Every year at the International Chefs Congress I get blown away by at least one chef of whom I previously had little to no knowledge of. This year, there were several with Chef Sang-hoon Degeimbre of L’Air du Temps in Noville-sur-Mehaigne, Belgium foremost amongst them.
Sang-hoon Degeimbre was born in Korea, but adopted by a Belgian family when he was 5. He started cooking for his family at an early age and wound up attending Hotel School. Though that wasn’t for him, he became employed with various catering companies and started gravitating towards wine, eventually becoming a sommelier.Nevertheless, the allure of cooking persisted and without any formal training as a chef, he opened L’Air du Temps in 1997 to 25 customers. Degeimbre incorporated his tastes for wine into his kitchen. With wine, he preferred balance with acidity and “real tastes” and he “tried to reproduce the same with (his) cuisine.”
Degeimbre showed a few photos of his restaurant, alighting on one that showed a Korean symbol that represented the first letter of his name. The symbol is shlot, equivalent to a wastern “s”. In Chinese, the symbol means “the human race,” a symbol that Sang-hoon said “is a good symbol for me.” Korean born and raised in Belgium, Sang-hoon Degeimbre considers himself “a citizen of the world.”
To achieve his goals of creating a very personal cuisine, Sang-hoon Degeimbre used the lessons he learned about flavor and balance from the world of wine and also those from science as he sought to understand the whys and hows of cooking and to create and elicit emotional responses from his diners through the creation of textures and through pairing of flavors using the methodology present on www.foodpairing.com.
After a short film by Hugo Hivernat of Fulgurances (see the bottom of the linked post for the video), Sang-hoon Degeimbre proceeded to the meat of his presentation, setting up a table for two diners chosen from audience volunteers. After initial hesitation from the audience, I was about to volunteer myself, but at that time two other members came forward, one of whom was my friend, Linda Anctil. Deciding to photograph rather than dine, I stepped back and deferred to the other member of the audience who stepped forward, a decision that I soon began to regret.
Degeimbre wanted to recreate the experience of walking in the woods for his first dish. He asked the diners to imagine that they were strolling in the woods and that they had to smell all around them. He took wild herbs along with fennel, wild peas, wild spinach . With the diners’ eyes closed, he asked them to imagine the sound of their steps as he played some bird songs and asked them to smell as he lifted a cloche covering a platter of those herbs, steamed with potatoes. Serving the two lucky diners, he poured a sauce of curcuma or turmeric and stepped back for them to sample and eat the food. He served this dish, because he wanted to show this part of himself to this audience.
His next dish was to show another part of himself – his Korean heritage. To illustrate, he described Korea as being a country “of the sea” as well as a country “of fermentation.” Describing the virtues of fermentation, Degeimbre claimed the process provides “more tastes, more vitamins, more minerals, and more acidity.” He stated that acidity in food in Korea is normal, with that acidity typically coming in the form of the “soft” lactic acid, which he described as “not as strong as citric acid.”
Chef Degeimbre started to cook turbot sous vide at 83 C for a few minutes, pouring wine for the diners in the meantime. While that was cooking he moved on to start serving the dish that showed his Korean heritage using simple food. He prepared cockles and clams with spring onions, Korean red pepper, sea water and doenjang, fermented soybean paste.
Calling this a “short trip to Korea”, Degeimbre served the diners a bowl with the shellfish and the other ingredients, played background sounds of gulls from the coast and offered the aroma of the sea by pouring some liquid over a hot platter of seaweed to set the mood, which the two diners appeared to take to heart.
The chef’s last plate returned to the turbot, which was now ready. He used an iSi canister to combine melted butter, lemon juice and egg whites to create a light foam, which he pumped into a squeeze bottle. continuing his theme of expressing who he is through his food, the next dish was a paean to one of his favorite painters – Jackson Pollock.
Using the plate as a canvas, Degeimbre placed the white, sous-vide cooked turbot off to one side and began squeezing dots of color onto the rest of the plate using ingredients like red pepper, “green juice”, red cabbage juice, squid ink.
The plate presented to the diners resembled more the work of pointillist painters or more in line with a contemporary of Pollock’s, the work of Roy Liechtenstein, however, once in the hands of the diners, the appearance quickly changed. Using the fish as a paintbrush to smear the colors around the plate and adhere them for tasting, the plate indeed became more Pollock -like, though there was more order to the design than there likely would have been if the plate was indeed Jackson Pollock’s canvas. Nevertheless, the idea of plate as a diner’s canvas came across with both diners appearing to enjoy both playing with and eating their food.
The diners were asked of their impressions. Both said the food was truly transporting and evocative. Comments were made regarding the earthiness of the potatoes and brininess of the clams with one of the diners admitting that this was the first time she had ever eaten clams and was thrilled to have done so from the hand of this chef.. Both diners felt strongly that the presentation of food is very important as is experiential cooking. The food was a hit with them. They enjoyed playing with the sauces and the fish and having a different taste with each bite.
Degeimbre’s presentations, both here on the main stage and later in a workshop (post to come) both resonated with me. I appreciated his approach to incorporating all the senses into his food and his approach to using his food to tell a story, whether an autobiographical one or otherwise. As to its taste? I can’t yet weigh in on that, but his personality and approach has vaulted a visit to his restaurant, L’air du Temp towards the top of my wish list.