Anna R Lee




Interview

EMMANUEL VERSTRAETEN
By Pamela Peeters


PP: You are a specialist in providing people with a unique gastronomical experience, tell me more about Rouge Tomate.

EV: Rouge Tomate combines great food, exquisite taste, and good nutrition. For our luxury brand, we added a fourth fundamental pillar as well – sustainability, or holistic well-being, through our nutritional charter, SPE. This stands for Sanitas Per Escam (Health Through Food), and it insists on the well-being of the environment through greater care for the planet and its people. In our white paper, we analyzed everything through a “green filter” – from the renovation of the kitchen to our lighting. Our furniture costs 30% more than its less-sustainable alternative, and the return on our investment will only be 50%, but the other half is green goodwill.

PP: Can you tell me how your consumers react to this new concept?

EV: Reactions are different in Belgium and the United States. While people are more and more concerned about their health and well-being, our clients in the United States really care about our green essence. It has helped earn us a Michelin star.

PP: How did this all get started? Where you always passionate about quality food?

EV: The story started in 1999. In Belgium, we had first the dioxin crisis and then mad cow disease. A former partner and I got back together, with a new concept: “pret a manger.” For us, it meant not just ready to eat, but no additives and no bad stuff whatsoever. It was a timely correction to our food crisis.

I observed that the biggest growth segment in supermarkets was bio-organic produce. My idea was to create a restaurant for the long term – the very long term. Why not a restaurant that cares about health as well as great food and great taste? I hired a chef and a nutritionist and asked them to make things happen. When we opened in 2001, the focus was not yet really on sustainability, but more on health. Offering the best nutrition was important. Still, sourcing was part of business, and it led us to give special weight to green farmers and their produce.

The restaurant was a huge success in Brussels right from its opening. It took three or four weeks to get a table, and our New York restaurant followed in 2008.

PP: What dominates in your work – the social, environmental, or economic pillar of sustainable development?

EV: To me, definitely the social and environmental pillars. In this way, I believe, you can create more wealth, from both a micro and a macro perspective. In the short term, you manage financial costs. In the long term, you create sustainability:

Rouge Tomate also exists in Belgium, your home country. New York opened later. How would you compare the European and American dining experience?

The philosophy is the same. We apply the same nutritional charter, SPE, in both. In Brussels we have more a chic brasserie, in New York a more upscale dining experience.

PP: Describe a day in the life of Emmanuel.

EV: Every day is different. I wake up at 8.30 - 9.00 am, enjoy a strong breakfast (the most important meal of the day), and take my time. I shower and shave by 9.30 am, then check e-mails and make phone calls for as much as three hours. I try to have a business lunch almost every day, very often at Rouge Tomate. My afternoon business meetings (between one and five of them) will take place on site as well. I’ll then have an aperitif, followed by dinner, and go home to my wife. Later in the evening, I’ll reserve two hours just for myself, for research on the internet.

PP: You have won numerous awards, including the Sustainable Steward Award. What are you most proud of, and what is next?

EV: I am proud of them all. It is hugely satisfying to receive such a distinction. Our next step is to make the science behind our concept stronger . As the Rouge Tomate team, we recently attended a very nice Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference organized by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America. People came from the academic, health care, and even political world, because of the concern for the connection between obesity and diabetes (http://www.healthykitchens.org).

PP: Did you have a mentor or particular source of inspiration?

EV: I am interested in self-development, not in looking up at people. But I did have a tremendous inspiration in my father. He spent three years of his life researching how to create a fairer world, one with a greater balance between social and economical needs. He studied theology for seven years. I am part of his legacy.

My first source of inspiration today is my wife, and my favorite book is The Magic of Thinking Big, by David Schwartz. But my third source of inspiration is crucial, too – Amartya Sen and his utilitarianism. He used to be dean of the faculty of economics at Oxford and won the Nobel Prize in 1998. His essay “L'economie c'est une science morale” (economics is a moral science) changed my life. In our current worldview, the only system that can work is capitalism: the state, society, income, revenue, and consumption are derived from capital and labour. Amartya Sen added another factor, ethics, which he saw as maximizing social and environmental interest.

PP: What is your favorite dish?

EV: In New York, I would pick walu chevice, a dish created specially created for me. In Brussels, I would choose filet de bars, with a bouillon de miso. Both restaurants have an excellent risotto, without saturated fat.

PP: What is your wish for the future of our planet?

EV: That Mother Earth will forgive us for the pain we have caused her and that we will give her the means to rejuvenate, so that she can breathe again.

Sustainable Inspiration : Emmanuel's favorite book is “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David Schwartz

More information on Rouge Tomate; www.rougetomatenyc.com



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