The Michelin-starred chef who makes desserts out of vegetables
PouicPouic, the Mediterranean restaurant with one Michelin star, is renowned for its honest and creative cooking. Self-taught chef Philippo Santangelo has built a solid reputation thanks to his simple and subtle creations.
First thing on Friday morning, in a townhouse in a residential neighbourhood of Chapelle-lez-Herlaimont, the kitchen at PouicPouic springs into life. Not yet operating at full throttle, but those first few hours are going to be busy enough: the weekend is already packed with bookings.
The restaurant can seat up to 35 covers. The way the tables are arranged and the spaces between them create an intimate atmosphere for the diners. What is so special about it? The fully open kitchen and the feeling this creates in the restaurant. “I very much enjoy talking to diners; I regularly go from table to table, delivering dishes personally”, explains the head chef.
There are three menus on offer with 3, 4 or 6 courses. “The menu is designed so that each course stands out, sometimes in very subtle ways”, he adds. “I like to cook in small portions to guarantee that each and every mouthful yields a unique discovery.”
A reflection of the chef and his cooking style, the menu comes with no bells or whistles: a starter of scallops, endive and truffle; a main course of line-caught sea bass, samphire and a white wine reduction or sweetbreads of veal with apple and ginger; for dessert hazelnut praline and garden peas. “I only use 3-4 ingredients per dish but I want each of them to contribute a new and unique taste and for the intermingling of flavours to really shine”, he says.
As a teenager, Philippo Santangelo never dreamed of being a chef: he found the process of simply following recipes boring. What most inspired him was the creativity offered by working with pastry. Finally, by chance, he ended up working front of house.
I keep the ingredients of traditional dishes, but I like to add a few modern touches.
It was only after a number of years spent front of house that circumstances conspired to lead him across the divide of the service window: the previous chef had decided to leave and the restaurant couldn’t afford to take on a new chef amid the financial crisis. That was when the owner suggested that Philippo Santangelo should try his hand in the kitchen. “With new developments and trends in cooking, I was able to free myself from the constraints I had previously encountered and to come up with my own creations exactly how I wanted them. That’s when I started to really have fun”.
After just a few months in the kitchen and thanks to his painstaking work, Philippo Santangelo, through PouicPouic, was awarded a Michelin star. With his love of fine dining, the chef didn’t consider the star an end in itself: what he truly wanted was for the whole menu to shine.
Creative cuisine: make or break
This head chef has no qualms about veering off the beaten track. He enjoys surprising his clientele. What does he love above all? Putting his own spin on classic dishes. “I find ways of incorporating vegetables into desserts. After a meal, I often don’t feel like a cream-filled pastry, what I’m looking for is a light, sweet touch. Using this idea, I come up with desserts based on fruits and vegetables such as bell pepper-raspberry, violet-carrot cream or even asparagus-parmesan.”
When creating his menus, Santangelo finds inspiration in everything: all types of restaurants (Vietnamese, Italian, etc.), recipe books, long-forgotten vegetables… He plays around with different combinations and spends a lot of time recipe-testing. His partner, Jonathan Oremans, supports him by suggesting new combinations. “Clients enjoy his daring nature, even though taste is a very personal matter”, he explains.
Local products aren’t left out either. Whilst he laments not having certain high quality products in the region, especially small-scale poultry, Philippo likes to work with artisans of flavour. “I source my products from micro-farms for eggs, vegetables… These producers use permaculture and produce small quantities”. The seasonal nature of products is also respected so asparagus, for instance, may feature on the menu in early spring.
A star that doesn’t cost the earth
As the son of manual workers, Philippo Santangelo insists on the importance of making fine dining accessible. “A course costs 10 euros, which is very reasonable compared to the prices charged by similar restaurants”.
Furthermore, lower-priced menus are often available through different partners. The Groupon site, for example, features reductions. A 6-course menu known as “young gastronome” is available to people under the age of 26 at a reduced price. The chef considers that these reductions allow people with an interest in fine dining to discover the restaurant despite thinking they don’t have the means to do so.
I take great pleasure in talking to diners who have come to discover our restaurant.
The name of the restaurant, which has now been open for two decades, comes from the burlesque comedy of the same name, played by Mireille Darc and Louis de Funès, of whom the chef is a big fan.
In the future, Philippo Santangelo is mainly focused on keeping up the level expected of a starred restaurant. For everything else, he’ll leave it to gastronomy lovers.
Rue du Chemin de Fer, 57
+32 (0)64 21 31 33