A lovingly restored farmhouse, nestling in the gentle slopes of the Wallonian countryside: this is the L’Air du Temps restaurant. Alongside the pure beauty of nature and its tastefully-decorated interior, the establishment has also been adorned with two Michelin stars, in spite of the fact that Sang-Hoon Degeimbre had absolutely no experience as a chef prior to its opening.
Admittedly, the South Korean-born chef, who was adopted by a Belgian family along with his brother at the age of five, was no stranger to haute cuisine. Sang-Hoon Degeimbre spent ten years working as a sommelier in world-renowned Belgian restaurants such as the Vivier d’Oies in Dorinne, La Truffe Noire in Brussels and L’Eau Vive in Arbre.
His dream to one day find himself in the kitchen as a chef finally came true in July 1997 with the opening of the L’Air du Temps restaurant, which he runs together with his wife, Carine. Completely lacking in experience with pans and wooden spoons, he made the best of a bad situation and began to simply apply his knowledge from the world of wine to food. An unusual approach that turned out to be a recipe for success: after just three years, the fledgling head chef was awarded his first Michelin star.
How did he do it?
Just like with good wine, Sang-Hoon Degeimbre breaks every product down into its constituent flavours, drawing his conclusions from these. This led to him developing the “food pairing” technique, in which he pairs together ingredients with surprising similarities, which come together in perfect harmony in the mouth.
His combination of oyster and kiwi, in which he found a total of 14 identical flavours, achieved a certain level of fame in the industry.
Degeimbre not only opts for high-quality ingredients, which are regionally-sourced wherever possible, and a considerable number of which are grown in the two hectares of land surrounding the restaurant, he is also a staunch advocate of the use of modern technology to find the best possible technique for achieving maximum flavour. He uses ultrasound to filter the flavour molecules found within his ingredients and uses vacuum bags to control the fermentation of his vegetables.
Technology can stir up emotions
The third component alongside the products and technology, and quite possibly the most important cornerstone of his philosophy, is his continued willingness to experiment:
Looking back, the biggest advantage for me was the fact that I had to teach myself how to cook. At school, far too many things are questioned and challenged. In the kitchen, however, you need to try things out. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The most important thing is to not limit yourself.
This willingness to experiment can be seen and tasted in every one of his dishes, which are not just culinary works of art, they actually look like abstract paintings: they fall seamlessly into place with the “less is more” attitude found throughout the restaurant and are absolutely perfect in their minimalism.
Degeimbre even serves his own version of the Belgian national dish, moules-frites: Mussel flesh nestling between two shells made from fried potatoes, which have been dyed black using squid ink. Or how about a breathtaking combination of kimchi, lacto-fermented and pickled vegetables from his garden and green oil that Degeimbre makes using pressed Douglas pine?
The Asian influence in the latter dish did not come about by chance or on a whim, rather it is the result of one of the first stages in the development of Sang-Hoon Degeimbre’s career. In 2009, he returned to his native South Korea for the first time since leaving for Belgium as a child. He discovered a deep affinity for the culture, mentality and cuisine of this region.
The enthusiasm shown by guests and critics alike has of course not waned as a result. Quite the opposite, in fact. L’Air du Temps has been awarded a rating of 18.5 out of 20 in the current Gault Millau guide and has retained its two stars in the Michelin Guide, uninterrupted, since 2008. And as if this were not enough, Sang-Hoon Degeimbre received the Gault Millau Chef of the Year 2016 in November 2015.
In April 2016, Sang-Hoon Degeimbre will be loading his ultrasound device onto a plane and bringing his unique flavour discoveries to Salzburg for a month-long guest chef slot at Restaurant Ikarus in Hangar-7.
ServusTV: Culinary Heights at Ikarus on ServusTV
Each month at Salzburg’s two Michelin-starred Restaurant Ikarus, a different top international chef creates the menu. For this globally unique concept, Hangar-7 executive chef Martin Klein visits the cream of the crop, takes a look behind the scenes of haute cuisine, and is let in on some exciting culinary secrets. “Culinary Heights at Ikarus” offers a unique glimpse into the world of high-end cuisine and provides an interesting portrait of each guest chef, their culinary philosophy, and the food culture of their country.