Chef Xavier Meers' English has improved significantly since he moved to Richmond from Belgium four years ago to open his bistro in Midlothian. But customers like to speak to him in French, and sometimes bring him souvenirs from Europe when they travel. For Meers, who trained in Nice and Cannes in France after years shadowing his grandfather in a Brussels restaurant, it's a life's work chosen early. At least half of the dishes on his menu — beef stew, cheese croquettes — come from that earliest repertoire. "I revisit the old cuisine on a new level," he says, "and I just want people to know that we are trying to introduce our culture to Richmond. We hope they respect what we do. We do that for the pleasure of the people."
The tastes that sell: I love to put my little touch on every dish I do. I make waterzooi — people love that here. It's a white fish stew that has a base of veggie. Normally you cook everything together, but I cook it separately because I like my vegetables more crunchy. Our burger is a mix of Belgium and America. I love burgers, but you can find them all over Richmond, good ones. I do a truffle mayonnaise and serve a piece of foie gras on the side — a lot of people want that. It used to be a special but we run it all the time now.
Finding an audience is a constant pursuit: It's not very easy in Richmond. When people give us a chance, they come back because they know we want them. People are very curious. They ask so many questions — it's a completely different culture, and every dish has a story. We need to explain it. Sometimes they say it's pricey. But here, everything is homemade, all of my choices are the best quality — the lamb, the rib eye, filet mignon, I want the best. It's a lot of work making all the dressings, sauces, desserts. We don't do any frozen stuff. And we have nice service. I don't think my restaurant is more pricey [than other places]. We have a great reputation, a five-star rating from Trip Advisor, and that means a lot. We go to every table every night. We are close to our guests, we talk to them and listen to them. You need to know what the people want. Sometimes the chef doesn't want to change, but I think the chef must please the customers.
The sauce is key: You want a good sauce with a good taste. I cook for hours, like an infusion. To be perfect you taste it all the time. Fresh produce of course. Time. Low fire. Find the taste you can never find anywhere else. The sauce is the finishing touch — I try to do better than better.
Sometimes I dream about a dish, and the next day it becomes a special. I find my inspiration everywhere, and it comes like that — [snaps fingers]. I try not to do what others do. I respect my style and I respect others. We are the only Belgian restaurant in the city. We are close to French but more friendly, with a big heart. A lot of people understand the European culture here.
Of course it's my business, but I focus on my food. Every morning I'm not coming in to work, but to cook, it's my pleasure.
When it's poetry in motion: Weekends are the best — a lot of friends and families coming in. Mussels night is always great. It's busy, the bar and booths are busy, people are relaxed, even after two and a half hours they still feel comfortable here and we never rush them out. Belle Vie, it means what we want people to know — enjoy it, it's a beautiful life.
Interviewed by Deveron Timberlake