It would be fair to say that Old Boy is a rather uncommon name for a restaurant. Then again, the restaurant’s concept is rather uncommon too. Located on a corner in one of Brussels’ nicest neighborhoods and offering modern, exciting Asian fusion cuisine, Old Boy’s vibe is welcoming and easy going – unlike the movie. Everything from the graffiti style lettering on the windows to the iconic Michael Chang picture on the wall and the bouncy hip-hop you can enjoy while eating makes total sense. And the food is damn good too. John Prigogine is one of the two men behind this project and was kind enough to let us tag along and answer our questions on a sunny Friday in May.
We’ve been open for almost a year now, but it feels like we’ve been doing this for a lot longer. Time surely flies and I haven’t been bored for a second. I’m very passionate about Old Boy, it’s exactly what I wanted and needed to do. Before this, I used to work for Sony Pictures as a marketing manager. Did that for close to 5 years and it was fun; I went from project to project, movie to movie. But even if the movies change every time, the job pretty much remains the same. So, I started asking myself if I wanted to stay there, do the same job elsewhere, or if I wanted to do my own thing. The idea to open an own restaurant had been on my mind for a few years and, together with my business partner Xavier, I’d already developed a business plan to pursue that idea.
We didn’t have any experience in the world of hospitality, so we took our time to talk to different entrepreneurs and other people that were knowledgeable. One person in specific was a great help and that is Lakhdar Hamina-Lakhdar,I talk about him all the time (laughs). He’s the man behind Caffé Al Dente and La Gazetta, two very well-known Italian restaurants here in Brussels. Next to that he’s a consultant and helps with whatever idea you may have. When we came to him with our project, he was immediately interested in helping us out. Finding a location, getting the right suppliers, establishing connections, dealing with the practical side of things – he was there every step of the way. It’s by surrounding ourselves with people like him that we were able to pull this off and make a smooth start. Obviously, making mistakes is inevitable but we managed to avoid quite a few.
TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK.
The biggest challenge definitely is recruitment and putting together a strong team. Finding the perfect chef is crucial, especially for a place like ours that offers a very particular kind of Asian cuisine, fusing Chinese and Thai. Keep in mind, there are less Thai in Belgium than Italians for example (laughs), so it was hard to find someone that really understood, someone that was available and that shared our vision. We were very happy to find Alan, who grew up in Thailand but has also lived in Italy. Somehow, he has some of that Italian temper (laughs). He’s a bit of a bad boy – with the bandana he usually wears and the tattoos he has – and has a strong presence, which is what we were looking for.
The rest of the team is from all over the place, but they all have that love and that passion that we require. They’re young, dynamic and at ease with working in a small place with an open kitchen. They’re all style-conscious too, which helps if you have people looking at you all night. That’s something we really look for – we want our team to reflect our vision. Part of that is an attitude and a style, it’s all part of the deal.
An open kitchen also requires a clean and transparent way of working. You can’t hide anything. Certain customers are really focused on our every move, which is cool to see too. They want to know what we’re doing, what ingredients we’re adding and what the story behind it all is. So, you’ve got to be prepared to be in that spotlight and be communicative.
OLD BOY? OLD BOY!
Initially we had another name in mind for our spot. It was going to be called Chinky, which actually is kind of a derogatory word for an Asian or Chinese person. Since both Xavier and I have Asian roots, we thought it would be a funny, strong name that kind of mocks the use of that type of language. However, when we started getting the word out that we were going to do a restaurant with that name, a bunch of people reached out to say that it wasn’t the best idea. We reassessed and understood that not everyone has the same frame of reference, so it could be a hindrance. If you’re doing a restaurant you’re already going to be judged on your food, your service, your interior and everything else, so we felt like it would be smarter to not use a name that some would consider offensive or provocative. We wanted to avoid that kind of prejudice.
We had to find another name quick and – luckily - we’re still super happy with our choice (laughs). As I said, I used to work in the movie world before and since we’re both movie freaks, we asked ourselves which Asian movie really left a mark when it came out. When Old Boy came up, we immediately felt good about it as a name. It’s a rough, dark movie that really stands out. Not something you’ll easily forget. It really works well within the context we want to create. It doesn’t sound like your typical Asian restaurant, but it does hint at Asia, while it has an English tone to it too. Now that we’ve been open for a while it’s interesting to notice that most people don’t really know the movie, so they don’t make the connection. But the people that do and that ask us if that is where we got the name always think it’s awesome.
SPICE UP THOSE SPROUTS.
The idea was to create something different, the kind of restaurant we’d love to go to ourselves. A place where you can feel comfortable, where you can eat well, in a contemporary atmosphere. Both Xavier and I love going out for food, we’ve always visited restaurants, no matter where we were. His roots are in China, so he visits China often, but then again, his father lives in London so he’s over there often too. My roots are in Thailand, so I go there every year. We’ve both travelled a lot too and basically, we both concluded that even if there are plenty of nice Asian restaurants, we couldn’t find our thing here in Brussels.
When I think of the meals with my family in Bangkok, there isn’t that notion of everyone ordering their own plate and just eating that. Instead, we’ll order some pad thai, a curry dish, a tom yum, fried salted rice and more. Everything is served at once and placed on the table. Everyone just grabs what they want, mixing sweet, savory and spicy. It’s that type of concept we wanted to install. So yes, there’s restaurants in L.A., London, Paris and Portland that inspired us to do what we do. But our own roots inspired us just as much.
We love giving our food a Belgian twist. For example, we’re serving mussels right now, but with a Thai flavor, we’ve also served Brussels sprouts with a spicy Thai sauce and we even offer fried boudins noirs. We love surprising people and mixing it up. The heart of what we do is Thai and Chinese, but we truly enjoy integrating other influences and trying new things. We also offer a nice range of natural wines. That’s a rare thing for an Asian restaurant but we really went all the way with that too. If you want to succeed, it’s in your interest to be different anyway. As a result, people that do enjoy wine find their way here too.
DRAGONS, ORCHIDS AND BEATS.
It may seem strange that so many Asian restaurants go for the same old clichés, but I understand. When the first wave of Asian immigrants arrived here, they obviously needed to work, so they started their own restaurants to introduce Belgians to their cuisine and culture. Since no one knew what their food was like, they wanted to create something that was easily recognizable, in order to be easily identifiable. From the names, to the decoration, the music and the plants they used, to the way the waiters were dressed – it all fit the stereotypes and it worked. Now, more than 40 years later, there’s a new wave of younger entrepreneurs that wants to break those codes and do their own thing. People nowadays travel a lot more, so they’re exposed to a lot more. It’s easier to tweak those formulas. There will always be a crowd for that classic style too, but we believe in renewal and our way of doing things.
The way I see it is that we set out to create a certain vibe. Part of that is the music we play at Old Boy; which people often compliment us on. Plenty of restaurants have music playing but it’s often barely audible. Or it’s just terrible (laughs). The restaurants that I really enjoy are the ones where music plays a vital role. A cool spot needs a fitting soundtrack and since I grew up in the 90s with lots of hip-hop and R&B, the music we play reflects our tastes. It’s laid back, it’s fun. When it gets late, we usually throw some electronic music in the mix, to keep things upbeat and energetic.
When I think of the future, nothing’s set in stone except for the opening of Lil Boy, a take-away spot right next door. At the end of the day, what I love most of all is creating new places, creating a certain atmosphere. By doing so, I’ve gotten the chance to get to know a wide range of people and we’ve become part of a community. It’s enriching and opens doors at the same time. People come to us to enjoy themselves and I’m there to assure that they do. I love it to the extent that it’s hard for me to not be here (laughs). Before opening Old Boy, I already had the habit of inviting a ton of friends and preparing food for all of them, making sure they had a great time. That hasn’t changed.
Pictures : Thibault de Schepper
Words : Bjorn Dossche