Their Way: Le Realism

Their Way: In Conversation With Le Realism

With ‘Their Way’ Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through an interview series.

Published on
3.5.21

Words by Evelyn Simons
Photos by Lukas Turcksin

Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a content series. ‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and feature compelling stories, challenging initiatives and examples of integrity from around the world.

This month, we sit down with Sophie Pelletier, a young chef based in Brussels whose practice hovers between the artistic and the culinary. We sit down to have a chat amidst abundant bouquets of dried herbs, sensual juicy grapefruits and artichokes with alluring hues of purple.


Horst: From art to food, from France to Brussels, can you tell us a bit more about how you ended up here, doing what you’re doing?

Sophie: Before all of this, I studied Art History in Rennes, in Brittany, and went to arts school after in Angers. As the story goes, I came to Brussels for a short period of three months. We’re 15 years later and I’m still here. Initially, I came to continue my art practice here, but was quickly confronted with the financial perks that come with that - meaning hustle and no income. I was doing a ton of small jobs on the side, and decided I didn’t want to live like that anymore. At 28, I just wanted to be auto-sufficient. More as a joke though, and not motivated by other ambitions than making money, we started a creperie with friends in the Center of Brussels. I don’t think this would have been possible in any other city, but I literally had zero euro in my savings, and yet managed to get a loan from Brussels Creda. We needed some budget to register our business, rent a space, buy equipment etc. That’s basically how I started working with food.

Horst: You operate under the enigmatic name Le Realism. Some people might still know it from your restaurant / bar in the Dansaert street, but what else does it cover?  

Sophie: I left the creperie after two years, as it was starting to feel a bit too repetitive for me. I was able to save a bit in the meantime, so took a break, asked for another loan, and started Le Realism 8 years ago. This is really the place where everything started to come together, and feel very personal. My artistic practice was always revolving around scenography, spatial installations, decor-making, cinematography etc. I integrated that baggage in Le Realism by conceptualising a decor, more than thinking about it as interior design. We sat up camp in the old Etablissement d’en Face (a Brussels independent organisation for contemporary art), so there was no infrastructure for cooking. As also the loans were a bit more expensive by now, we really went out and made everything ourselves. My partner at the time, Michael Van Den Abeele, who is an artist, also contributed a lot. This decor was set to be the backdrop for encounters between artists and creative, everything was very informal. Because I don’t have a degree in food, I didn’t really have the licenses to serve dishes, so we gravitated more towards being a bar where you could have a bite.

My credo was always to support independent businesses, be they in food or in art. Working with local fare went hand in hand with exhibiting artists’ editions, showcasing handcrafted objects etc. Because of the crowd, Le Realism quickly became a party venue. At the time I was still doing a lot of catering for galleries and art centres as well, people who in turned flocked to Le Realism, and those are people that like to party. Everything became intertwined, there was a lot of collaboration and collective creation going on, the family really maxed out during this period.

Horst: And where does Christopher Walken fit into all of this?

Sophie: While applying for grants or funds, you’re always expected to park some budget for marketing. But I didn’t want to have a logo. I was interested in creating something more enigmatic. A phantasmagoric image that appears all over town, pops up on places that you don’t expect, that refers to something that you cannot quite grasp. Christopher Walken, this peroxide-blonde androgynous and almost futuristic persona, has always intrigued me. He became Le Realism’s protagonist, which basically comes down to me just hanging black and white posters of him wherever I go.

"I was interested in creating something more enigmatic. A phantasmagoric image that appears all over town, pops up on places that you don’t expect, that refers to something that you cannot quite grasp."

Horst: How do you look back on this period? How was it to run such a place by yourself?

Sophie: Overall, it was a lot of chaos. I was a mess. I was working 5 days a week, and doing mostly all by myself, and doing so in an area that was considered “difficult at the time”. I really liked the neighbourhood, the flashy neon lights of night shops, the social aspect. But everything kind of imploded after the Brussels attacks. I didn’t have any costumers for 3 months, the cashflow dried out, and I don’t have the financial luggage to cope with that. When burglaries started happening more often, I decided to close up. Which actually was ok. I’m a pretty resilient person, so I always see the ending of something as the beginning of something else. I always knew that Le Realism would be more of a movement than a fixed place, so now was the time to conceptualise that.

I met Emilie Pischedda, who quickly became a good friend. We decided to do a pop-up which we called The Hope, again an ephemeral endeavour. We had a 6 months rental contract, zero permits, a hidden kitchen, no licenses, and a lot of appetite to do something crazy. The Hope was located more uptown, and the restaurant aspect was a bit more important there. Looking back, it actually was so irresponsible and risky, but Brussels really stimulates this kind of behaviour. The city came several times to check out what we were doing, and always pinched an eye. I mean, where else would that be possible?

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Horst: Music seemed to play an important role at The Hope. Can you tell us a bit more about your collaboration with The Word Magazine?

Sophie: The editor-in-chief, Nicholas Lewis invited us to have a weekly gig. We decided to do it during apéro time. We obviously aren’t professional DJ’s, so we approached it in a very informal way. Emilie knows so much about music, so she would make playlists, and I on the other hand would read excerpts from poetry and books. It was improvised, absurdist and funny. Nothing too serious. By the end, it all got intertwined. We had a basement that we didn’t really use up until then, but in the last two months, it became a sneaky hidden venue for some parties I will never forget.  

Horst: How do you position all of these projects within the restaurant and bar scene of Brussels? Are there other spots that really inspire you?

Sophie: To be honest, not really. I’m not a trained cook, I never opened a cookbook in my life, and I’m not really a foodie that knows the good places around Brussels. I’m more interested in places with a good energy: shrimp croquettes downtown, Portuguese spots for pork chops in St. Gilles, that kind of thing.

I’m more in it for the energy, for the personality. After The Hope for instance, I had a temporary restaurant in my apartment in the Matongé neighbourhood. It was a 100 square meter flat, which I painted completely black, and in which I invited artists to hang works. It was such a beautiful but intense experience. Life and work overlapped entirely, and I was living in such a heavy decor that everything became a bit too fusional and claustrophobic after a while. Like I was living the movie that I was directing myself. But I do really like to work like that: try things out, temporary projects that evaporate after a while. This approach leaves people with a memory, a remembrance, a shared experience. For me it’s always about the people and the energy that they can share.

Horst: What you do is very unorthodox when you think of the quick-cash business models that currently seem to dominate the hospitality-sector.

Sophie: When I shut down Le Realism, I was already having doubts about where we’re going with all this commerce. Unfortunately Covid accelerated that process, but honestly it’s with sad and sorrow eyes that I observe everything transforming into easy soulless models: franchise restaurants, concept restaurants, take-away business, ghost kitchens. It’s the opposite of what I stand for - personal, taking time and care of one another, creating custom-made experiences. That’s also why I’m such a fan of doing table d’hotes. For me we have to react against this hegemony of soulless food chains. It’s about having an artistic, culinary and personally motivated practice. Though I’m not an activist. I want to embed my ethics in the things I do, and I honestly also get a lot back from that.

So I only work with small producers, and cook according to the seasons. When I cook, I also want to educate my guests about all of this. Forging alliances with like-minded people. So when I go to people’s homes, I do my mise-en-place with all of my small beautiful pots, with an abundance of colours. In my cooking, I’m actually mostly guided by colours and textures. Obviously I know the tastes and I know what I’m doing, but I understand that for onlookers, it seems more like a visual artist at work. There’s such a beautiful anecdote from a daughter of friends of mine, who apparently recently said at school that she wants to ‘do’ Le Realism when she grows up: work with beautiful people, a meeting of colours and tastes, with only honest products. I have a ton of lovely memories like that, because I come so close to the people I cook for, that’s why I love my job. And it's crucial to pass these values on to the next generation in a playful way.

"For me we have to react against this hegemony of soulless food chains. It’s about having an artistic, culinary and personally motivated practice."

Horst: With such an intuitive way of working, how did you manage the past year?

Sophie: With the current restrictions, it’s about remaining inspired, creative and flexible to work the grey zones of what is currently possible. Overall, I had a pretty good year, sold some home made products and offered (covid-proof) home cooking called “no choice menu”. I like to just go places with ingredients and improvise. I cut down on my expenses by changing my food habits to eating more vegetarian, but it’s also a time in which the simple concept of having a meal together is really being questioned.

I also was doing foraging for a while, and this intensified in the last year. Basically I walk 15 km per day, foraging wild herbs and flowers all over Brussels in parks and forests. I make herbal salt from them. Asides from that, I also made some more table cloths in leather with sequins. Playing around you know? At least it felt more inspiring for me than to start some sort of half-baked take away business that would empty out my soul.

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Horst: What will the future bring for you?

Sophie: I’m looking around for some new spots, because I’d like to set up a new decor again. Perhaps a modular and mobile one. But a singular space, which can be transported from one context to the other, a sequence of ephemeral experiences. Also, I’m very open to collaborations and ideas from other people as well. But yeah, a fresh context is necessary. Whereas doing it at home was fun, I do now feel need to separate life and work at least a bit, and keep one place just for myself.

My working rhythm also feels much more organic now. I work when the occasion arises, but I also love to be lazy and go lay in the park and do nothing. I’m actually working on a book now, with text and images. Food photography can be so interesting, and I’m not talking about the typical instagram shot of the avocado toast you’re going to eat. It’s more about still lives for me. The book won’t feature recipes, but I’m looking to evoke a world in there, something glam and sexy, a bit poetic as well. Aesthetics are primordial. I’m actually self-financing the book. I’m not in the mood currently to wait for grants, also because again, my profile is so tricky to make comprehendible for these kinds of structures. So I’m taking my time, but I’m doing it myself.

Horst: Any advice for people just starting out?

Sophie: Perhaps it’s more of a wish. I wish people would feel the freedom to define what they want to be, based on their passions, capabilities, expertise and curiosity - rather than trying to fit into pre-existing jobs. I want people to construct their own narrative. Don’t bother that people don’t immediately understand what you’re doing. I know this goes against the hegemony of easy marketable and ‘clear’ concepts, but I honestly feel there is much more poetry to be found in the enigma.

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