It’s easy to imagine Olivier Vrambout, 41, as a young boy. The images filter in, faded and scratched like a dusty film reel of his childhood in Belgium: Olivier following his grandmother through the local markets; Olivier on the coast of Belgium, devouring salty moules frites and copies of Tintin comics, Olivier on his racing bike, pedaling furiously, always moving.
And he never really stopped. Since those boyhood days, Vrambout has traversed the United States, opened a restaurant in Washington state, and made a name for himself at the Bikery, a Stillwater bakery and bike shop that closed in 2013. Now he’s the chef-owner of Bayport’s Etoile du Nord Café, which opened in January.
From his helm at the oven in the café’s open kitchen, Vrambout can glance up at guests as they dine among souvenirs of his early life—from the framed photos that run the length of the main wall to the moules frites and Liège waffles, two dishes that harken back to days by the sea. Moules, or mussels, are Friday fare at L’Etoile du Nord Café, served up in pots alongside crispy fries. The Liège waffles, on the other hand, are served daily. Dense, dark and chewy, they’re a match made in heaven with the homemade hazelnut chocolate spread.
Vrambout sources nearly all of his ingredients within 40 miles of the restaurant, a practice that is in keeping with the food culture he knew as a child: that of weekly markets, garden produce and endless canning. Still, translating such a lifestyle into a business model isn’t easy.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” says Vrambout, who sorts through boxes of vegetables, a new crop every week, to compose a daily menu that showcases what’s fresh and in season. This, he acknowledges, is not a new concept. “It’s just what I grew up doing,” he says.
One of the few non-local offerings at L’Etoile du Nord Café is the beer. Vrambout has three Belgian ales on tap, plus a brew from Deschutes in Bend, Ore. He also has an off-sale license and a shelf full of interesting Belgian beers; grab a fruit lambic or Trappist ale to go, or enjoy it at the table with a stone hearth pizza.
Whether you’re dining at the café or just stopping by for coffee and a freshly baked scone, take a moment to look around. The interior was conceived entirely by Vrambout and his business partner/fiancée, Julia Kaemmer, with a commitment to environmental sustainability. Every appliance, implement and piece of furniture that could be repurposed or recycled has been. For example, the small patio behind the café is flagged with bluestone from Kaemmer’s grandparents’ property, the tabletops are made of wood from the original ceiling, and Vrambout roasts fair-trade beans in a used coffee roaster.
When he found the espresso machine, it was sitting broken on the floor of a Wisconsin barn. He took it home, compelled by the lion emblem on the back that reminded him of the lion of Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. It took him a year to disassemble, clean and rebuild the machine; for the finale, he had the façade re-chromed at an auto body shop. Now it shines at the front of the bar, a gleaming symbol of Vrambout’s origin.
As the café approaches its one-year mark, a few changes are underway. Vrambout recently extended service to include a limited dinner menu on Wednesdays, and he’s enlisted executive chef Jon Beyreuther to collaborate in the kitchen. Plans to implement a bike rental program are also in place so that diners can enjoy a ride in the river valley before a meal.
After all, that’s where you’ll find Vrambout during his free time, pedaling fast and furiously, always moving. Just as he did as a child.