Food Network Top Chef contestant Bart Vandaele specializes in extremely beer-friendly Belgian food. (Courtesy of Wagstaff Worldwide)
One of the best parts about the Food Network program Top Chef is picking a contestant and rooting for them as the season progresses. This year, the choice was made easy for me by dint of the fact that one of the contestants specializes in extremely beer-friendly Belgian food.
This comes as no surprise as Bart Vandaele grew up in Belgium, beginning his training as a chef at the age of 12. He is behind Washington D.C.’s Belga Café, the beer list for which is comprised of many of that country’s classics and some new world favorites. It tops out at well over 100 bottles. He will be opening a second restaurant, B TOO, in the next few months. His contribution to raising the profile of Belgian beer and food has been so significant that he has received two knighthoods; he’s a knight in the Order of Leopold II.
Clearly, the Belgians take this stuff extremely seriously.
Considering the gravitas that a knighthood could lend, Vandaele’s approach is enthusiastic and lighthearted. Recently, I had the good fortune to pick his brain on the subject of pairing food with a few Belgian staples that are available across Canada. Of course, before you can pair beer with food, you need to know what flavours you’re working with and there are variables that will help you do that. “Put your beer in a proper glass, drink it and enjoy it. Play with your temperatures. Drink your beer ice cold, medium cold or at cellar temperature and you will understand the complexity of the beer,” says Vandaele.
That may sound like a lot of work, but the upside is that you were probably going to drink beer anyway and paying attention is a small price to pay for a much better meal. While there are conventionally accepted pairings, Vandaele is quick to point out that “the whole pairing-cycle is definitely something people take a little bit too seriously. It has to be like this, it has to be like that. Just have fun with it.” That said, he did offer some suggestions:
For Leffe, a fairly versatile beer that you could drink the whole way through a meal, the most important components of its flavour are the full body and the vanilla note in the aroma. For this reason, he recommends pairing it with chocolate. Beer and chocolate are, after all, two things the Belgians are famous for.
For something like Duvel, a strong and extremely complex Belgian Ale, he recommends eating a grilled steak with a lightly dressed salad. The spritzy carbonation will refresh the palate from the fat in the steak and the hops are not quite pronounced enough to overpower the greens. The only caveat here is that you definitely want the right glass to contain the big, pillowy head. The closest approximation you’re likely to have at home is a snifter.
With a strong, dark ale like Chimay Premiere, a Trappist product, I was expecting him to recommend a traditional Belgian pairing, maybe a carbonnade flamande, a sweet-and-sour beef stew. But this is a man who knows how to play to his audience. He explained that while you could drink it on its own, one of the reasons the beer has done so well in Canada is because it has enough meat on its bones to stand up to full-flavoured food.
“If you’re in Canada, I think [I would drink the beer] at cellar temperature and in front of the fire with a plate of poutine… I’m good with that.”
Jordan St. John writes about beer at Saintjohnswort.ca. He does not have a knighthood. Yet.