The children at the Singelijn School in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert are in for a treat. From Monday to Friday, Pierre Lefèvre prepares their lunch in the canteen, tasty dishes like chicken teriyaki, tartiflette and boulet à la Liégeoise. During his own childhood, Pierre went out in the woods around Brussels foraging mushrooms with his father. An activity which would shape his future professional path as a chef.

Growing up in Brussels, how do you remember the city from your childhood?

My father worked as an antique dealer of African and Oceanian art and he had a gallery at the Sablon. He was an adventurous man who introduced me to many different things and places. We often went to the cinema together and he passed on his passion for comic books to me. When I was 14 years-old, I became friends with a guy called Yves Schlirf who was the owner of Schlirf Book, a comic bookstore. I started working there and at 17, I became the manager. School wasn’t really for me and I left it early; I was reading comics all the time. The bookstore was magical and Yves became like a mentor to me. He gave me carte blanche at the store and we started importing this new wave of American comics which were darker and more psychological than the European ones. We were also the first ones to import manga in the beginning of the nineties. All the kids came. And some of the famous Belgian comic illustrators visited us frequently.

My father also introduced me to mushrooms. He often went out around Brussels’ forests to pick up mushrooms and he taught me a lot about it. We found them around Waterloo and in the Forêt de Soignes, areas where foraging is now prohibited. But I still find plenty of mushrooms around, also during spring time.

I now understand the personal story behind the well-known restaurant ‘Café des Spores’ which you founded in Saint-Gilles. Where they serve dishes which always include some kind of mushrooms.

Yes, my interest in mushrooms was the reason for that concept. But before that, I opened ‘Champignac’ on the other side of the street. That building used to house a butcher and it was such a beautiful space. One day, I asked the mechanic next door who owned the place and he was the owner in fact. So, I proposed to rent the space and that’s how Champignac started, an épicerie where I sold mushrooms, fresh and dried. I then installed a table d’hôtes for lunch upstairs which became a great success. At that time, there was nothing else going on in the area, the gentrification came much later. In 2003, we opened ‘Café des Spores’ just opposite. Together with a previous client from the comic book store, we made it happen. He was searching for a house to invest in and I proposed to set up a restaurant on the bottom floor. The architect Diego Carrion, a good friend of mine, helped out with the interior. Café des Spores was full from day one. At Champignac we created a kind of ’salle d’attente’ where people could have a drink before their dinner across the street - which explains the name and founding of La Buvette. I hired a great chef, Cedric Castus, who took care of both restaurants. At some point, we ended up selling the two places and I went back to books again.

Why did you return to books?

My friends Dimitri Jeurissen and Thierry Brunfaut told me about a new exciting project, a bookstore about to open at Bozar, in the window space along the street of the Palais des Beaux-Arts. I became the store manager and we sold all kinds of books: comics, children’s books, art books, literature. I loved working in that area of town which was a bit of a no-man’s land at the time despite the central location and the great architecture around. I also adore the Palais des Beaux-Arts; it’s important to me that my surroundings are beautiful and here, I was going the Palais every day for work, what a treat. I had the key and could visit all the rooms in this magnificent building by Victor Horta. We kept the same team during six years, it was a great time. We had writers like Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie for signature events. We collaborated with Bozar of course and combined our activities, I really liked working in the art world.

After six years, we felt it was time to stop and I returned to food. My architect friend Diego was curious about creating something together so we travelled to Peru to check out the food scene and we got inspired. We decided to open ‘King Kong’ on Chaussée de Charleroi which was a bit of an experiment with Peruvian dishes. I had to stop after a few years though as I was simply working too much and needed a real break. After a proper time-out where I regained my energy, I started cooking in a kitchen together with other cooks, a place called Mica Food, a traiteur proposing Ottolenghi-like dishes. This was a real boost for me. Here, I relearned how to cook.

And you’re still working as a chef now, cooking for young and hungry people - and a lot of them.

Yes, we feed 550 kids every day, five days a week. We’re just two people in the kitchen and two to serve and clean. It’s a challenge but a very rewarding one. I love being surrounded by children and I also sometimes invite them into the kitchen to cook. The architecture of the Singelijn School is interesting and we’re surrounded by greenery. When I stand in the kitchen, I look out onto a small stream, relaxing and beautiful. I particularly enjoy when the kids make small boats and play with them in the stream. Everything we cook here is homemade. There are only five schools in Brussels which have their own kitchen, otherwise the food is supplied by external industrial kitchens. I try to cook a lot of different things to encourage the kids to taste various dishes - it’s a lot of fun.

Pierre is one of the 73 locals who has generously contributed to our city guide 'Brussels by locals' by sharing his favourite spots in town.

Pictures by Stephanie De Smet
1. Forêt de Soignes
2. Pierre Lefèvre, Singelijn
3. Bozar