He’s the founder of the Emmanuel Stroobant Group as well as a father of two. But what’s Emmanuel Stroobant like as a dad? We catch up with the celebrity chef to find out.
If you have dined at Brussels Sprouts or Picotin Express you’re probably familiar with how family-friendly these eating establishments are. That should come as no surprise, since the man behind both restaurants is a dad himself: Belgium-born Emmanuel Stroobant, 48, runs the Emmanuel Stroobant Group (which manages seven F&B brands) with his wife, 43-year-old Edina Hong.
The couple has two children, Keira, seven, and Mia, four, and playing dad to two little girls has transformed this one-time party-animal. “Parenthood has changed me upside down,” the yoga enthusiast confesses. “I stopped drinking, smoking and partying. I basically stopped having a life (laughs) and I definitely lead a healthier lifestyle now.” Like how? Read on to find out.
What’s your parenting style?
I would describe it as organic, meaning it is not one size fits all. It depends on the child and the situation. You need to be flexible. We can be on holiday and allow the kids to have an ice cream because it’s part of the holiday mood. But when the kids ask for the same ice cream on a Saturday afternoon and there’s no real reason to give it, we won’t give them the ice cream.
What’s a typical family day or weekend like?
The kids will wake me up, we have breakfast, and I will take them out in the morning for a trip – to the zoo, ice-skating or anything – then we have lunch together, and come back and chill at home. Sometimes we do some simple cooking or baking. We seldom watch TV and we try to have a meal together in the evening. Breakfast and dinner are family meals – we all sit together and eat. Lunch times are more flexible because we have activities or I am not home.
When did you first start cooking?
I started cooking when I was six or seven because my parents were running night businesses and by 5pm I was completely alone so I had no choice but to learn how to cook. I would cook pancakes and simple things like French toast and soups. So that’s how I started.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I never expected to become a professional chef until I started washing dishes in a restaurant to earn a living to fund my higher education. That’s when I considered it professionally, and it has been 31 years since. Also, my dad used to cook, my grandfather used to cook – the whole family cooks. It has always been very natural for us to pull out a board and a knife and create something. It’s part of who we are – it’s genetic!
Why did you become a vegetarian?
Several years ago, I had a health check, and my cholesterol was elevated. At that time, I was starting to take the practice of yoga more seriously, and decided to take on the life of a yogi and adopted vegetarianism. So it worked out well.
How does this factor in what you cook for your children?
For my children, if I have to give them animal protein, it will always be a secondary factor. I will focus first on the vegetables, starches, grains, and seeds, and the meat will come after. A good example is couscous. Say we make a soup that consists of vegetables. Most of the time, I pick organic vegetables to cook a vegetable broth. Then we steam the couscous. After this, if they feel like having lamb chop or roast lamb or chicken, that is something they can add on the side. But the main dish is a vegetable based one.
What do you tell your children when they ask you why you are not eating the meat or fish?
The first thing my children will mention to me is that I am not eating, but they don’t ask why. But if they ask, I will just tell them the truth – that I have health issues and it’s good for me. Secondly, it’s about a respect for animals. When they realise what meat is, they will have a different view of it. I don’t want to push them and I don’t want them to have a disgust towards meat. I just want them to eat it with some respect and to understand that the meat that they eat is of good origin and that they are not absorbing any kind of processed food in their belly just because it tastes or looks good.
Cooking for adults and cooking for children – what are the differences?
When you are cooking for adults, you look at flavours which are really strong flavours. I always look for bulky flavours, specifically umami – stuff that is really bulky and big. For children, I go for lighter flavours and simpler dishes. I try to separate the flavours. If I do a dish with carrot and cheese, I would like them to taste the cheese and the carrots separately and not a blend of both.
Cheese is something I love to use to play around with my kids. We play blindfolded tasting games and cheese is always used in the game. They can easily identify the type of cheese without having to see it.
With seven F&B brands to manage, you must be a very busy man. What are your days like?
I usually practice yoga or visit the market in the morning from as early as 7am, and will reach the restaurant by 9am. My working hours are typically from 9am to 11pm. On days when we have an event at the restaurant, it goes up to 12am. Sundays and public holidays are my off days and these are family days to be spent with my wife and children. I also try to take time off to be with the kids during their school holidays.
They say food is the best way to bring people together. Do you agree?
I completely agree. Gathering the family around the table is one of the most important things we can do in order to have some meaningful conversations. In addition, both my children cook with me. Although my younger one is only four and her abilities are a little questionable sometimes, she enjoys cooking and is always insistent on being part of the cooking team.
My kids do basic tasks from peeling vegetables to simple baking – they like mixing and love to play with dough. I think cooking is a nice way to bring the family together. When I cook professionally, the environment and mood is more serious. But cooking at home is very much more casual and relaxing. I think it is important to teach young children how to cook so that they won’t rely on fast food or pre-packed meals.
What foods will you never introduce to your children?
I focus a lot on quality ingredients so fruits and vegetables are always on the menu. We try to keep the food simple, but the source of produce is very important. Hence, we buy organic produce as much as possible. I will never introduce soft drinks, deep-fried food, and processed food like sausages or frozen chicken to my kids.
What’s your favourite dish to cook or bake with your kids?
Pastas, pizzas and bread. My kids and I love to make and play with the dough. It’s like playing with PlayDoh!
We also make sushi – they love sushi. We make vegetable sushi that doesn’t have to be refrigerated, so it is something that works well for a lunchbox.
And what kinds of vegetables do Chef Emmanuel’s daughters like in their sushi rolls? “Japanese cucumber, avocado, carrot and sweet corn,” he says. He shares with us an easy peasy sushi recipe you can try at home – it’s lunchbox-friendly and little ones are sure to love it!
Simple Sushi Rolls
- 3 cups of sushi rice
- 3 ¼ cups of water
- ½ cup of rice seasoning
- 12 sheets of nori
- 1 avocado
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons of Japanese mayonnaise
- 2 Japanese cucumbers
- Wash the sushi rice and let it drain for ten minutes.
- Place the sushi rice and water in a rice cooker. Once cooked, keep it on warm for 16 minutes without opening the lid.
- Transfer the cooked sushi rice to a glass or plastic container and slowly mix in the rice seasoning until well combined.
- Combine the eggs and whisk till well mixed. Pour the egg mixture into a heated skillet and cook. Fold into an omelette.
For sushi rolls:
- Place a sheet of cling film on a flat surface such as your kitchen counter top.
- Place a nori sheet on the cling film shiny side down. Wet your hands and pat a very thin layer of rice all over the nori sheet.
- Spread a tablespoon of Japanese mayonnaise over the layer of rice. Dice the omelette, Japanese cucumbers and avocado and arrange them in a line down the centre of the rice.
- Lift the top end of the nori sheet and roll it forward over the ingredients while pressing gently. Make a complete roll and repeat the steps with the remaining ingredients.
- Cut each roll into bite-sized pieces using a sharp wet knife.
Are your children picky eaters?
Keira is a little picky, but it is okay because at least she is adventurous. She is picky in the sense that if something is not good or if she doesn’t like it, she will put it aside straightaway. If she’s being picky it means that something is probably not good. If a dish is too salty, I wouldn’t encourage her to eat it. I always double check on what she’s saying. If she is right about a certain dish, I will tell her that she’s correct, but if she is wrong then I will explain to her why she is wrong. Mia is not picky about her food, but she’s also only four years old now. Where vegetables are concerned, the kids love them since I incorporated them in their meals from a very young age.
What do your children eat for breakfast?
Fruit and cereals.
When did you start teaching your daughters how to cook?
I started teaching them when they were two years old. They can cook couscous or maybe spaghetti bolognese. It’s something I myself used to cook at home when I was young and my dad cooked it as well. Spaghetti bolognese was a dish we ate no matter what time of the day it was. Sometimes, after coffee and dessert, a bowl of spaghetti would suddenly appear in front of me and I would of course relish it!
Which is the most child-friendly restaurant under the Emmanuel Stroobant Group?
I can’t decide between Brussels Sprouts and Picotin Express. If you are talking about the menu and promotions for children, Brussels Sprouts is definitely more child-friendly – they have a Kids Eat Free promotion on Sundays to Thursdays from 5pm till they close. But if you are talking about kids activities, then it would be Picotin Express as it is located just next to Champions Golf Course where there is mini golf and putt-putt activities for the kids.
Complete the sentence: “The best thing about being a parent is…”
“…no matter how tired I am, I am happy. There’s always something to look forward to after a long day at work and that is to see my wife and kids.”
Images courtesy of Chef Emmanuel Stroobant.