13 September, 2019
The passion of Alois
This is my 18th season at the San Pietro. When you feel good in a place and you have the quality of life that you’ve always dreamt of, why would you change? At the ‘Zass restaurant, we have everything. We have an amazing kitchen, amazing quality of ingredients, amazing hotel owners like Vito and Carlo and Signora Virginia. We are friends but also family and working here, you feel at home straight away, you feel you’re part of something bigger, you feel happy.
In any job you do, it’s important that you are happy. Being a famous chef or not, is not important to me. What’s important for me is to live without regrets, that when I lay my head on the pillow at night, I can say, ‘today was the best day, I did the best I could possibly do.’ I can honestly say, looking back, that I would do it all the same.
When I was young, my father had other ideas for me. He wanted me to be a chemist. I was 19 when he died and suddenly the path was open to follow my dreams and do whatever I wanted to do. And what I wanted was to become a chef.
My mother is a strong woman who raised five children. She let me make my own choices for better or worse, even if she didn’t always understand or agree with them. She’s 92 now and still going strong. She keeps up with my progress and in my bad moments, she’ll light a candle and pray for me and this gives me new energy. My mother has been the most influential person in my life. I believe there is no greater love than that of a parent for their child and vice a versa. I have experienced the other side of that love since having my own son.
When I decided to leave home, she asked me, ‘Why are you leaving? Are you not good here? Did I do something wrong?’ I told her, ‘no mum, but I want to discover the world. I want to do and see new things, speak other languages and know how other people live. I want to learn how to stand on my own two feet and not rely on somebody else for help.’
I left, not knowing where I was going. The first years were terrible. I didn’t know the languages, I was homesick, everything was strange and I had none of the comforts and familiarity of home. Now, having lived so long in other countries, I would never move back to Belgium. I see the people I knew as a boy who stayed in the same town their whole lives, always with the same people, going to the same cafès, eating the same food. I have so much more. I feel I am richer as a person for my experiences.
The most influential place I worked at was in Japan. I was 22 or 23 and at the time, there were almost no foreigners. Can you imagine going to Shibuya or Shinjuku and being the only foreign person on the train? There was no written English signage at the stations, so I had to count the stops to make sure I got off on the right one. It was an incredibly informative experience and changed my way of thinking completely. Chef Mikuni became a great mentor and also a friend who immersed me in Japanese culture. He taught me how to be organized and how to respect the product and respect people. We were drilled every morning and had to stand and say, ‘today I want to give the best of myself.’
Working for Chef Mikuni was lifechanging and it made me think, ‘if one day I become a chef, I want to be more like him and my first mentor, the Belgian chef Roger Souvereyns.’
Chef Souvereyns was completely nuts, but like chef Mikuni, completely dedicated to his work. He told me, ‘If you want to become something, you have to give not 100% of yourself, but 200%. Not 200%, but 300%. You have to give up so much personally if you want to become something.’ He’s in his 80’s now, but he still comes to the San Pietro and eats at ‘Zass and he still gives me helpful tips and ideas on how to improve my dishes. He was my biggest mentor in food and he’s always right when it comes to food. I used to get stressed out and nervous when I knew he was coming to eat from my kitchen, but now I relax because I know he enjoys my cooking and anything he has to say about it is always useful.
When you find your passion, you have to go for it. My passion for food runs parallel to my passion for photography. For me, creating new dishes and creating photographs are two sides of the same coin, they go hand in hand. It’s creation. It’s art. Vito always gets on my case about the fact that I never taste my dishes and in theory, I know he’s right. But I see a new dish in my head before the ingredients ever come together on the plate and I already know exactly how it will turn out. The sensations I pick up or the things I see throughout the day are all stored in little boxes in my head until they reach the point where it all explodes into a new creation. It’s the same thing with photographs. It’s all about inspiration and the little signals I pick up throughout the day. I might go to the fish market and see something that sticks in my head, then I see some other totally random item and think about mixing them together and suddenly there’s this moment of eureka. I see the picture and know exactly how it should come out.
I bought my first camera at sixteen with the savings from my piggy bank. I started snapping photos of the many people and places I traveled to. In these last years, my photos have gotten more creative. I’ve set up a photography studio in my garage and I love going there at the end of a long day at work. The garage is huge and can fit up to 20 cars. It’s all rustic, with exposed piping on the ceiling, a great set up for a studio. Going there relaxes me completely, I forget everything and my mind goes into the camera lens. I’m always surprised by how many things you can put inside a small rectangle.
Sometimes it’s very perverse. If you saw some of my photographs, you would probably wonder how the hell I could think up something like that. My wife often looks at me like I am completely nuts to come out with the stuff I do. But I like people who are a bit nuts because they bring something new, something to talk about. So many people have nothing to tell you. I like people who have something to tell whether it’s in art or writing or in music or painting, whatever. That is what I look for and what I like most in people now. I don’t care who they are, or what their importance is on a superficial level. The important thing is that I can learn something new from them, soak something up from their energy, from their knowledge and passion.
At the end of the day, the important thing is to put your energy towards creating something, finding a passion and pursuing it. That’s what drives me. I choose to have a rich life.
Alois’ photos are available as prints at http://www.aloisvanlangenaeker.com