Hubert Burda Media

Duality at Play

A sommelier before becoming a chef, Michelin-starred Sang-hoon Degeimbre is one who’ll roundly tantalise taste buds.

When Sang-hoon Degeimbre opened his first restaurant L’Air Du Temps in Eghezee, Belgium, in 1997, it took the sommelier-turned-chef just three years to receive his first Michelin star — a feat, it must be said, that made gourmands sit up and take notice. Not one to sit on his laurels, the Korean-born, Belgian-raised chef continued to hone his culinary techniques, and in 2008 was duly rewarded with a second Michelin star and a Rising Star rating.
Now a familiar face at major gourmet events and festivals around the globe — where he has presented alongside the likes of Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak and Paolo Lopriore — it wasn’t so long ago that Degeimbre was just another young sommelier training his discerning palate at establishments such as Pré Mondain, La Salicorne, Petit Versailles and La Truffe Noire in the 1990s.
Coming to town once again for the World Gourmet Summit — he participated in 2007 — the talented chef will showcase a special menu at The White Rabbit. In an interview with Prestige, he shares about his love for cooking, his career and more.
I understand that you discovered a love for cooking in your early teens. But when did you start cooking professionally?
I was 15 when I realised that I loved food — its creation, its rituals and the feelings that it evokes — and it was only natural for me to try to cook on my own, and so I started cooking for my family at home in Belgium. But I only cooked professionally for the very first time at the opening of my restaurant on July 1, 1997. In fact, I was a sommelier first but my love for food finally won me over!
That’s interesting. How long were you a sommelier?
I was a sommelier for 10 years. Back then, nobody wanted me in the kitchen so I decided to learn more about wine instead! My interest in wine was sparked after my first wine tasting at 18. I still remember it clearly; it was a Chassagne Montrachet 1969.
So as a sommelier, I’m also really looking forward to meeting my counterpart at The White Rabbit, Kelvin Tay. We’ve been in touch while planning the wine pairings for each dish and it will be very good to finally meet him face to face.
With such a background, I’m guessing your culinary skills are self-taught?
Yes, I am self-taught to a certain extent, but the main thing for me has always been to be open-minded and learn good techniques (both modern and ancient) from the locals wherever I go. It’s helped me to continually evolve. At the end of the day, my cuisine is based on using good products — mainly local — and good techniques.
So what inspires your cooking?
Over the years, I have met many people who have helped to guide me, but I feel the strongest motivator has always been my natural curiosity. I am constantly exploring different products, techniques and technologies as I’m an extremely curious person. I’m really looking forward to working with Chef Benjamin Tan of The White Rabbit in Singapore. It will be very interesting to see what local ingredients they have.
Why did you decide to open L’Air Du Temps in 1997?
To be independent! I’ve always wanted to be on my own, running things according to my own philosophy.
How did you feel when you received your first Michelin star in 2000?
I was completely taken aback. We had not expected it at all and we were very happy but also quite stunned. After a few days, we realised the best way to move forward from there was to keep doing our best every day. And it paid off too when we received the second star in 2008.
Is there a favourite dish you love to make or eat?
That would have to be bo ssam, a traditional Korean dish of pork and oyster wrapped in greens. I do a contemporary version of it and will be serving it at The White Rabbit. Back home, I also love the squab from a local producer near my restaurant. It’s the best pigeon ever and one of my signature dishes.
As an “ex” sommelier, do you have a particular wine that you often pair with food?
White wine is my favourite choice for pairing as there is a large palate of flavour and perfume. One of my favourites is Coteaux Champenois en Pinot Noir de Raphael Bereche. It’s simply fantastic!
What do you hope to achieve this year?
We moved our restaurant to a larger space on December 5, 2012 with a fully functioning farm with more than 300 varieties of vegetables and herbs. It will take a lot of work to turn this location into the perfect spot — definitely more than a year — and that’s our main focus for 2014.
What can diners expect from your special Epicurean Delights menu?
Diners can expect to taste a slice of my world — my Belgian heritage, Korean roots and my curiosity towards ingredients and wines from around the world — and my philosophy. I will be presenting a selection of my classic dishes over the years, fittingly in the classic setting of The White Rabbit. Its interiors (an old restored chapel) are simply stunning and I have great faith in Kelvin and his team to provide impeccable hospitality. I think I’m looking forward to this even more than the diners!
The White Rabbit will be serving Chef Degeimbre’s Epicurean Delights menu from March 27 to 30, 2014.
The White Rabbit, 39C Harding Rd; Tel: 6473 9965;