Nic Vanderbeeken, the Belgian chef behind one of Bali’s most recent must-visit fine dining establishments, Apéritif, gets face to face with Joezer Mandagi.
Dinner at Apéritif in Ubud starts, appropriately enough, with a round of apéritifs – at the venue’s opulent bar. This is also where diners first meet and chat with the restaurant’s affable Belgian Executive Chef, Nic Vanderbeeken. But when Prestige arrived, the highly esteemed chef was quick to point out that it was not all about him.
“I’m actually happy that all the diners we get, they come here for Apéritif,” Vanderbeeken insisted. “They don’t come for me, they come for Apéritif.”
It’s not hard to see why. The restaurant, which opened its doors late last year, is the quintessential Ubud fine-dining establishment. It’s located not too far away from the centre of the district – next door to the Viceroy Bali resorts – but still tucked into its own remote corner, surrounded by terraced rice paddies and boasting expansive views of distant rainforests, with Bali’s sacred Mount Agung looming in the background.
Unique among Ubud’s top-tier eateries, Apéritif’s colonial aesthetics have proven to complement the aforementioned backdrop quite nicely. This visual theme is quite evident from the exterior, but it is when you actually step inside that the shift really sweeps you off your feet into a completely different timeline: black-and-white polished marble, era-appropriate paintings, chandeliers hanging overhead and black-and-white plumage on every table.
All that being said, it’s also quite evident that plenty of guests do come for Vanderbeeken.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Chef Vanderbeeken started his culinary career in his teenage years, working weekends and holidays as a steward. He moved up from washing dishes to making mayonnaise and other simple kitchen tasks when a friend of his parents took him in and later convinced his parents to send Vanderbeeken to culinary school.
“I worked in gastronomic restaurants almost every weekend and I really loved the atmosphere,” Vanderbeeken began. Then he added: “I don’t know anything else, actually.” So, after finishing his studies and taking an extra year to learn about pastries, when he was given the choice of studying management or going to work, he immediately chose the latter. So, like most new chefs, he moved from restaurant to restaurant, picking up new skills and knowledge until, at the age of 22, he found himself working at ’t Convent, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium.
There, fate gave him a little extra nudge forward. “The sous chef had an accident,” Vanderbeeken recalled, his tone almost apologetic. “He fell asleep in his car and drove under a truck. He took three months off to recover. During the time he was gone, the chef appointed me as his replacement. When the sous chef came back, I was told I could keep my position while the sous chef became a chef de tournant.” Then he went on: “From there, I moved faster.”
Moving faster meant moving on again, to other restaurants. Moving faster meant delving into new trends, like molecular gastronomy. Moving forward, however, meant slowing down a bit. As much as he wanted to keep up with new things, Vanderbeeken was, at the time, also a new father. So, he switched to bistronomy, where the pay is better and the hours are friendlier. And then came the move to Bali. Or, at least, the beginnings of moving to Bali.
See, after his sixth vacation on the island, Vanderbeeken decided that he’d sell everything he had and move to Asia. “But not Bali,” he pointed out. “I wanted to move near Bali, like to Singapore or Bangkok, so during the weekends or when I had a few days off I could come to my favourite holiday destination.” His parents, however, weren’t too thrilled about this plan. They wanted him to move only after securing a job offer first – and one that would be a step up from what he was doing at the time.
This brought Vanderbeeken to the culinary scene of Vietnam. Thinking that maybe moving to Asia wasn’t exactly the best career move, he then set his sights on Australia, perhaps Melbourne. As fate would have it, however, before making yet another major move, Vanderbeeken took another long holiday in Bali. And while there, he sent his résumé to a number of restaurants.
Anthony Syrowatka of the Viceroy was the first to invite him to do a test menu. After successfully preparing a six-course degustation menu in an unfamiliar kitchen, he was offered a contract. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, and Vanderbeeken became the driving force behind Viceroy’s successful CasCades restaurant.
“I thought that CasCades was the end,” Vanderbeeken said as our conversation moved on to his current position. “I mean, I thought I could not go up any more.” But he did. Not that it was smooth sailing from day one, of course. For one, a new team had to be assembled, although he readily admitted that that turned out to be the easy part.
A more pressing matter was location. The problem with having a secluded fine-dining establishment was that it was, well, secluded. “People that come here have to travel here – they have to plan it,” Vanderbeeken elaborated. “Even if they are in Ubud, they have to think about transport, for example. You don’t just pass the restaurant and come inside.”
But perhaps here too he needn’t have worried. “Before we opened, there were two Japanese ladies who came here in July or August,”
Vanderbeeken recalled with a big smile on his face, noting once again that the restaurant only opened around October. “We were almost finished with the restaurant, but we were not open yet. But they were so interested to see what was going to happen and they wanted to be the first to dine here in Apéritif. So, these two ladies came back from Japan, stayed here in the Viceroy and dined at Apéritif. We gave them a certificate, because they were our first official diners and they were so happy with that.”
So far, feedback from diners has been overwhelmingly positive. The food is, of course, stellar and packaged into a charming experience that begins with the eponymous pre-dinner drinks and canapés, followed by a culinary tour de force prepared in the restaurant’s open kitchen which marries Vanderbeeken’s roots in pure culinary techniques, his deep understanding for the flavours found in the region and, most importantly, the passion that he imparts into his gastronomical creations.
Asked whether he was still as passionate about his chosen profession today as he was all those years ago when he was only just starting, Vanderbeeken turned contemplative. “Since I was 18 years old I was tempted to leave Belgium. But then I fell in love and this and that,” he answered. “But because I came to Asia, a whole new world was opened to me – cooking, ingredients, recipes. I became interested again.”
Running his own fine dining establishment also proved to be a much-needed change of pace for Vanderbeeken. Back in Belgium it was often just him and his sous chef, doing 50 covers a night with an à la carte menu; here he works with more than a dozen people.
“You can be more detailed, more creative … and it’s again an open kitchen so you have good communication with the guests,” he goes on. “So I still feel the same passion now. Sometimes it goes away a little bit – and that’s why I always need a new challenge.”
Certainly, Apéritif still has room to grow; it’s only been open for about half a year and Bali’s hospitality industry is as exciting as it is unforgiving and constantly changing. Vanderbeeken, though, seems to be more than up to the challenge.
He concluded our conversation thus: “It can only get better.”