Think you know Chimay? Think again, as Belgian chef Jan Tournier of the Michelin-starred Cuchara unearths surprising flavors using the famous Trappist beer and cheese, during a demonstration for Belgian Beer & Food’s John Rega
While Jan Tournier may cook in his grandparents’ house, he’s certainly not preparing their food. The 34-year-old chef has remodeled his childhood home in Lommel, northern Limburg, into Cuchara, one of the upstarts of Flemish cuisine. Adventurous takes on his classical training won Tournier a star from the Michelin Guide, which calls his cooking style “full of youth and creativity”. Now Belgian Beer & Food is challenging the chef to create a menu incorporating Chimay products. The venerable Trappist brewery and cheese-maker poses a particular dilemma for Tournier: how to revisit an icon that connoisseurs know so well.
“Normally I don’t cook a lot with beer,” Tournier prefaces, before explaining his fresh approach to Chimay’s ubiquitous products. “But for some of these dishes, the combinations are really awesome.” Tournier opens with a cream he’s crafted from the À la Chimay Rouge cheese. He pipes it into coal-shaped husks of crisped pizza dough. The richness contrasts with the charcoal taste of the bread, with a lash of heat from the juice of jalapenos. The Chimay gives an earthier, funkier flavor than his usual version with Mimolette cheese. Still tweaking, he may someday substitute beer for the milk in the concoction.
Tournier is clearly excited for what’s next, as he slips into his dining room, which has just taken shape in a year-long renovation. In black t-shirt and sweatpants, he could almost disappear in front of the black-painted walls — except for his spiky blond hair, electric-blue trainers, and a box of Marlboro reds peeking from his pocket.
The dining room – a converted garage – is as effortlessly cool. Lightening all that black brick are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a courtyard. Their industrial frames carry over inside to the bar nook and wine cellar. Pale wooden flooring continues as paneling up one wall, while low-slung, mid-century seating offers unfussy comfort. The focal point is a chandelier in the form of a tree trunk blown from golden glass.
Tournier reappears from a hidden door with a jug of steaming liquid nitrogen and an air of certainty. “This dish is going on my next menu,” he promises, before heading back into the kitchen to form quenelles of lobster salad. “For sure.” The claw meat and herb mixture Chimay is dressed with a hollandaise sauce incorporating Chimay Triple. Also called White Cap, it’s the bitterest of the abbey’s brews. Tournier is using that edge to enhance the sweetness of the lobster, while the golden ale’s slight acidity brightens the dense hollandaise. Over the quenelles go creamy veils of buttermilk, set solid in his jug of coolant. He tops with pebbles of fragrant white radish and places a morsel of flash-frozen apple foam on the side.
“I like new techniques, but don’t overdo it,” Tournier says of the gadgets in his sleek kitchen. “It must be in balance.” The elements combine in petite yet luxurious bursts of flavor, familiarity yielding to surprise. The beer does its work without standing out. Next up is oxtail cooked for 12 hours in Chimay Red Cap. Tournier is again finding new depths, even with the flagship that made Trappist beers world famous. Now it’s the sweetness of the copper ale bringing a harmonious contrast to the beef. Tournier recalls his grandmother making the dish with beer, albeit as a variation rather than a staple. As ever, he’s finding new ways to express tradition. Swapped for the Cognac in his usual recipe, the Chimay adds something distinct yet, for Tournier, indefinable.
A first attempt, with half a bottle, cried out for more, so the dish was perfected with the whole 75cl. Yet he insists that the target is the point of balance. “Enough is enough,” he says while plating the ruby beef, glossy with natural gelatin. A pumpkin cream nods to the season. Ribbons of fried parsnip add the crunch that Tournier insists on for every dish. After two beers used in opposite ways to contrast classic flavors, things turn enigmatic with the Chimay Blue Cap. But to Tournier, “This dish is the most successful.” He’s sautéing king oyster and cep mushrooms in a sauce of soy, vegetable stock and garlic. Plus, of course, the beer, decanted earlier to dissipate its carbonation.
The ale’s port-like depth is often paired with desserts and cheeses. Here, the dark brew is used to heighten the “earthy flavors” of soy and fungi, Tournier muses. “With the mushrooms, it just fits. I don’t know why,” he shrugs. “It’s a very cool combination and one I’ve never heard of before.” Novel pairings with classic ingredients sounds just like the Belgian brewing mantra of innovation balanced with tradition. “It was fun to do and gave me some new inspiration, as well,” Tournier says of his Chimay challenge. Soon, Cuchara’s diners will get to taste the reinvented Trappist icon for themselves.