The Cast-Off Kitchens of Brussels
From the Series: Europe in the Balance
“Chef Nena,” as she is known, is a lifelong Bruxelloise and the head trainer at a restaurant in Brussels called Bel Mundo. One late afternoon during dinner prep as we listened to public radio and while she transformed browning leaves of basil into pesto and I prepared the topping for an apple crumble, we heard a report called “Europe in Crisis.”
Nena has a degree in human resources, and she also owned a catering company; now she is a full-time employee at Bel Mundo and receives state-funded benefits—including topnotch, nearly free healthcare. As the radio report zeroed in on Europe’s rising college costs, Nena began cursing. She said that college in Belgium had been inexpensive when she got her degree twenty years ago, but that tuition and fees had doubled for her son, who was headed to university in the next year. “For me university cost about 3,000 Euros, total, for all four years, everything included,” Nena said. “It will be double for my son, and what’s next? We should riot in the streets!”
Although 6,000 Euros for four years of college might seem modest when compared to American college tuition costs, it represents a loss of rights for Belgian citizens and is part of how they experience Europe in crisis. When it comes to Belgium, anthropologists have historically been interested in the flow of people in and out of the country in light of Belgium’s role as the (often brutal) colonizers of the Congo.1 Little attention has been paid to the capital Brussels, which over the last thirty years has experienced a dizzying shift from having one of the highest standards of living in the world to having one of the highest rates of first-world unemployment. The city is overflowing with tensions over the sorts of issues anthropologists care about, especially having to do with equity, labor, and belonging.
I have been tracking how residents of Brussels experience being at the center of Europe in crisis in their own daily lives, and have found one answer in the city’s kitchens. While twenty-five restaurants in Brussels earned Michelin stars in 2018, about 33 percent of residents live below the poverty line.2 The disparity is keenly felt all over the city and is why Bel Mundo came into existence. Bel Mundo is a “social restaurant,” which is a distinctly Brussels institution: All nineteen of the city’s communes have at last one, and all are subsidized by the city. They are designed to offer discounted meals to those receiving social security, disability, and unemployment benefits, or to those who cannot afford to pay full price for meals elsewhere. Paid interns on 9–18-month government contracts staff the places, in the process acquiring skills for the job market. As in almost all social restaurants, 90 percent of Bel Mundo’s ingredients are sourced from supermarket food surplus that is about to expire. Here is as close to an operational “zero food waste restaurant” as I have observed.
Today, Bel Mundo has two missions: to offer discounted meals to the working poor, and to provide a job-training program for those who have not yet risen to that class. But this incarnation marks a major shift. “Thirty years ago, we were a little like a soup kitchen; once a week a group of neighbors got together and made dinner for foreigners and immigrants who were moving in and had nothing,” Nena said. Over time, the organizers began applying for grants from the city, and succeeded in setting up a restaurant in an abandoned office space. The grants got bigger; the staff grew. A big change came in 2015, when the EU, in response to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations about food waste, instituted a compulsory policy for supermarkets in member states to donate all edible but unsellable food, or face fines. Bel Mundo suddenly had a steady supply of free ingredients.
Chef Nena now describes her work as “recuperating food that other people throw away.” Every day at 4 pm, she sends a worker to nearby grocery stores with whom Bel Mundo has a relationship. The worker packs up all unsold food that has exceeded its “best before” date but is still wholesome, and brings it back to Bel Mundo. “We take everything we want and freeze it. We get meats—expensive ones, too, like duck and foie gras; we get fresh vegetables, you name it. Then we create menus with what we have. If we get rotten food, we throw it away. If we get more than we need, I donate it to a shelter for abused women.”
In recuperating food, Bel Mundo is also now in the business of recuperating immigrants’ lives. Chef Nena’s interns are there because they faced obstacles to entering the workforce; “99 percent of them are immigrants,” she says, who lack identification papers and local language skills, or, in a few cases, have criminal records. Enrolled in the city’s welfare system, they are sent by case managers to work at Bel Mundo. “We are a training school for restaurant workers,” Nena explains. “We don’t make chefs; we make kitchen helpers. They learn how kitchens are run. The restaurant business has long hours and you work on your feet; it’s hard. The immigrants here need work, they need money, and the restaurant sector is a good place for them.”
The intermingling of classes, skillsets, and life experiences of workers in kitchens like Bel Mundo’s reveals that changes in how members of welfare states access a good life that formerly was readily available to them (e.g., through inexpensive college tuition) connect to opportunities for newcomers to belong. What we see in Brussels today is a social welfare state’s legacy of care that now matches cast-off food with cast-out people.
1. Few anthropological studies have been written about life in Belgium with two notable exceptions: American sociologist Rene C. Fox (1978), offers a functionalist perspective on what separations of language, class, and social life mean to life there, which was followed by a memoir of Fox’s thirty-five years of researching Belgians, In the Belgian Chateau (Fox 1994). Marc Blainey (2016), a scholar of indigenous American societies, upon doing research in a Belgian library, argues for the need for more ethnographic research to be done in Belgium.
2. FPS Economy—Statistics Belgium (Quality report Belgian SILC 2015) via HSO (2016 Social Barometer).
Blainey, Marc G. 2016. “Groundwork for the Anthropology of Belgium: An OverlookedMicrocosm of Europe.” Ethnos 81, no. 3: 478–507.
Fox, Renée C. 1978. “Why Belgium?” European Journal of Sociology 19, no. 2: 205–28.
———. 1994. In the Belgian Château: The Spirit and Culture of European Society in an Age of Change. Chicago: I. R. Dee.