Zuut opened in December 2015 in Leuven (Belgium), by the hand of chocolatier David van Acker and pastry chef Pieter de Volder. Although this young Belgian does not see himself as an avant-garde pastry chef, Pieter does declare his support for the slogan ‘less is more’, a clean pastry on the outside with an intense flavor. Before that decisive moment, Pieter had traveled to Spain to learn from Carles Mampel’s pastry style. Not only did he work in the pastry shop Bubó in Barcelona for some time, but he also had the opportunity to thoroughly learn about the local cuisine, and forge a good friendship with Abel Bravo, a young pastry chef who shortly after also opened an establishment of his own (Glea) in Murcia (Spain). After four years on the road, he felt satisfied with having achieved a very close relationship with his customers, since the only thing that separates the shop area from the workshop is a glass door. Pieter de Volder says that they have no interest in growing too much or doing it very quickly, on the contrary, he speaks of a ‘healthy’ evolution. He would like to have more bean to bar chocolates, a small selection of viennoiseries and also have a tasting area by moving the chocolates production area to another larger venue, although he has not decided when he is going to take these steps yet. On the other hand, he is delighted with the suggestive timepiece full of pastry accessories that presides over the counter behind the display case. In his shop there is no shortage of Mediterranean flavors inspired directly by his stay at the pastry shop Bubó. Bruno Van Vaerenbergh, Debic culinary specialist, brings the clean and intense pastry of this chef through some of his star creations to so good #22 . We spoke to him about the trajectory of Zuut, his top products, and his philosophy as a pastry chef.
In Belgium you have a great pastry and chocolate tradition, so what lead you to travel to Barcelona and find new experiences and knowledge?
In 2013, life went very fast for me, a little too fast I felt. Back then I was working as a pastry chef in a restaurant, I did some internships during my vacations in other restaurants and pastry shops and on my only free evening in the week I followed an education in accounting.
I felt I needed a break. I always dreamed about going to another country, to soak up a different culture, feel another vibe and atmosphere and getting to know different people. I had already been following the Spanish pastry scene for a long time, not only online but also in books. I was and still am a huge fan of Carles Mampel and every time I was in Barcelona I visited Bubó to see and go taste the pastries. That, combined with the need to leave Belgium behind for a while, made me take that huge step. I applied for an internship at Bubó. After some back and forth through email and even a same day return ticket to Barcelona, I was able to start in the atelier of Bubó. After three months, my internship was over, but I felt my story wasn’t finished there. They asked me to stay and work for them, which I agreed to immediately. Working at Bubó was not only very educational in a pastry way, it was also educational for me as a person. I worked, slept, lived in Barcelona. I was there on my own, far away from my ‘safe place’ with my girlfriend, friends and family. In the beginning I went for dinner alone in the city but that didn’t bother me at all. I really liked the time on my own, and felt that that was exactly what I needed back then. I talked to complete strangers at the bar while I was eating. I started to make contact with my colleagues while working and after work we went around Barcelona to have a walk, tasted some different pastries, eat in a lot of different areas. One of them is Abel Bravo. We have the same background in the restaurant scene so while working together we quickly realized we had/have the same gastronomic interest. He took me to different new things. Tasting and talking about food and drinks, the way they put something on a plate was my way of learning Spanish.
Working at Bubó was not only very educational in a pastry way, it was also educational for me as a person (…) I started to make contact with my colleagues while working and after work we went around Barcelona to have a walk, tasted some different pastries, eat in a lot of different areas.
Back then my life was working, walking, sleeping, tasting, eating, drinking. Very educational. I refined the rest in my head as I needed. I am very thankful to my girlfriend for letting me take this chance. Our relationship is even stronger now thanks to that adventure.
Are you satisfied with ZUUT’s four year trajectory? Have you received a nice welcome from the customers all this time? Has it been very difficult from the first day?
We opened in December 2015, three months after I became a dad for the first time. If I look back now, I was a fool for doing that. We were new in the city and did some teasing on Facebook and Instagram months before the opening. The opening was a huge success. I’d even say it was too big. We couldn’t keep up with the demand. During Christmas, only three weeks after we opened, we already had a nice amount of orders but when the shop opened at 10:00 AM, not all of the products were finished. There were already many people waiting at the door, so the ladies in the shop took some pastries which were already finished and put them in the shop. They were sold, but now the people that hard ordered had to wait for more than 40 minutes because their order wasn’t finished. It was even on national radio. There was nobody to blame, it was just the new shop in combination with Christmas. I was happy to hear the customers saying they understood the situation. I’m also glad that it was only that time. Very happy that so many customers passed by only three weeks after we opened. We couldn’t give them the service I wanted to. But Rome wasn’t build in one day, right? Every good thing takes time.
So, what how is it different from ZUUT? Is it that different with other Belgium pastry shops?
We like our creations clean and simple on the outside, but very powerful flavor-wise on the inside. I think a little bit like me. I’m not a person who will scream and shout, I’m more subtle, humble. Let the inside steal the show!
The flavors are not too fancy, they are very recognizable, but done in a modern way. With the best products, nice cream, tasty nuts, fresh milk, delicious real butter and playing with different textures and light mousses. So every spoon asks for more.
“We like our creations clean and simple on the outside, but very powerful flavor-wise on the inside. I think a little bit like me. I’m not a person who will scream and shout, I’m more subtle”
And what about your boutique concept, decoration, and design? Do you have a salon? What’s your service and philosophy?
We have an open atelier so the customers can see us working behind a big glass door while they are buying our products. For the moment we don’t have a salon but that is a project for the future.
The demand of our customers that they can eat and drink at our shop is high so I am really looking forward to putting that into practice. I would also like to serve some plated desserts, like I was doing while working as a pastry chef in restaurants. But we are taking it step by step. We are growing in a healthy way and we feel that our production is starting to become small. My colleague David van Acker who is the chocolatier, started to make our own chocolate. For now it’s only for three bars, literally from bean to bar in ZUUT. That has to grow, and one day we dream of using only chocolate in ZUUT which is made by us for both chocolaterie as well as pastry. Therefore we need more production space so we are looking to take the chocolate production to another place. The free space will become the salon. We recently built a new closet in our shop. It is inspired on our ice-cream car. A little bit ‘Willy Wonka meets Panamarenko’ in a very creative playful way. Every 7,5 and 15 minutes there is some packaging moving in the closet, there is a clock made of pastry material turns and every hour, there is a cuckoo which comes out to say ‘cuckoo.’ I know we are a shop, but I love the fact we can surprise our customers while they are waiting their turn with something playful. The closet had a very warm welcome from our customers.
We also sell our products ourselves, so that we can serve and help the customers ourselves. I have a friend who has a well-known butcher shop near our shop and he is also behind the selling counter alongside his wife and his colleagues. I really like the fact that you can see and talk to the craftsmen who are making the products. We also work with young enthusiastic students during busy periods. We don’t have a full-time salesperson in the shop. I really like the contact with our customers. I worked in places where the production area was far away from the point of sale, but in my opinion you lose the heart and soul of your products somewhere in a transport-truck between the production area and the shop.
“We are growing in a healthy way and we feel that our production is starting to get to small”
Tell us more about your top products, the most successful ones?
Besides my son and daughter, who I think are my sweetest creations so far… The top-seller pastry wise is the BCN and MR LEMON. The BCN is like an homage to Carles Mampel and my time working for him and his cake with which he won ‘the best chocolate cake in the world’ in 2005. It’s a chocolate cake with the same flavors as his cake but made in my own version, made of dark chocolate, vanilla, and speculaas (typical Belgium biscuit). I decorate it with a chocolate sponge cake.
The MR LEMON is like a classic lemon pie but the cream is with lime instead of lemon and then for the meringue I use lime and lemon juice in which I infuse lemon-verbena for a very tasteful accent. With that infused juice we make the meringue, so it is a lot less sweeter than the classic meringue on a lemon pie. I’m also very proud of the latest ice cream flavor we put in the shop. When my daughter, Stella, was born, I made some little ice cream pots instead of the classic things you normally get. The flavor was banana ice cream (with fresh bananas) with crunchy bites of dark chocolate. I named it Stella Straciatella. The reactions were so good, I decided to offer it in the shop. Stella Straciatella became StraciaStella.
What products are you more proud about in terms of creativity?
That would be the BARCELOVELY (creation at so good #22), we sell it as an individual pastry in the shop. It’s a translation from the classic Spanish dessert ‘pan con chocolate’ witch I ate and tasted a lot in Barcelona.
A biscuit with olive oil and lime, crunch with sea salt, olive oil ganache and a ganache montée with dark chocolate. We serve it with a very tasty Arbequina olive oil which comes in a little pipette so the idea is that the customers can put the olive oil on the BARCELOVELY themselves before eating it and so can experience a little bit of ‘pan con chocolate’ at home. I think that is my most ‘bold’ creation.
Flavor combinations, designs, and formats, cutting-edge techniques and new ingredients, what are your favorite ones? Do you see yourself as an avant-garde pastry chef?
I don’t see myself as an avant-garde pastry chef. But I have a very clear philosophy about my cakes. Less is more. Are you make a cake based on raspberry? Ok, put a raspberry on it as a deco. If you make something based on toffee, almonds, hazelnuts and vanilla (like the GO NUTS in our shop), why don’t you put a caramelized hazelnut with a little bit of gold-powder on top? Nothing more, nothing less. Let the inside steal the show.
And last but not least, the creations have to be sellable. On the weekend I love to scroll on Instagram and check out the most beautiful creations in pastry books, but sometimes I think to myself, “How can you make 40 decorations which are profitable like that to put on your individual on a Saturday in the shop?” Because in the end, we have a business to run.
As for my favorite ingredients, I choose butter and even more ‘beurre noisette.’ I use it in every crunchy layer in my cakes and even for the toffee. I also like to work with very seasonal products. You will not see creations with raspberry in it the entire year, only when they are in (Belgian) season.
“I don’t see myself as an avant-garde pastry chef. But I have a very clear philosophy about my cake. Less is more”
What’s next? Do you want Zuut to expand? Are you more interested in doing things outside ZUUT (consulting, masterclasses…)?
The next step I think is to see if we can develop an extra space for the chocolate part and have a salon. I also want to start with a bit of viennoisserie. Not too much. Three types of croissants and one or max two other tasty things. In the beginning of ZUUT, I always wanted different ZUUT-shops in different cities but that idea I threw away. Like I side, then I think you lose your heart and soul somewhere on the road. I like the idea to develop the ZUUT-shop we do have now more. We are starting to form a team around us. I already have my right-hand man, Mike, with me, and David has Wouter as his right-hand. In that way, we are working so we can make time to develop ZUUT as a brand, outside our shop. But like I said, step by step, growing in a healthy way. Taking care of daily quality and our customers.
“We are working so we can make time to develop ZUUT as a brand outside our shop. But like I said, step by step, growing in a healthy way”