A teenage romance from over 40 years ago blossomed into a lifelong foodie passion with the Gersdorff Foundation.
“Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” said Voltaire — a philosophy that has been taken to heart by one of Belgium’s most renowned and respected chefs, Benoit Gersdorff.
The Gersdorff story began 40 years ago when 16-year-old Benoit met his future wife Christine at hospitality college in Namur, the ancient capital of the French-speaking part of Belgium.
They were both students at the time and Christine was expected to become a housewife, but her life took a different path after she met the rebellious Benoit.
“Dad was always getting suspended from school,” laughs his daughter Camille over the phone from her home in Namur, where she is now instrumental in driving the next stage of the family business: a think-tank and sustainable food foundation.
Camille describes how her parents, at the age of 18, left home for Paris on the back of a scooter. They landed jobs in Michelin-starred restaurants and spent 10 years working in the French capital’s most prestigious eateries.
Christine and Benoit returned to Belgium in their early 30s to start a family and, at the same time, launched a restaurant called L’Essentiel. A year after opening its doors, Benoit’s flair earned the restaurant its first Michelin star.
Ten years later they took over the restaurant La Plage d’Amée, which soon became one of Belgium’s chicest gastronomic hotspots. Still owned by the family today, La Plage d’Amée overlooks the River Meuse in Namur, flanked by weeping willows and fragrant pine trees. It also recently won a Michelin star.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the Gersdorffs did not end there. They acquired an old farm located in the heart of the Citadel of Namur and spent a decade of renovation and reconstruction, stone by stone. “My mum travelled the world looking for the best beds, the best furniture, the best spa products, to make the hotel totally luxurious but unique,” recalls Camille. NE5T Hotel & Spa was finally inaugurated in 2012, a hidden gem of only six suites, each one individually designed. Exposed wooden beams, vaulted stone ceilings, original fireplaces and a glossy, modern spa have earned the boutique a reputation as one of Belgium’s finest.
Camille says the Gersdorff success story lies fundamentally in her parent’s shared passion for their dreams and for each other. “All the way through their career they have shared everything,” she adds. “They are always surprising each other, they’re very romantic.”
Now, accompanied in the business by Camille and their son Guillaume, they are beginning the next exciting chapter: building a foundation focused on sustainable farming and social-integration initiatives.
Benoit Gersdorff talks to Billionaire about his plans for the Maison Gersdorff Foundation.
Can you tell us more about your foundation?
The Maison Gersdorff Foundation’s core value is the development of food sustainability. Our aim is to create environmentally friendly solutions to meet the challenges of constant growing demand in the agri-food industry.
We currently have eight hectares of vegetable and herb crops in the gardens of located around the NE5T hotel, all harvested using permaculture techniques. We have built computerised greenhouses, specialised in organic vertical farming and are conducting research on aqua culture to find alternatives to traditional crop farming, which is wasteful and damaging for the environment.
Furthermore, we work with farmers, producers and craftsmen from the Namur province to showcase the quality and uniqueness of our region. We are opening our new healthy café in September 2019 in Namur’s recently renovated Maison de la Culture (Cultural Centre) representing our vision to share and work in symbiosis with local producers.
Where will you source the funds for your foundation?
To date, our funds have been personal investments in order to test the viability of our socio-professional and agricultural projects.
In 2020 the next step will be to start injecting a percentage of our total revenues. In order to do so, we are planning a marketing movement called Bon Appétit, which will include our establishments’ operations, our clients, organised events and varied brand partnerships.
Long term, we are working on agreements to start a collaboration with the biggest European credit card distributor, to round up costs and place these benefits inside our foundation. We will invite other enterprises sharing the same values and looking to spend part of their CSR to join us, as well as privates and institutions.
Can you describe the new restaurant at the Maison de la Culture?
Our coffee restaurant, due to open in September, will be an authentic sharing place, where people can order healthy products at affordable prices. A lively atmosphere, it will host musical events and artist creations giving a platform for young talents to gain exposure. We will display typical beers brewed in the province of Namur and products from our own vegetable gardens, as well as local producers. This new restaurant will be the physical pillar of our solidarity project.
What inspired you to take this next step into sustainability and what do you hope to achieve?
Sustainability is about thinking, having an idea, creating a product, starting projects, with a purpose and a vision, and not simply becoming profitable, because for us, money is a short-term solution for a long-term issue. The final goal in our business is to strive for a purpose that will positively impact on us, anon our collaborators, staff and clients.