“I am at the top floor!” says Maël as she answers the doorbell to her Antwerp apartment. Her perfect red lips form a big smile when she opens the door to her sunlit duplex apartment. It’s instantly clear that this twenty-something loves to laugh.
Moving from Ghent to Antwerp proved smart choice for Maël, as it is here in Antwerp that she has gained some of her most valuable experiences, found contact with interesting people and has grown both the confidence and knowledge to start her own food styling and cooking business, MAELTIJD. She now even contemplates opening her own restaurant.
Maël certainly has no plans to go back to Ghent anytime soon, because good things and a burgeoning business keep her attached to Antwerp. On the other hand, she has secret daydreams about moving to Scandinavia, which is not a surprise for a self-professed Gemini like herself, always open to new adventures.
How would you describe yourself?
To describe myself in just a few words I would say that I’m young, curious to discover new things and eager to learn. I also get tired with things very easily. That’s typical for Gemini, my astrological sign. What I find most important in other people is a sense of humor. And of course food is very meaningful to me, as it should be to others. It is the fuel of the body and mind.
When did your fascination for food and food styling begin?
My dad is an excellent cook, so I was raised with good food. He is the one who made me aware of eating consciously and healthily, and taught me about fine tastes and vegetables. That’s what incited the idea of going to cooking school in Koksijde. After the initial ‘one year’ education, I started as a sous chef at the age of 21. That’s when I got hooked. I find the stress and pressure in the kitchen very addictive.
Do you find it hard to be a young woman in a working field that is dominated by men?
In the beginning I tried to stand my ground among the men. I wanted to kick ass and to not show my feminine side, but after a while that became too exhausting. Now I like that I can be the only woman in the kitchen, it makes me feel special. There is little or no competition between me and my male colleagues. In fact I can’t imagine what it must be like to work only with women….
When did you decide to start your own business? How did people react?
About a year ago I started as a home cook for the family of Inge Onsea, one of the founders of the Belgian brand Essentiel. Around the same period of time my friend, Cesar Casier, asked me to do the food styling for his book ‘Model Kitchen‘. After that I realized I could do the same for other people and families. When I voiced my idea everybody reacted very positively, even though I was in my early twenties. There was not one negative reaction!
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef, or working as MAELTIJD?
If I hadn’t become a chef, I would not have stopped dancing and ballet. I started when I was only three years old, and took some extra tumbling lessons at the age of twelve. Music and singing are other passions of mine. I play the guitar and piano, and I even played in a band. After high school I stopped because of a total lack of time, and that’s when I started cooking.
What kind of people do you like cooking for the most?
I have the most fun when I’m cooking for people I don’t know and who don’t know me. Especially when they have absolutely no idea what to expect. And for children – they like simple dishes and are always extremely honest. What I don’t like is preparing vegan or gluten-free food. I’m not a big fan of food hype.
If you could decorate your own restaurant, what would it look like?
I have had an idea in my head for a while now to create and decorate a restaurant in which people feel like coming home. It would be a cozy, familiar environment with some kind of living room vibe which would include a Persian rug, couches, a corner where you can watch movies and so on. I would love for people to feel so at ease that they would take off their shoes! Therefore I would keep it rather small, 50 seats maximum. I find it very important to trigger all the senses, not just taste.
Where do you find inspiration?
When it comes to work, pressure is my biggest incentive. I only get new ideas and get things done when I feel pressure or stress. And I get inspiration from working with talented people at interesting places. Thatkindofwoman.tumblr.com is a page I check regularly. There, I become inspired by the featured quotes, pictures and song texts. As far as how I dress, I never really think about outfits much. All that matters is that I feel comfortable and that there is a touch of color.
What makes you confident?
When I’m happy overall I feel confident. Often, I’m happy when I have a good boyfriend, a good someone with whom I can share my life. Of course I’m also confident and happy when I feel balanced and like I’ve got everything in order. I also feel very appreciated and confident when someone reacts positively to MAELTIJD, and when I am surrounded by creative people.
What does your perfect weekend look like?
Right now I feel like driving to Calais and strolling along the rocks near the water. Lately I’ve been going out every weekend. I would like to find the right balance between partying and relaxing, sleeping late and doing absolutely nothing.
Where do you go in your neighborhood? Or rather, what do you do when you want to catch up with a close friend?
I live in Zuid, the southern area of Antwerp, where there are a lot of coffee bars, cafés and restaurants. Vitrin is one of the most popular ones, and also one of my favorites. Caffè Internazionale in Volkstraat has the best pastrami sandwiches. I love going to Caravan for breakfast to get their amazing French toast, although it is a little far away – in the Northern part of Antwerp, near Park Spoor Noord.
Where do you travel for holidays or a weekend getaway?
Unfortunately I haven’t been traveling as much as I would like. My friends and I regularly go to Ibiza. I really like the atmosphere of the island, but not the party scene. Asia and the Scandinavian countries are at the top of my travel list, mainly because of their food. I also can’t wait to have dinner at Noma in Copenhagen!
Do you have a favorite restaurant in your city?
Graanmarkt 13, where I used to work as a sous chef, is one of my favorites. I also really like it’s location: Graanmarkt is a little square that reminds me of Paris. It is particularly beautiful in spring when all the trees are blossoming here. Veranda in Berchem also serves very good food. I recommend it to everyone I know!
You moved from Ghent to Antwerp. What was the reason for the change of scenery?
That was a decision a made after I finished school. There were many more job opportunities in Antwerp, for both me and for my boyfriend at the time. I’m not planning on going back to Ghent anytime soon. I have a lot of interesting contacts here. If I ever decide to leave Antwerp it would be to move abroad, to Scandinavia for example.
Do you have any favorite items, pieces of furniture, belongings?
I don’t consider myself a materialistic person. I think the item I am most proud of and attached to is my personalized cooking vest. Most of my furniture and belongings – aside from my clothes – were gifts from friends and family. I received the chairs from my mother, I bought the sofas from my ex-roommate and the leather bench is from my friend Marieke. I don’t go looking for new furniture, but when I come across something I like, I’ll buy it. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who searches the internet or visits flea markets to find unique pieces. What I do buy every week are fresh flowers. I really need them to make my apartment a home.
Thanks Maël for sharing your tastes and confidence with us – we wish you the best of luck with your cooking endeavors!
This portrait is part of a series of women portraits, produced in collaboration with Esprit. As part of the series, interviewees wear their favorite Esprit styles. Find more information and additional pictures here.
Photography: Turbo Turbo
Interview & Text: Joni Vandewalle