Fine-dining chef serves up soup for Brussels’ medical staff

Chef Isabelle Arpin prepares meals for medical staff. (AFP pic)

BRUSSELS: When Belgium’s Covid-19 lockdown order forced star chef Isabelle Arpin to shut her fine dining establishment she could have retired to the kitchen to devise dishes for bored gourmets.

Instead she decided to whip up tasty soups – smoked eel and potato, asparagus and liquorice, Thai red curry – for hundreds of health workers at one of Brussels’ busiest hospitals.

“Good nourishing food, full of vitamins, boosts your mood and your health” she declared, plunging her “bazooka” – a powerful food mixer – into a vat of watercress veloute.

Today’s menu will be loaded into 10 12-litre crates lined with sacks designed to withstand temperatures up to 80 degrees Celsius and be loaded into an insulated truck loaned by catering giant Sodexo.

From the elegant open plan restaurant on chic Avenue Louise, they will be taken to the Erasmus teaching hospital to feed 350 famished nurses and doctors battling the deadly pandemic.

It’s a change of pace for Arpin, more used to cooking up refined dishes at 80 euros a head in a restaurant bearing her well-known name along with a photo of her levitating over a wheel of cheese.

When Belgium began shutting down non-essential services and large-scale public gatherings on March 13, the restaurant was forced to close, but Arpin and restaurant manager Dominika had other plans.

They would become caterers, but as Dominika explained: “We weren’t going to use up masks that could have gone to health care workers, just to produce trays of vol aux vents,” a chicken pastry dish.

A plan formed to help out Erasmus and within a few days they had contacted their suppliers, notably a farm just outside the capital that employs handicapped workers.

By March 21 their supplies had been supplemented by gifts from loyal customers, food banks that collect surplus food, and unsold stocks from the Carrefour and Metro supermarket chains.

She chose a simple menu because “soup is nourishing. It’s all but a meal in itself. It’s quick and easy to eat,” Dominika told AFP. “Watercress is rich in trace elements. It’s a vitamin bomb.”

Act of citizenship

One day this week, Arpin blended peppers, mushrooms, courgettes, onions, poultry, citronella and coconut milk into a red curry concoction that worked as another standalone meal for hungry nurses.

“I’m really not used to cooking for so many people, but on the other hand I’m discovering myself back at the base of our profession, which is to sustain people,” she said through a hygienic face mask.

Trained at the Dunkirk cooking school in neighbouring France, the 50-something chef won a Michelin star at her former restaurant before launching her eponymous venture.

“I’ve been living in Belgium for more than 20 years. In a situation like this, without knowing how it’s going to go, you have to help the society you’re living in. It’s an act of citizenship,” she said.

At Erasmus, staff are grateful for the twice weekly treat.

Head of pathology Isabelle Salmon sighs: “What a joy to be able to take a breather, with the team, and take a trip to Thailand with the smell of anise and cress, amid the brutal and harsh daily grind.”