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Comme chez Soi celebrates its 96th anniversary
Made in Brussels
" Georges created Comme chez Soi, Louis developed it and gave it a style. Pierre drove it to the summit of gastronomy, and Lionel offers today a subtle blend between innovation and know-how "
On the 19th June 1926, Georges Cuvelier, originally from the Borinage region whom wanted to avoid working in the mines, founded Chez Georges, a small neighbourhood restaurant
at 137 boulevard Lemonnier. The restaurant was a success through the production of some great and delicious food. One of their regulars never ceases to remind the Chef upon her visits: « Georges, chez vous, on mange comme chez soi ». An expression that quickly became the house’s trademark.
At that time, the restaurant’s brigade was modest: it consisted of a « small » cook and a waitress. Georges Cuvelier’s wife, Héléna, made the sauces, his mother and mother-in-law cleaned, peeled, washed and did the heavy lifting. Georges on-the-other hand was everywhere, he did the food shopping and helped in the kitchen or dining room, as and where it was needed. Simone, their daughter, she was going to school, did her homework, followed by helping her grandmothers, cleaning the mussels in the cellar, which could go on sometimes until midnight. A year after opening, Georges took over the kitchen and created the famous sole au Riesling while his daughter Simone, who was thirteen and a half, « took over » the dining room. Together with Héléna and the two grandmothers, the entire Cuvelier clan set out to conquer the Brussels gourmet scene.
Ten years after the opening, in 1936, Simone, who often accompanied her father on shopping trips, fell in love with a butcher's assistant from the Bogaerts butcher's shop near the Bourse. She became engaged to Louis Wynants and the restaurant moved to its present location on Place Rouppe.
Louis' moral and professional qualities quickly made him an indispensable
link to Comme chez Soi. A cook by nature and a wine enthusiast, the impetus he gave to the new restaurant was impressive. More and more prestigious customers came to discover Louis Wynants' tasty specialties with delight.
It was under his influence that Comme chez Soi took the road to haute gastronomy. Amongst other specialties, we owe him the creation of the
sole cardinal, lobster in his own way, pig's trotters or delicious
crepinettes with truffles.
In March 1939, Simone gave birth to a little boy named Pierre, who was destined to make the career he is now known for.
In 1961, when Georges passed away, Louis and Simone found themselves in charge of a busy restaurant, but also had to deal with Pierre's education and his remarkable indifference to the school curriculum.
Faced with his son's modest performance, Louis Wynants sent him to a well-known hotel school in the Brussels area. This student's performance did not improve and he was even forced to leave the school under the orders of the headmaster, who blindly considered him a good-for-nothing cook.
This time, Louis got angry and decided that Pierre would work in the family restaurant from now on. He started off by washing the dishes. Later, he worked in the dining room, being watched from the corner of his father eye’s, who did not allow him to make any mistakes. At the age of 16, Louis decided to teach his son to the famous Maixent Coudroy at the Savoy and he stayed there for three and a half years. Pierre proved himself by putting all his heart and energy into his apprenticeship. As soon as his day’s at the Savoy were over, he went give a hand at the excellent Georges Michel restaurant « Auberge Alsacienne » in Kraainem. Pierre finally founded his way in.
At the end of the 1950s, Pierre left to do his military service in the navy. Meantime, Father Louis Wynants, used that time to make great contacts in the field of fine cuisine and wine.
After his demobilisation, Louis sent his son Pierre to England to learn the language for 3 months before bringing him back home to work with Raymond Henrion and his wife at the Moulin Hideux in Noirefontaine. After 7 months with this great and unanimously respected chef, Pierre headed to Paris where a position with Raymond Olivier, who was enthroned at the Grand Véfour in the Palais Royal, awaited him. He worked there for several months under the implacable eye of the Chef, then took advantage of the holidays to introduce himself to Claude Terrail at the Tour d'Argent, where he also did an internship. He finished his career in the kitchens of the Château du Belvédère, serving the Princes of Liège, before returning to Place Rouppe in 1961, at the age of 22.
Stronger than ever, father and son now work as a duo, creating wonders at Comme chez Soi. Louis continually improves the menu, especially the wine list,
guided by his advisor and supplier Jules Vienne.
Little by little, he became a fine connoisseur, to the point of obtaining the highest distinctions in this field. Among these, he received the title of Doctor of Bordeaux wines and was awarded in 1964.
When it comes to cooking, Louis knows that the best way to learn is to go and see what the great chefs are doing. These culinary trips with Simone allowed him to make many friends in this closed world and to immerse himself in the great culinary principles. On his return, more than ever, what he wanted was a cuisine based on the freshest products, a simple cuisine devoid of artifice. He was, by family tradition and without knowing it, a precursor of this simple and light cuisine being praised praised for it today.
But what distinguished Louis Wynants above all was the particular care he took in serving his customers. He went to the market twice a day in order to have products of uneven freshness and he was sometimes seen going all over Brussels to find an extremely rare product.
This determination and love for cooking enabled him to win many favours such
as the first star in the Michelin Guide in 1953, the second with his son Pierre in
1966 (which is still valid today), the First Prosper Montagné Prize for Sommellerie
in 1963 and the Prize for the best wine list in 1970, as well as awarded for the first time in Belgium. Lastly, he was also the founder in 1969 of the Compagnie
des Maîtres Sommeliers des Vins de France where his son Pierre was also
being welcomed in 1971.
In the meantime, the restaurant's facade was transformed by the architects
Brunswick and Watelet.
From 1966 onwards, after winning the Prosper Montagné prize, Pierre Wynants ran the kitchen on his own with brio, as the Visitors' Book and the dedications of the crowned heads, political, artistic and business personalities who frequented came to Comme chez Soi. As for Louis, he still takes pleasure in pampering his customers, but this time by managing the dining room.
At the same time, Pierre meets a charming and reserved young woman: Marie-Thérèse Dossche. The daughter of busy Oostakker and shopkeepers, swearing to herself three things: not to live in the city, not to live in a flat and above all not to work in a restaurant. But she didn't count on her love for Pierre, for whom she had to accept all three situations.
As soon as they were married in 1969, Marie-Thérèse took an interest in her husband's professional life, which she had no trouble adapting to. She is an enlightened companion for him and a gracious and smiling host for his customers. Together they brought two daughters to the world: Laurence and Véronique.
The death of Louis Wynants darkens the glow of success and happiness. For the family and the customers, it is a great loss. For Pierre, it is a tragedy; his guide and advisor is no longer there and doubt invades him.
Marie-Thérèse plays a decisive role here. She has faith in her husband and instils in him the strength that she inherited from her father. Not only does Pierre gradually banish these dark worries, but he also improves the appeal of Comme chez Soi by creating new dishes, all designed in the tradition of the house.
In turn, he was awarded the most coveted titles: Oscar of the Club des Gastronomes in 1972, he received the Clé d'Or Gault et Millau in 1975 as well as a third toque in their guide despite a cancer of the throat in 1972 and 6 months of loss of taste. And it was a third Michelin star in 1979, kept for 27 years, and a 19.5/20 in Gault et Millau in 1988 which were his greatest rewards. He was also named Commander of the Order of the Crown in Belgium. But it was France that honoured Pierre the most: a diploma from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Silver Medal of the City of Paris, the Diplôme des Arts et des Lettres awarded by Jack Lang, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of François Rabelais in Tours and, the icing on the cake, the Legion of Honour.
A few years later, major renovations were undertaken to make Comme chez Soi the restaurant it is today. The architect Robert Mahieu and the Simonis firm were commissioned to refurbish the place in the purest Art Nouveau style of Victor Horta. The work focused mainly on the décor and not really on increasing the restaurant's capacity. Indeed, as the Chef emphasises, "we must keep a human size and soul". The new restaurant was inaugurated in August 1988.
In the meantime, two little apprentices have made their appearance in the restaurant's kitchens. Rather than being bored waiting for their parents, Laurence and Véronique (who later graduated from the Lausanne Hotel School and went on to do an MBA in Solvay, and who now runs the other family businesses) prefered to come and help out during service. In any case, Laurence decided to study hotel management. She was well advised to do so because it was at the École hôtelière de Namur, at the end of the 1980s, that she met the man who, a few years later, would become her husband and the father of her children.