Chef, restaurateur and master of Belgian cuisine Robert Wiedmaier likes to say he found his calling as a young man and never deviated from it.
"It's my entire life," said Wiedmaier, "I'm very passionate about what I do. I was a pot washer and I cooked and cooked and cooked until I got my own place."
Raised in Germany and educated at the Culinary School of Horca in the Netherlands, Wiedmaier came to the United States in the mid-1980s.
He now has five restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area and this he will soon open an extension of his signature gastro-pub, the Mussel Bar, at the Revel resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Wiedmaier spoke to Reuters about how to ensure fresh shellfish, the superiority of Belgian cuisine and his passion for casual fine dining with a Flemish flair.
Q: Why Belgian cuisine?
A: "My father was born in Antwerp. My origins are half-Belgium. I lived there, worked there, went to culinary school in the Netherlands. I ended up working in French restaurants so I took my Flemish heritage and added a French flair to it."
Q: Do you think most Americans think of Belgium food as merely mussels and fries?
A: "Yes, just as most Europeans think of American food as burgers and coke. Belgians definitely eat a lot of mussels and fries but they have probably some of the best food in the world. Any true gourmand can tell you that you get better food in Belgium than you do in France."
Q: Any true Belgian?
A: "No. Any true, honest Frenchman will tell you that."
Q: What makes it so wonderful?
A: "The Belgians pride themselves on being the best at cooking. Their kitchens are immaculate, the agriculture is unbelievable. They just push themselves hard to be really, really good."
Q: What would surprise people about Belgian cuisine?
A: "The Flemish aspects of Belgian cuisine are a little more like peasant cooking, with a lot of purees, a lot of seafood from the North Sea, including, obviously, mussels. But different cultures, like the former Belgian Congo, have influenced it, too, with a lot of spices."
Q: Is it true one should only eat mussels during months with an "r" in them?
A: "No. That's a fallacy. I buy mussels from all over the country. But, as with sushi, you want to make sure you always go to a busy mussel restaurant ... One bad mussel in a pot can make them all bad because you'll smell it all the time you're eating it ... Shell fish will announce themselves and tell you 'I'm bad,' if you've got a nose."
Q: Which ingredients are always in the kitchens of your restaurants?
A: "Great stocks. We always have great lamb, chicken, veal stocks. We take the carcass of the butchered animal and make stock out of it, which is then made into sauce. I'm all about the sauce. You can't be a great saucier unless you have the bones of the animal.
"If you walk into my kitchen you'll see whole lamb, whole pigs. If you're not doing that kind of work you're missing out on the passionate soul of cooking."
Q: You already have five restaurants in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. Why open the sixth in Atlantic City?
A: "It's a different frontier, because we've never gone into a big resort before. But it's going to be a lot of fun. We'll have classics: mussels, French fries, all the different mayonnaises and tarte flambée, which are basically pizzas with different ingredients ... My first mussel bar in Bethesda, (Maryland) was modeled after this place called The Trash Can, an adult after-work hang out. Atlantic City will be that on steroids."
Classic Mussels Garlic, Shallot, Vermouth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 pound Penn Cove mussels, cleaned and de-bearded, in the shell
1 cup dry vermouth
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
To a pot or heavy pan over medium heat, add the butter. Sweat the garlic and shallot until translucent, about 45-60 seconds. Add the mussels and vermouth, and cover the pot. When the mussels are almost open, about 90 seconds or 2 minutes, add the heavy cream and cover the pot. Once all of the mussels are open, about 2 more minutes, sprinkle parsley over top and serve.
Cooked mussels can be eaten directly from the pot or pan or transferred to a wide rim soup bowl. Keep covered until just prior to eating as they cool quickly.