Jeroen Van Hecke

4 Oct. 2018
Between the Belgian veteran and Cuba, it was love at first sight

There are — or there should be — stages to the development of a bartender. You’re an apprentice first, cleaning glasses, juicing, refilling ice wells. Then you’re allowed to make drinks, before you try your hand at creating them. If things look good, that’s when you enter competitions so you can develop your creativity and create a name for yourself. Once you’re at a certain level, you stop competing and start building up on all previous phases. That’s what surprised us when we ran into Belgium’s Jeroen Van Hecke at the global 2018 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix finals. We’d first met him years before at another comp, and we thought he was beyond all this. But that’s the pull Havana can have on you, as he told us: « I came here two and half years ago with my wife. I fell in love with the country and I told her that I really wanted to come back. You know, I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve worked in England, New Zealand, Australia, toured 40 countries with cruise ships, but I never experienced a place like this ». Believe us, we understand. 

When Jeroen’s professional life started, cocktails were, to say the least, not really a thing in Belgium. At hospitality school, he trained to be a waiter or a Maitre d’. Stints at luxury hotels and restaurants followed before he found work on cruise ships. That’s where he found out about cocktails. « If you’re a waiter, the most creative thing you do is cutting a cheeseboard or pushing the dessert trolley. Cocktails seemed like a perfect solution », he told us. So at the end of one of his cruise seasons, Jeroen enrolled in a cocktail course in London. At the time (we’re talking mid-2000’s) there were not many on offer. « It lasted one week, and you were learning the real classic cocktails… After that, I looked for whatever good books I could find from the States and England.» It was that mythical time when tools were few and you had to rely on hard work to improve. The upside was that the community was small: « You soon got in touch with other people who were intrigued by cocktails, and that’s how you developed. »

Back in Belgium, he first worked in Antwerp where he met local scene guru Ben Belmans (owner today of BelRoy’s Bijou bar and of a line of bottled cocktails including a stunning Presidente). One year later, in 2006, he moved to Blankenberge, a coastal city very popular in the summer — or whenever the sun shines. Now, we have to admit, the author, as a young Belgian growing up in the 1990’s, never imagined the place as a cocktail hotspot. But at L’Apereau (a play on word — apéritif by the water), Van Hecke and team have developed a cocktail program that never fails to impress. « It’s a very cosy and charming bar », he told us. « Blankenberg started to grow as a resort during the Belle Epoque, and it’s a bit in that style ». As far as the drinks are concerned, Jeroen says, his high-end restaurant and hotel background pushes him towards culinary techniques. « We work with a lot of vegetables and do food-pairing ».

In more than a decade, Jeroen has seen the Belgium scene grow in spades. Gent and Antwerp have stellar bars, Knokke (also on the coast) is doing great and even Brussels is stepping up its game. « It’s much better but there’s still a lot of work to do. We have a lot of talents, but Belgians are always on the quiet side, there’s no big attitude, you keep your head down and you want to study a lot before you perform. But actually, we’re doing quite well on the global stage, so… »

…so unsurprisingly, Jeroen brought out the goods at the Grand Prix and made it to the final ten. As a self-defined Cuba lover, his drink paid tribute to something quite familiar with anyone who knows the island: « I found my inspiration in the typical Cuban coffee — café cubano ». Aptly named Café del Cantinero, it mixed this idiosyncratic Cuban drink with a cocktail that’s extremely popular on the global stage — the Negroni. The rum tied everything together, of course. Jeroen also wanted to involve his own country: « As you know, we were not allowed to bring any ingredient with us, everything had to be sourced in Cuba, so I had to think of an idea to put my Belgian stamp on the cocktail ». Thankfully, Cuba and Belgium share something: chocolate. Cuba is a cacao producer and, of course, Belgium is renowned throughout the world for transforming the stuff into the finest chocolate. So Jeroen infused cacao nibs in a bitter liqueur and made an orange flavoured syrup by boiling… homemade orangettes (chocolate-coated candied oranges). Now that’s an aperitivo cocktail we’d love to have after dinner! 

Café del Cantinero
50 ml Havana Club 7 Años
15 ml Cuban coffee-infused Campari
10 ml Cuban cacao-infused Averna
5 ml orange syrup made with orangettes
Pour all ingredients into iced-filled shaker, throw until chilled and serve in a coffee cup. Garnish with orange zest and orangette.

François Monti