Scurrying through the slippery cobblestone streets in a last-minute outfit from H&M, I’m one of the first to arrive at the restaurant. Drinks are being offered from elaborate golden trays. West Flemish Organic Apple-Raspberry Juice it is.
The dinner is being held at the former Three-Michelin-Star Restaurant De Karmeliet, which is now home to the Flanders Culinary Arts Centre.
Politely but shyly, I smile at everyone I encounter while making my way to the furthest corner of the room closest to the podium, a sort of compromise between being close enough to hear anything important and hopefully take a few pictures, but far enough that I can go unnoticed. Wanting to be translucent at a networking event is not particularly ideal, but I’m trying my best. There’s a lady with bright hair who brought who I can only assume is her daughter along, a couple in the corner opposite to mine, and a woman who looks about my age and seems to be weighing whether to come to talk to me or not. I’m having the same debate.
She finally gets up, and I’m deeply grateful for not having to be first. We quickly find common ground: first-timers. The conversation flows, as do the drinks John Peter keeps bringing.
A few more drinks in and Geneva and I have chatted up the Maldivian delegation (including Ambassador Hassan Sobir), my Master’s coordinator, and the Director of Business Development from the CTA. It’s both bizarre and mind-blowing to mingle with them.
Appetizers are starting to come out, and first is West Flemish Red, Ruccola & Horseradish. It’s soft, peppery, savory, messy. But when has finger food ever been a crumb-less affair? Not in my experience, although that might speak more about my (in)ability to eat than it does to how neat the food is.
Not 10 minutes have passed and our waitress, Emma, comes back with the next round. I ask to take a photo of the tray and she graciously concedes.
Likely my favorite of the night is the Saltimboca of Guinea Fowl, Dried Bacon & Sage. It’s juicy, savory, and just generally satisfying. I’m lucky and get an extra serving since my companion doesn’t eat pork.
The room goes quiet as the opening speeches start. We hear from Mayor of Brugge Dirk De fauw, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, General Director of BCC Joxe Mari Aizega, and a few more. All of them quite casual, setting the tone for the rest of the forum. Important, but not uptight.
The best presentation of the night, in my opinion, is the Chicory Taco with Pulled Pork, Jenever Cocktail & OudBrugge cheese. I can’t taste any Jenever, nor see any cheese, so I’m going to assume the sauce carefully drizzled over the “tacos” contains both of these.
The Feuilleté with Mackerel & Herbs is extremely light and crispy, the most redeeming qualities. It’s not bad, I just could never guess there’s fish in it, and without the herb dip, it’s quite flat. No one is surprised when these make a second and third round later in the night. I’m not going to turn them down, though.
At this point, poor Emma is already tuned in to my antics and patiently waits for me to snap my shot before actually offering any food.
The biggest surprise in terms of what I know I like and what I don’t, the Crostini, Smoked Eel & Cream of Peanuts and Green Herbs is well balanced and not dry as I first imagined it to be. The eel almost melts in your mouth, and if it were as easy to find as smoked salmon, I’d switch favorites in a heartbeat. I still don’t love peanuts.
While contemplating the Beef Tartare with Farm Egg, Coriander Mayo & Watercress. I can’t help but laugh at how well presented it is when compared to the one I had in Paris (which, spoiler alert, was not great). There are no unnecessary mix-ins, which lets the beef shine. The coriander mayo is slightly sweet and complements the beef well, while the potato crisps provide a nice textural difference. It definitely makes up for my last experience.
I’ve lost count of how many courses we’ve had at this point, but next is Catch-of-the-day, Risotto of Flemish Quinoa & Romanesco. The sauce is served at the table, which kinda defeats the purpose of calling the quinoa “risotto”, but all together is very good. A solid dish.
The most bizarre dish of the night is the Kibbeling with Freeze-dried Raspberry & Fresh Tartar Sauce. The raspberry feels unnecessary as it doesn’t provide much except for a bit of color and a slight sourness. The kibbeling (chunks of battered fish, for those of you wondering) itself is fine, much like all comfort food is fine. Just not something I would have expected at this event. Then again, they are trying to show off local goods. I might be being a bit harsh.
When dessert comes around, we are presented with two options. I opt for the chocolate one.
Made with Belgian chocolate, it was going to be hard for the Panna Cota Fondant Chocolate, Pear & Salted Caramel to be a miss. It’s not too sweet, and the pear, blueberry, and orange cut through the richness nicely, as well as provide a little brightness.
But surprise surprise, turns out I didn’t actually have to sacrifice the other option as Emma makes her final appearance for the night with one last round of dessert. The Bruges Kletskop with Lemon Merengue & Creme is essentially a cream puff with a fancy Flemish name. I’m not a fan of citrus in my pastry, but this is as good a puff as there ever will be.
Sometime after the speeches are done, only a handful of us are still here. Some finishing off the leftover desserts, some mindlessly sipping their umpteenth glass of wine. Thinking of the Tourism 4 SDGs campaign (and generally in life) I feel guilty for all of the leftover food. Surely there has to be a better way.
On our way out, the ladies at the entrance encourage us to take some flowers home, lest they end up in the bin. Naomi and Kiarra remind me so, so much of myself. I was about their age when I worked my first event, and never would I have thought back then that this is where I’d be now, something that I confide them with.
I’m sure they’ll do great things.