Say “waffle” in the U.S. and American consumers tend to think of one thing: that doughy, chewy disk that arises from the batter of a hotel iron or pops from the warm embrace of a toaster. But in its homeland of Belgium, the waffle is served in a variety of styles using high-quality ingredients.
Jean-François Flechet moved to the U.S. from Belgium 17 years ago and is on a mission to educate Americans on the waffle’s potential. Flechet grew up near Liège, which has its own variety of waffle that is richer, denser, and sweeter than what Americans have come to consider a “Belgian” waffle. In 2007, using his grandmother’s recipe, Flechet informally launched Taste of Belgium at a friend’s produce store at the Findlay Market in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, the waffle concept has grown to three full-service restaurants and two quick-service locations in Cincinnati and Columbus.
Why did you design the menu around the Liège waffle?
The Liège waffle is unique. You need two things to make the Liège waffle: You need the right sugar, so we bring in a special compressed beet sugar from Belgium, and then we need a cast iron waffle iron, which we make ourselves. If you really look at the dough, it’s more like a brioche dough, so at some point I had the wacky idea of trying to make sandwiches with it. It would not work in Belgium; people are horrified of the idea of mixing sweet and savory.
Our best-selling item at the restaurant is a waffle and chicken; it’s an open-faced sandwich, and we marinate the chicken in hot sauce and buttermilk overnight, then it’s served with hot sauce and Ohio maple syrup. We’ve got a lot of savory items using the waffle as bread, so we cut it length-wise. It’s too thick to really give people two waffles; that would be overkill. Our Southwest waffle is with Pepper Jack cheese, chipotle mayo, turkey, lettuce, and tomato. It’s a nice balance of a little bit of sweet, a little bit of savory, a little bit of spice in the chipotle mayo. We do a ham, apple, Brie, and pesto waffle that also works really well.
Why are waffles such a great platform for menu items?
First, it’s sturdy. If you want to do something that’s smaller and bite-size, the texture really helps. And it’s something that is sweet without being overly sweet. In Belgium everything is balanced, whether it’s the beer or the food. We make things that work well together without losing that balance.
Waffles have a bad rap because it’s become something you take out of a bag, you mix it with water, and then you pour it. What people call a “Belgian waffle” here started at the New York World’s Fair in the ’60s. What was shown here was a Brussels-style waffle, which is the very light one with a yeast-based batter. What people call “Belgian waffles” here, back home that’s what people would call “American waffles.” It doesn’t really correspond to any of the styles—it’s not Brussels, it’s not Liège, it’s just a mass-produced, terrible thing.
How would you describe the perfect waffle?
For me, the perfect waffle is trying to reproduce the way the waffle tasted when I was a kid going to the market with my mom. Back then, everybody was making their own waffles in Belgium. Now, when you go back, you try a lot of places and the waffles are terrible because everybody’s been taking shortcuts. They use margarine instead of butter; most places can buy it a lot cheaper than making it themselves. We spent a lot of time sourcing the right ingredients, the right butter, the right sugar, the right flour, and the right vanilla to get what I remembered as a kid.
We play from there and we modify the dough. We do seasonal waffles. Right now we’re doing a cinnamon apple waffle. We’ll switch to a pumpkin waffle around Halloween. Then around Thanksgiving we’re switching to gingerbread. And there, we actually modify the dough. There are two things we do: Either we modify the dough or we put toppings on the dough. Our pumpkin waffle, we actually use a pumpkin purée and a house-made pumpkin spice mix in the dough.
What’s the right portion size for a Liège waffle?
The size we do is the exact same size as in Belgium, so it’s around 120 grams, or 4.25 ounces. It’s a good size. We could go bigger, but then people will think it’s heavy. It’s a heavy item if you think about it. It’s deceiving; that’s the one thing that is tricky. Americans like really large portions, so they look at the size of the waffle and they’re like, “What?” One day at the market, a big dude came and ate three in a row, and that’s about the size of a waffle, yeah, but it’s also a lot more weight. His stomach was hurting.
What do you foresee for the future of waffles?
It’s good, it’s simple; I don’t see it going backward. It can only move forward. So few people are making it now that I’m sure more people will see the opportunity.