Willem Hiele is tied to the sea. Growing up in a family of fishermen and being a passionate surfer has meant that everything from his childhood to his hobbies has taken him to the ocean, but, when he opened his eponymous restaurant in Ostend, he not only had the bounty of the North Sea to play with, but also the 15 hectares of grassland that the restaurant is situated within.
Nestled within the polders (land reclaimed from water by the creation of dykes and drainage) of the Grote Keignaert nature reserve, Restaurant Willem Hiele is a brutalist former private villa, designed by Belgian architect and sculptor Jacques Moeschal. Ostensibly a far cry from his previous restaurant in the small fisherman's cottage his parents once lived in but in a way a homecoming for the Ostend-born chef.
As punishment for a misdemeanour, young Willem was sent to work in a bakery. However, far from punishing the child, it ignited a passion inside of him – something he felt he could only build upon by the years spent tasting the flavours of his family garden, or awaiting the return of his fishermen uncles and cousins. Training at Ter Duinen, a hotel school nearby, he opened his first restaurant in his hometown of Koksijde in 2015. Only one year later it was hailed as Discovery of the Year by Gault&Millau and one year after that was first mentioned in the Michelin Guide.
In 2021, Willem received his first Michelin Star and decided to end the year with a rebirth. The global pandemic and ensuing lockdown and solitude had been hard on him – something he combatted by baking bread and opening his garden, inviting townspeople to eat his food in return for conversation. Ultimately, he closed his restaurant in Koksijde and began work on his self-described “difficult second album”, his eponymous restaurant which opened in Summer 2022, which recieved a Michelin-Star the following year.
Quoted as saying, “We live and cook in harmony with the rhythm of the seasons. Nature writes our menu”, Hiele is a master of terroir – the belief in the culture and history of the produce – and that shows in his Ostend restaurant where seafood is king. Nicknamed, by some, 'The Flemish Viking', Willem remains authentic to his roots working with the bounty the North Sea has to offer and coaxing out the best of the flavour with simple cooking techniques, developing the method Seafire – which allows fresh fish, such as his signature Turbot, to be grilled, smoked and steamed at the same time - after which his debut book was named.
With his cooking described as “A feast for all the senses”, Willem will be joining us to bring this intense feast of local produce and extraordinary dishes to LeBlanq Flanders.
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