“We eat too much,” says René Mathieu. And people visit restaurants too often, he adds. “It’s better to go to a restaurant once a month than every day.” Perhaps unusual words coming from a chef with a Michelin Star. But the 59-year-old Belgian likes to be unusual – and that is also the secret to his success. His restaurant, “Distillerie” in Bourglinster, was just crowned the best vegetarian restaurant in the world in 2020 by the “Guide Vert” of the “We’re Smart” organisation. “Hopefully, there will be many others who will find success in this way,” says René Mathieu.
He is the chef of “Distillerie” since 2005, as well as the accompanying, slightly simpler brasserie. Previously, René Mathieu was a cook in the Grand Ducal Palace for three years. The fact that he has become one of the big names in the world of vegetarian cuisine is also connected to his way of cooking as a moral commitment for the next generation. “We have become a generation of meat-eaters,” he says. The balance between animals and plants is disturbed. Intensive farming, destroyed soil, genetically modified plants, climate change: “It’s crazy, all the stuff that’s happening.” Now is the time to rethink your own diet. “It’s dawning on us that we’re driving into a wall.”
René Mathieu is not a vegetarian (“I eat meat from time to time”), and he can also not really do much with the idea of a vegetarian restaurant. “We follow the path of a plant-based cuisine to the end,” he says. That means that they don’t simply avoid meat. “The problem with a vegetarian or vegan kitchen is that they often try to replace things.” For him, that’s not what a plant-based cuisine is about. Following the path to the end means for René Mathieu: to cook strictly locally and seasonally.
Thus, almost every morning, he goes for a 2-hour walk around Bourglinster through the forest and across fields looking for plants. “I don’t go far. For example, you can find mallows everywhere around here. I put those in dishes.” Occasionally, when he shows customers all the things that grow around the castle, such as wild celery, for example, he is often told: “But I have that in my garden. I get rid of it because I thought it’s a weed.” René Mathieu learnt nature’s secrets from his grandfather, a gamekeeper in the Ardennes. “I forgot about that knowledge for a long time, but then I remembered.”
“We want to be a restaurant of leisure and relaxation, not one people visit every single day.”
Naturally, he doesn’t collect everything for the kitchen himself. René Mathieu buys much of his ingredients from Paniers de Sandrine and other things from LetsGrow in Gonderange. “We don’t want to control everything, do everything ourselves. We want to encourage the vegetable producers to continue.” Every year, he invites the suppliers to a dinner, to show them what their produce becomes: “Often, they are very surprised.”
The art is to combine plants and vegetables so that they taste really good. “Plants are delicious,” he says – and feels confirmed through his guests. A carrot, wrapped in the leaf of a lime tree, tastes amazing. And it works without spices from India. Or take the leaf of the mallow, deep-fried in dough like tempura, and the flower filled with a cream of fermented nuts. “We want to be a restaurant of leisure and relaxation, not one people visit every single day,” says René Mathieu.
The “Distillerie” offers a complete plant-based cuisine. The Brasserie also serves fish if you don’t trust the taste of vegetables (yet). Otherwise, the rules are clear: with the exception of coffee, chocolate, and citrus fruit, everything served is in tune with locality and season. “You don’t have to eat tomatoes, strawberries, and asparagus all year round,” says René Mathieu.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown some people that you can easily eat at home or make a packed lunch for work. “Many people don’t eat enough at home these days, because there are too many options. But it really isn’t that complicated making your own meals.” He also has the impression that, on account of the pandemic, his guests are now, on average, clearly younger. “Young people come on account of our values. They are more interested in their own health.” But it’s not only they who are enthusiastic, says René Mathieu. Recently, a very old lady told him, with tears in her eyes, that she was very touched: She was reminded of a specific meal from a long time ago – cooked by her grandmother.
8, rue du Château — L-6162 Bourglinster
Tel. +352 / 78 78 78 1