Chef Willy Slawinski, my dad, left us already now 27 years ago this week, yet still every week people talk about him. All kinds of young chefs get inspired by his recipes, chefs who never ate his food nor met him, I find that astounding.
When people ask me what type of food he cooked, I try to explain what he stood for as a chef and what he was like as my dad. He died at age 43 ( I am now 44), which is soo young, it is hard to image what he could have done more if he survived cancer, but that is life and I have learned to accept that. So let me tell you a little bit about this visionary chef and my dad, Willy Slawinski.
THE AVANT-GARDE CHEF
I am skipping his full life story before he opened his restaurant Apicius in 1980 ( you can read about it HERE). Let’s just say as son of a Polish immigrant he accidentally fell into cooking and awakened a life-long passion. This brought him to work with some of THE best, most-starred Michelin Chefs ever, back in the 70ties which was a very select, very French exclusive club at that time.
My mom and him opened their restaurant full of hope and ideological ideas of how food and dining experiences should be, they broke with tradition in more ways than sometimes was understood or acknowledged at the time.
He is remembered today as an avant-garde chef, an amazing innovator, and an incredible boundary pusher, the Ferran Adria of Belgium. But back in the 80ties he was not praised that high, only a few (thank god) totally did see and share his vision and encouraged him even if they did not yet quite understand where he was going. Now for the ones too young to remember what the fine dinning food scene was like in the 70 – early 80ties, let me paint you a menu of: heavy cream and stock sauces, mostly red meat in large portions, maybe a few vegetables with a piece of fish drowning in a white wine sauce and robust desserts with a berry and mint leave to decorate.
Now there is NOTHING wrong with this type of cuisine, I am actually a huge fan of some of those classics. But what my dad pioneered was making it lighter, easier on the digestion and celebrating the vegetables over meat. He used fresh herbs, edible flowers and showcased unfashionable vegetables in all seasons in their full glory. He experimented with fermentation, vacuum and steam techniques ( yes 35 years ago!!!), used shorter cooking times to preserve flavour, served dishes lukewarm to enhance flavour, and exchanged cream sauces for emulsions with yogurt and vinaigrettes to lighten it all. He put vegetarian dishes on the menu, yes some people were appalled! He let the product shine versus smothering it with sauces and added flavours.
He was closely involved in sourcing his produce and went to the Brussels midnight market himself twice a week. He talked to farmers directly to grow him a certain variety of vegetables like romanesco and herbs like pimpernel and coriander ( yes that was NOT available in supermarkets at all) or asked them to harvest strawberries keeping a longer stem ( which he left on the berry in his desserts, shocking!). He championed the savoir-faire from the farmers and basically invented the now so fashionable : farm-to-table or to-fork, tail-to-nose and root-to-stem.
He changed how a Michelin star restaurant interior design looked like, and broke with traditional rather dark and heavy interiors and made his restaurant light with fresh blues and greens. He served food stacked on rectangular plates and sourced some himself all the way from Japan. Every dish was a 4 dimensional picture ( height, width, depth and taste) he painted for the guest to enjoy and revel in.
He was also extremely shy and modest; the biggest concession he made to my mom was having a glass door from the kitchen to the restaurant so guests could see him in the kitchen when passing by. He NEVER showed his face in the restaurant but always asked my mom if they looked happy, not it they liked it mind you, if they were happy.
Out of his passion and vision sprouted a chef which was extremely opinionated and hard on himself but also on others. Demanding excellence from everyone in the kitchen and the restaurant meant a lot of staff came and went. He practiced newly invented recipes non-stop, often late at night when everyone left. He was soo hurt when fellow compatriot chef copied his recipes after dining at his restaurant, he became secretive with his recipes. Nobody really knew exactly how he did it, hence today people who tasted his food may recall it accurately but recreating appears difficult as very few recipes were written down.
He believed that the housewife was the future of food, he wanted everyone to experience food on a different level. He proudly invited the curious and open-minded garbage collector once a year to his restaurant to thank him for his work. He did not believe in the elite being the only to deserve to taste his food, as an immigrant son he valued work more than money. He never compromised his vision, he never gave into the critics and the demands of the restaurant guides ( and yes Michelin guide did not at all support my dad, the 2 Michelin stars were given reluctantly as guests wrote and demanded it) He believed in his vision so today a few skeptics can eat their hurtful words. In adversity and lack of support, even than my dad remained ever the gentleman, ever convinced he was on the right track. ( BIG told ye soo to you all now).
THE ART LOVER & ATHLETE
He LOVED music from classical tunes like Beethoven 9th symphony to Womack & Womack soul music. He did a great impersonation of MC Hammer, not sure if liked the music that much, I think more the pants and the famous dance moves, which he happily busted out in the kitchen. There was always music in the kitchen except during service than the pots and pans were the music.
He was a huge art lover, he was mesmerized by Picasso’s cubism and his ingenuity. He was close friends to the esteemed Belgian artist Jan Burssens and controversial writer Jef Geeraerts. He wanted to be an architect when he was a kid and although that didn’t happen his love for art and architecture never died, instead he brought it into his plates.
He loved sports, watching and practicing. He almost made it as a pro-footballer I think he once told me, not sure if that was true. He loved to ride one of his Eddy Merckx or Walter Goodefroot bikes and go on hours long rides to clear his head and came back with plenty more recipes to try out.
The handsome, shy man was a very strict and demanding father who I of course adored. I was a difficult teenager when he was sick so we didn’t always see eye to eye and as my academic results were below par he never thought I would achieve much more than owning a flower shop. I understand that, maybe that bleak outlook pushed me to actually work harder and build a great career and exceed his expectation, who knows.
I remember him as a candy lover ( gosh did he love sweets and gateaux), great impersonator of my favourite cartoon characters and his dog Marcus the doberman was his best friend.
He was extremely generous even to people who did not deserve it ( that’s what my mom used to say – come to think of it, I am the same). He could be very moody and dark, but also sooo funny. He constantly pushed me to see beyond the surface: if I liked something, than I should understand why, always dig deeper. Sometimes I just wanted to eat the bloody thing not ask 20 million questions about it ( I had no patience, still ve none).
I wanted him to teach me how to cook but he told me there is no place for a woman in this hard profession ( eating your words now hey dad) but I get it, it was the mindset of that time. Even a visionary can be blinded sometimes.
I ve fond memories of my dad and am super proud when people still remember his food and today’s chefs find him inspirational . I don’t cook his food, but I know I cook food that aligns with his vision and I hear his voice whispering in my ear every time I put a pan on the stove.