Chef Robert Wiedmaier knows a thing or two about mussels. At Brasserie Beck, one of the many restaurants in an empire that includes Marcel's, BRABO, Wildwood Kitchen, and Mussel Bar & Grille, Wiedmaier says he goes through about 7,500 pounds of mussels every couple of weeks.
"It's a lot of mussels!" he exclaims.
Wiedmaier's been showing off those mussels all week long, as part of Belgian Restaurant Week. The annual cultural and culinary affair commemorates July 21, 1831, now known as Belgian National Day, when Leopold the First became Belgium's very first king.
Now, while Robert Wiedmaier wasn't born in Belgium, he does feel an intense connection with the country.
"My father was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium," he says. "I went to culinary school in the Netherlands and then I worked in Belgium. So I always had a passion for Belgian food, and of course Belgian beer."
And this week's been all about Belgian food and beer, as Brasserie Beck, Mussel Bar and a half-dozen other Belgian-influenced restaurants have been presenting prix-fixe menus and special happenings, like Waffle Wednesday and Belgian Happy Hour.
But the Grand Pere of all Belgian Restaurant Week events, says Robert Wiedmaier, is this weekend's Mussel Throw Down. Two of his chefs will be competing in the annual event, which will be held Saturday, July 20 at Eastern Market. Chefs will cook in 15-minute intervals, in hopes of winning the judges' hearts, and taste buds, with the best mussel dish.
As for what makes a mussel dish "the best," Belgian-born chef Bart Vandaele of B Too and Belga Café says many criteria are involved. First, all mussel dishes must be cooked with beer.
"Flavor is about half the amount of points you can get," explains Vandaele, who competed on Top Chef Seattle. "Originality, creativity, and if you don't cook it in time, you can lose five points also.
"After being on Top Chef, I know a little bit about competitions, so I was like 'I have to throw that game in there also. Let's see how they're going to do!'"
Vandaele prepares a bunch of original, creative mussel dishes of his own at B Too, like his signature "B Too Mussels," cooked with shitake mushrooms, spring onion, celery root, thyme, and what Vandaele calls the "Three Bs":
"Everything with a B is better," he says, as he stirs up a pot of raw mussels in the B Too kitchen. "So we start with some butter in the beginning, have to have some bacon, and then we add beer."
But he wants people to know that Belgian cuisine is about more than just beer and mussels, even those famous waffles, which, incidentally, Belgians never refer to as "Belgian waffles."
"We have Brussels waffles, Liege waffles, vanilla waffles, stroopwaffels, coffee waffles," Vandaele says. "We have a boatload of different waffles, but we don't have 'Belgian waffles' in Belgium."
What they do have, he says, is, hands-down, the finest cuisine in the world.
"I always say in a joking manner, if the French want to eat well, they come to Belgium!" Vandaele says with a laugh. "But if they then ask why is Belgian food so popular and so good, it's because we've been conquered so many times, we kept their ideas or their good foods and kicked them back out!"
Back at Brasserie Beck, Robert Wiedmaier says he agrees with Bart Vandaele about the quality of Belgian cuisine.
"I would encourage everybody, if people say they're foodies, if you're a true foodie out there, you must go to Belgium and eat," he says. "Because if you tell me you're a foodie and I say, 'Have you been to Belgium to eat?' And you say 'No,' then you're not a foodie!"
Belgian Restaurant Week runs through the evening of Sunday, July 21.
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