveal a fun or symbolic link. It is very important to experience tasting in a world of escape, based on a sensitive but also reflective approach, a sensual exchange for the body but also an aesthetic mind transfer. It must be a culinary experience based on tastes, colors and shapes, meaning and senses, a cuisine of various fragrances. . . . I add a philosophical dimension to the definition of gastronomy, which is integral to all creations. It is a set of specific, mastered techniques that are the tools of artistic and emotional expression. Fragrances, flavors, textures, colors are all elements that trigger our memory, unique and sensitive moments of our lives, that reveal conscious or unconscious memories.

Seasonal Ingredients

What is the most annoying thing about restaurant menus for you?
Monotony and lack of respect for the seasons, as well as cooking made without love, bore me.

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