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At the chef’s table: Manon Schenck and her surprise Michelin award Young Chef of the Year
Despite being restricted to serving takeaway so far this year, 2021 is proving to be a tumultuous year for young chef Manon Schenk and her partner David Delmas. Their restuarant La Table de Manon opens on 9 June for the first time since winning two prestigious awards by the Michelin Guide Belgium & Luxembourg 2021.
The stylish restaurant, located in a charming village near Wallonia’s top tourist destination Durbuy, picked up a Bib Gourmand in December, followed by Schenck being named Young Chef of the Year in January.
The latter came as a complete surprise, she says. “We were invited to join by video and told that journalists would arrive at the restaurants of the winning chefs. We looked around and there was nobody there. Within moments of the prize being announced a couple of cars turned up. I turned to David and said ‘I can’t stand up’.”
The ensuing media attention was a new experience. “It's an environment that I'm not used to. I’m normally hidden in my kitchen, which suits me very well,” admits Schenck.
If the accolade was unexpected, the immediate influx of clients making future bookings was more predictable. Demand for the restaurant’s Friday to Sunday takeaway menu has also exploded.
“It’s really nice to receive the awards, especially during this period. If we can’t put our new notoriety to good use immediately, at least it’ll bring people in when we reopen. We’re really enthusiastic about the future.”
La Table de Manon is a large grey stone contemporary exterior housing a light and airy space that reflects the chef’s ever-evolving modern cuisine. After three years renting premises in the centre of Durbuy, they opened their new establishment in the village of Grandhan in 2019.
Schenck hails from Alsace; her culinary journey starting at the age of 14. It was in the French region that she met Delmas, who was polishing off his sommelier and front-of-house skills in the same restaurant. He originates from Durbuy, having previously studied hotel management in La Roche-en-Ardenne and Liège.
The couple then spread their culinary wings at a Michelin-star address in Brittany, where Delmas became restaurant director, Schenck sous-chef. After five years, they decided to set out on their own and return to their roots, selecting the Ardennes over the Alsace for its large offer of restaurants to rent. After enjoying fresh shellfish straight from the sea, they decided to continue a fish and seafood theme. “We have an affinity with Brittany and good contacts there,” says Delmas, “and not many other restaurants in the region are doing this.”
Describing her cuisine as a triangle of the three regions “that have marked my life”, Schenck recounts how Alsace, Brittany and Belgium all feature in the dishes she creates.
She revisits her grandmother’s recipes from Alsace, updating them in her signature style for a modern and lighter touch. Fresh water fish, such as pike, trout and crayfish also bring a flavour of home to her gastronomic menus.
Cheese, herbs, vegetables and other produce are all locally sourced. The trend for fine dining addresses to collaborate with artisan food suppliers was already common practice in Brittany, points out Delmas. “When we arrived five years ago it was more difficult to find local ingredients, but it’s a much more developed network now.”
How has Schenck’s cuisine evolved since coming to Belgium? Her partner interjects: “She’s more assertive in her cooking and in her associations. For example, a chocolate dessert with carrots and cassonade, and another with tomatoes, were really successful,” says Delmas.
Schenck acknowledges her growing self-assurance, despite initial concerns about upsetting the local clientele. “When you become better known, people are more confident about associations which may initially seem bizarre,” she says, referencing a winter dish that matched lobster with venison in a nod to the Ardennes’ love affair with game.
It’s Delmas’ unenviable task to match wine with the menu that changes every month. “We offer a lot of wines from the Alsace, including some rare vintages.” If France is naturally well represented, diners can also sample an increasing selection of Walloon wines. Travels in Portugal have resulted in some choice reds, along with lesser-known wines from off-the-beaten-track vineyards in Bulgaria, the Maghreb, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from China.
A penchant for the unusual extends to future plans to offer clients out-of-the ordinary accommodation within the restaurant grounds. “It would give them a real experience; garden studios or gypsy wagons with excellent interior comfort.”
Meanwhile, demand for their three-course takeaway dishes grows. With around 120 covers per weekend, which more than double during holidays, they are thriving on stress. “We like the pressure, and the satisfaction after. People remark on what a great team we make.”
This article was first published in the WAB magazine, spring 2021