She rocks: Isabel Deboel

Do you prefer to read our interview or watch it? The choice is yours!

Welcome, everybody, to a new podcast from Guinnot Antwerp. A jewellery brand made by and for women that is run by three entrepreneurs. In this podcast, we will be interviewing entrepreneurs and sharing their stories every month. Today we have with us Isabel Deboel, managing director and owner of Au Bain Marie, one of the most renowned restaurants in Deinze, with a unique location. You can enjoy lunch or dinner there in the grandeur of the 1930s on the banks of the river Leie. I’m no restaurant expert, but I often go to restaurants and I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Despite her busy schedule, Isabel also loves travelling far and wide, and discovering new cultures. She does this together with her three children. Welcome, Isabel, how are you?

Isabel: Wonderful, thank you for inviting me.

It’s fantastic that you could make the time to be here. I’ve prepared a few questions, so let’s just get stuck in. 

I: Super!

My first question is actually: How did you come up with the idea of starting Au Bain Marie?

I: In a way it was because of my ex-husband. We both worked in the restaurant business, we’d always worked together. My ex-husband came up with this idea, why don’t we set out on our own? Our own restaurant, both of us working in the kitchen, I can do service, why not just go for it? And so that’s actually how we came up with the idea of starting Au Bain Marie. 

Isabel has chosen her favourite pieces from our Anonymous collection: the micropavé diamond bangle and diamond hoop earrings in yellow gold.

OK, great. And roughly how long have you been in business now? 

I: This year we celebrated our 20th anniversary. 

20 years…

I: Yes, yes!

In the beginning you were renting a space, and then you bought somewhere? How did that happen, exactly?

I: To be honest it was kind of a happy accident. We were having a lot of problems with the neighbours, and we didn’t really see how we could go on like that. It’s all thanks to a restaurateur colleague who came to visit us, who was actually just finishing up business, and asked us, yeah, I still have some things for sale, don’t you want to come and have a look? And when we arrived there, we said, well OK, there are still things on sale here, but even the property itself was for sale. We actually bought the property then, and the other things that were on sale came with it! So it’s quite a funny story, in fact. 

OK, great, and you’ve been there for fifteen years, or how long have you been there now? 

I: We moved in 2002, so we’ve actually been there about 18 years. Yes, we’ve been working there for 18 years.

Because I read an article which said that you already had a successful restaurant for 15 years and then 3 years ago you changed course to rebuild the whole restaurant. What gave you the idea of completely rebuilding something that was already a recipe for success?

I: Well, we didn’t really change the basic principle. It was the property, we just wanted a bit… we had bought it in 2002. Back then we didn’t have any money left over to actually do a full make-over. So we just freshened it all up a bit. Because, yeah, buying a building,renovating it, and doing a complete make-over would have just been a bit of a stretch, so instead we first worked our way up a bit until at some point, we were settled in. Then we began to wonder to ourselves, why not have a go at doing another makeover, it will give us a new impetus, a new way of thinking. It would feel like a fresh start, and afterwards you’ll have the impression that you’re working in a new restaurant once more. 

Great, so a kind of new energy, in fact.

I: New energy, because, yeah, if you’ve already spent so many years in the same business, I think it’s the same for everyone. Sometimes you do need new energy to be able to keep going, because you are just overwhelmed. So you say, OK, we are going to do a complete make-over and you feel like things are starting over again. Then you wonder, OK, what shall we do now, we have opened up a new path. Yeah, it kept going like that. 

Great, and so you specifically opted for the grandeur of the 1930s?

I: Yeah, it all just kind of came together. We’re in a Henry Van de Velde house, so it’s Bauhaus style. Last year, or two years ago now, I think, it was the Henry Van de Velde year. We also met Benoît Vandeputte. He wrote his thesis about the building, which made it more valued. The house gained a certain value, and certainly was valued in the world of architecture. That’s why I talked to my sister about it. My sister is an interior design architect, and she’s really good at it. So we could keep things in the family a bit. We were able to work on it together and make something very nice of it. And when we thought, OK, we’ll do the façade, the interior, why not take it back to the actual time of that era? We wanted to give everything back a small part of its unique identity, like it was before. 

Yes, yes, and you did that very successfully. 

I: Yes, it’s great.

Congratulations! I also saw that you went to India last year with your eldest son, as a present for him. When you’re in India, are you able to let go of your work a little or are you constantly looking for new ideas for your restaurant?. How do you experience that?

I: My big annual trip, it’s wonderful, it gives me new inspiration, letting go, just letting go of my work. Building up my energy again, meeting other people, getting to know other cultures which gives you different ideas of how to get along with people, because we are constantly dealing with people. Over the years it gets increasingly difficult in terms of communication, everything gets harder, everything gets faster. If you go on a world trip, you also get to appreciate a little bit of what other people do, because I work with people from many different nationalities. I work with Muslims, many different kinds of people, all of whom are really nice, and that helps me appreciate how to think and live in the same way. In return you get a lot of love and energy. 

OK, that’s really beautiful indeed, the fact that this helps you understand their world better in this way. 

I: Yes, yes.

OK, great, lovely. The ladies at Guinnot Antwerp describe you as an extremely hard worker with an enormous ability to persevere, something you also demonstrated in 2019 when your business partner and ex-husband wanted to sell the restaurant. Why did you not simply stop at that point? 

I: Because my restaurant is also my child. It’s my heart, my life’s work. I’m only 46 years old, and I definitely didn’t feel it was time to stop yet, so I gathered all my energy, and talked with my staff about it, and all together we started afresh, with a new chapter, and began to tell a new story. We hope that we can keep this up for a little while still. Until now, yes, everything is going well and we have a really great atmosphere. Yes, it is a new challenge for me. 

So you really discussed with your team, kind of, are we going to move forward together?

I: Yes, yes.

Wonderful, great.

I: Yes, and that is quite important, because in the end, you really need those people. It’s not because I think, oh yeah, I want to keep going… these people are just as important, the dishwashers, the kitchen staff – everyone. It is so important for me because I really need these people, they’re actually family to me, because we are together all the time. I spend more time together with my staff than I do with my partner, so they’re definitely not insignificant. 

Yes, it’s so lovely to hear you say that your staff and your team are so important, because when I was a student I worked in catering for a few years, and I noticed that there was a high turnover amongst the students. I myself worked in different restaurants, and so many people just came and went, so I wonder how you do things at Au Bain Marie to ensure that your staff stay with you?

I: We talk a lot. We talk a lot with each other. I always work together with them. I’m always there and I always close the restaurant up. If there are problems, we talk about them, and when we’re finished at night, we always have a drink, with the serving staff, because the kitchen staff have always gone home by then, we always have a nice glass of wine to discuss problems, to see how we can… Did anything go wrong, how can we improve it, whatever went wrong that day? How can we solve it, how can we change things? And this helps us create a really positive bond, so we’re all on the same page. It’s not like I feel better than anyone else. OK, yes, I am the boss, but I don’t feel like it so much. For me, we are all one team and that is not insignificant.

Everyone can just come to talk with you?

I: Yes, absolutely.

I also find it really lovely that you say you stay until the end, and you’re always there, so that they don’t have the feeling, oh we have to work for her, but rather you’re always working together with them.

I: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. I would actually say, for me, everyone has to… when it’s time to eat, I’ll always check first that my staff have eaten before I do, because these people are working for me, and they have to be treated as well as possible, because that’s definitely important for me. 

No, that’s really powerful. That is true leadership, you saying my staff come first and then myself. So it’s really powerful. Now just a final question to finish with: what are your plans for the future, either with Au Bain Marie or for you personally?

I: I would really like, if my health and everything else permits it, to keep working for another ten years. I think then that I will have reached a good age, at least for the restaurant business, to round up business nicely, and I would like to do that with everyone who works with me. We are all around the same age, and we’re all working on the same thing. Then perhaps it will be time for a new story, but then something at a slightly slower pace. 

So another 10 years with the restaurant Au Bain Marie and then, on a personal level, is there still something where you say, that’s a trip that I still want to take? 

I: Yes, we will keep travelling around the world. During the Easter vacation I am going to Myanmar with my daughter, that’s another big trip that we’re doing, again broadening our horizons, discovering new cultures and clearing our heads and looking forward to the summer to come.

Super, well I wish you the best of luck with Au Bain Marie, but I’m sure it will all go fantastically.

I: Thank you.

And I would like to thank you for your time and for the very interesting interview.

I: Thank you very much!

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